Who would have expected Louis de Bernières to follow up Captain Corelli’s Mandolin with the soft-centred biography of a lovable pooch? Red Dog could be seen as a reversion to national type – the English, Nabokov witheringly remarked, feel sorry for the blind man’s dog. And where there are soft spots, to coin a book-trade proverb, there’s hard cash. The author’s prologue records that Red Dog is a ‘found tale’. In 1998, on a trip to a literary festival in Perth, Western Australia, ‘part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner.’ Having spread his civilising influence de Bernières then ‘went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier’. Hardly Voss. He found the unexpected monument intriguing, however, and shortly afterwards returned to Western Australia ‘and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories’.
From this swag bag, de Bernières assembles a series of anecdotes and legends – somewhat improved and elaborated – chronicling the dog’s life. The beast was a Red Cloud Kelpie, a ‘fine old Australian breed of sheepdog’. A good-natured animal, his only recorded vices were an incurable habit of farting in human company (too much is made of this) and a propensity to steal snaggers from barbies (a ‘Glossary of Australianisms’ appended to the story translates: ‘sausages from barbecues’). No one master could hold Red Dog, although he attached himself happily to sundry humans. He was a nomad – hitching lifts on the rugged community’s utes (‘pick-up trucks’), sleeping on whatever porch was handy, and pleasuring himself with house-bound, fragrantly shampooed bitches. Despite his malodorous presence and light-pawed ways, Red Dog became a mascot for the similarly rootless two-legged population scraping a living from the area’s mines. Their kind of dog. He elicited and encountered kindness everywhere – he was everyone’s pal. After he’d gone to his happy hunting ground, the people of his home-town, Dampier, clubbed together to raise a statue to his memory. He now has two memorials.
The episodes strung together here are the kind that circulate by word of mouth in isolated communities. One well-meaning sheila (‘woman’) attempts to burn some pertinacious ticks off his belly with hot needles. The drongo (‘slow-witted person’) has it explained to her that ‘those aren’t ticks, they’re tits’. The good joke will take root as future folklore and local myth.
As in all the best dog stories, there is a climactic euthanasia. He is ‘put to sleep’ by a friendly vet (‘time to go, old mate, time to go’): ‘Who knows what went through Red Dog’s dreams as he lay dying? Perhaps he was young again, galloping back from the airfield in Paraburdoo. Perhaps he was chasing the shadows of birds on the oval, or out in the bush chasing wallabies, or in the caravan park, watching the scarlet sunset with Red Cat.’ De Bernières’s yarn celebrates Australian freedom and frontier decencies. He would have us believe that the test of a society is its treatment of vagrant dogs, and Australia scores high by this measure. If only it were as well disposed to illegally arrived Afghans as to farting Red Cloud Kelpies. Afghan hounds, one suspects, would get a warmer welcome Down Under. Or in this country.
Red Dog was, I suspect, inspired by Babe – the sentimental film about a gutsy Australian-talking piglet with aspirations to be a sheepdog. Against all odds, Babe was a box-office hit. No one seemed to care that of the dozen and a half 16-week-old pigs used in the shooting of the film, all were pork chops by the time the movie hit the screen. (Were any eaten by the cast? The film world, to paraphrase Joyce, is an old sow that eats her farrow.)
Other than a handful of graduates every year from the University of East Anglia, few start working life with the intention of becoming novelists. De Bernières had attained the Dantean age, 35, before breaking into print. His apprenticeship was unusually diverse. Louis was born, in 1954, into a military family (the Norman conquering gene still working away, apparently) and won an Army scholarship at 14. This paid his public school fees, on condition that he went on to Sandhurst. After four months there, he decided that the soldier’s life was not for him. The moment of truth is said to have been when an NCO instructor bellowed in his face ‘You’re a cunt, sir. What are you?’
Peace Corps idealism was still strong in the early 1970s, and de Bernières went off to teach in Colombia for two years. He returned to Britain to enrol as a ‘mature student’ (that quaint oxymoron – more appropriate in his case than most) at Manchester, and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Job opportunities for philosophers are scarce and over the next decade de Bernières worked, among other things, as a supply teacher (having gained a fall-back Dip.Ed. from London), a motor mechanic and a landscape gardener.
Around the age of thirty, after the painful break-up of a love affair, he disposed of his few personal possessions, took the necessary vow of poverty and resolved to be a writer. He moved from Suffolk to Earlsfield in South-West London to live ‘above a small shop on Garratt Lane that had been by turns an outlet for oversized naughty clothes for transvestites, a West Indian hairdressers’ and a junk shop’ (de Bernières re-creates this flat in his verse-play, Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World: it’s not much of a play, to be frank). The aimless years of his young manhood were now magically converted into high-grade literary capital. His first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts came out in 1990. It was well received, and two more novels followed, also set in ‘an imaginary Latin American country’ – Colombia but not Colombia. Their idiom is laced with ‘words and phrases borrowed from Brazilian Portuguese and its regional variants, Latin-American Spanish and its regional variants, and from many Indian languages and their dialects’. Loosely, the trilogy depicts the clash of Rousseauistic innocence, narco-terrorism and CIA-sponsored state tyranny. The condition, that is, of virtually every country in Central and South America.
De Bernières’s narratives are composed of short, self-sufficient segments which connect only obliquely with each other. His novels seem to be all subplot; their principal subject is as enigmatic as their riddlingly irrelevant titles. His prose has a distinctive flavour, but one easier to recognise than to describe. It also takes some getting used to, which may be why, I suppose, de Bernières had to wait until his fourth novel to become widely popular. I reviewed his first three novels for this journal, nine years ago, and recall my own bafflement. Take the opening paragraph of his first novel, and imagine coming to it cold:
It had been an auspicious week for Capitan Rodrigo Jose Figueras. On Monday he had with his platoon stopped a truck loaded with marijuana on the road from Chiriguana to Valledupar and made the peasant park it near a bridge. According to the usual procedure he had confiscated the truck and its contents from the driver, whereupon the driver, as was usual, offered to ‘pay the fine’ instead, which meant buying the consignment back. He handed over to the captain one of several bundles which he carried for this purpose, one for each roadblock. The captain then shot the driver through the head and liberated entirely the truck, its contents, and many thousands of pesos.
This scene is strikingly similar to the one which opens Traffic with a truck of marijuana being ‘liberated’ by a corrupt Mexican military. The difference is that the film is ponderously naturalistic. We know where we are from the first frame: the ‘bad guys’ and the ‘good guys’ (our guys) are as easily identified as if they had been wearing white and black hats. De Bernières doesn’t worry about identifying the bad guys, but plays the miseries of Colombia for laughs. After his act of liberation, Capitan Rodrigo (‘at his own expense’) sends for a case of aguardiente and ron caña from the local village and a ‘selection of whores from twelve to forty in several shapes and sizes so that all tastes could be catered for; consequently the men in the village had to go without for a week’. Rodrigo (happily married with a wife and five children) ‘had been trained in Panama by the US Army, at their own expense, and he painted a little white mark on the door of his jeep for every whore there had been’. But purchases (or further acts of ‘liberation’) in the village prove sticky on this occasion. Massacre, gang rape, hideous torture and rebellion ensue (again and again), all narrated in the cool, fey style of the opening paragraph.
Oddly enough, de Bernières’s tonal innovation coincided with a parallel development in the sump depths of popular culture. In the 1980s Don Simpson and a new generation of (coke-fired) Hollywood producers devised the so-called ‘high concept’ film, the highest-earning of which were the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series. As Charles Fleming describes them, in his biography of the epically self-destructive Simpson:
These were aggressive, profane, noisy movies in which the audience was asked to witness scenes of graphic physical violence interspersed with moments of wisecracking, slapsticky humour – and respond positively to both . . . Audiences embraced this new style of movie, and the genre would revive the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and make international box-office stars out of Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis.
Although it is tempting to align de Bernières with Gabriel García Márquez, whose work was also becoming popular with British readers at this period, his strongest influence is Norman Douglas’s South Wind. This novel, which came out in 1917, held its place as a book that everyone read for three decades (it was reprinted as one of Allen Lane’s original batch of Penguins in 1935). South Wind is set on Nepenthe, an imaginary island in the Mediterranean – a mixture of Capri, Sorrento and Majorca. As in de Bernières’s Latin America, life on Nepenthe is ‘intense, palpitating, dramatic – a kind of blood-curdling farce full of irresponsible crimes and improbable consequences. The soil is saturated with blood. People are always killing themselves or each other for motives which, to an Englishman, are altogether outside the range of comprehensibility,’ as one of the Englishmen in the novel says. Douglas’s narrative, like de Bernières’s, is laced with florid and dubiously authentic Spanish. It is, however, in the elusive matter of tone that the similarities are most pronounced. Consider the following comic riffs. The first (by Douglas) is the cv of the Spanish patroness of Nepenthean sailors, Saint Eulalia. The second (by de Bernières) describes the hero’s intended, Anica (also destined, like his other heroines, for a kind of sanctity), in Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord.
At the age of two years and 11 months Eulalia took the vow of chastity. Much difficulty was experienced in keeping the infant alive; she tormented her body in so merciless a fashion. She refused to partake of food save once in every five weeks . . . She was never known to use a drop of water for ablution or to change her underwear more than once a year, and then only at the order of her confessor who was obliged to be in daily contact with her. The heat of her body was such that it could not be touched by human hands. During her frequent trances she spoke accurately in 69 different languages; there was no hair whatever on her head which was ‘spotless as an egg’. She put baskets of sea urchins into her bed and, as a penance for what she called ‘her many sins’ forced herself to catch the legions of vermin that infested her brown blanket, count them, separate the males from the females, set them free once more, and begin over again. She died at the age of 14 years and two months.
Anica Moreno was at that time only just 20 years old, and was governed chiefly by her sense of beauty. She had had very few experiences of a romantic nature, the first being at the age of 13, when she had masturbated a young man in the front of a Russian-made jeep while on the way to Cochadebajo de los Gatos to see the temples and the statues of the cats. At 18 she had given her virginity to a married man who had pretended to be in love with her. This man worked for the Catholic Mission to Single-Parent Families, and he disowned her completely when she fell pregnant. She miscarried at three months, leaving no one any the wiser, and became a little inhibited sexually. Thus one could say that she had had her share of sorrows, especially as at the same time her beloved mother had died at an early age of an intractable cancer. This had affected her extraordinarily deeply, as indeed it had affected her father, a very mild and reticent man, conspicuously religious and humane, who had made a fortune in arms dealing.
De Bernières’s career crested with his fourth effort, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The novel, after a quiet start, became a word-of-mouth success. It was high on the UK bestseller list for over a year and is reputed to have sold over five million copies. And it’s still selling. Stylistically and formally, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin follows its predecessors. Where it departs is in its setting, which is precisely, rather than impressionistically, actual. It takes place on the Greek island of Cephalonia during the Second World War, and the story, told in the by now familiar glinting fashion, covers the invasion of the island by the Italian Axis forces, the resistance (or lack of it, in de Bernières’s version) of the Greek Communist partisans, the massacre of 9000 Italian servicemen by the Germans after Italy switched sides in 1943, and the anti-Communist regime put in place by British force of arms, after the war.
At the heart of de Bernières’s novel is a love story. Pelagia, the daughter of a patriotic Cephalonian doctor, has two suitors: the Communist resistance fighter, Mandras, and a musical Italian captain of artillery, Antonio Corelli. The invader of Cephalonia is nobler than the native. Debased by his experiences with the inept forces of ELAS, Mandras returns to ravish his former sweetheart: ‘The violation of women was something that he could not help, it seemed. It was some irresistible reflex that welled up from deep inside his breast, a reflex acquired in three years of omnipotence and unaccountability that had begun with the armed appropriation of property and ended with the appropriation of everything.’ While Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was selling in its millions in the English-speaking world it was stirring up immense resentment among Greeks – particularly those who remembered what had actually happened in the war years. De Bernières’s jaundiced depiction of Greek resistance fighters (which goes so far as to suggest that they assisted the Nazis in their massacre) was opposed by the balance of expert historical opinion, as well as the mass of Hellenic patriotic sentiment. When presented with this evidence in a series of articles in the Guardian by Seumas Milne in July 2000, de Bernières emailed the journalist to say that he was ‘no longer as sure of anything as I once was’ and that he would be prepared to change his mind on the ‘production of convincing evidence’.
The makers of the film (in production while this dispute was hotting up) had already drastically amended their source text. From motives of prudence, presumably, and fear of affronting the powerful Italo-American and Greek-American lobbies. The film transforms the Communist villains into heroes, cuts out the homosexual relationship between Corelli and his comrade Carlo, and pastes on a happy ending. They might as well have called it Captain Corelli’s Banjo, complained one critic. The film has bombed (even in Italy).
Whatever else, de Bernières has drawn attention to a scandalously forgotten atrocity. The Sunday Times reported last month that the authorities were belatedly taking an interest in the Cephalonian massacre (or, as the paper’s headline confusingly put it: ‘Germany hunts Corelli murderers’). De Bernières is reported to be working on another ambitious historical novel, this time dealing with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Greek communities by imperial Turkey. Have his fingers been burned? Will he dare to write anything as provocative as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin again, or shall we have to make do with the canine nullities of Red Dog?