Author Louis de Bernières was born to British family of French-Protestant-Huguenot descent (thus the French-sounding name) in the genteel village of Surrey and briefly attended Sandhurst, Britain’s equivalent of West Point, before dropping out to work and teach English in Colombia. He later studied philosophy at Manchester and took a postgraduate certificate in education at Leicester Polytechnic and his master’s at the University of London. Before writing full-time, he held many varied jobs, including landscape gardener, cowboy, motorcycle messenger and car mechanic. His time in Colombia determined the style and setting of his first three novels, each of which was heavily influenced by South American literature, particularly “magic realism.” He has written The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, Corelli’s Mandolin, Red Dog, and most recently, Birds Without Wings. In 1993 he was included on the second of Granta’s infamous lists of Best Young British Novelists. He wrote an introduction to the book of Job, for a series published by Canongate Press, and his play, Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World, set in southwest London, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1999 and published in 2001. He is also a regular contributor of short stories to various newspapers and magazines. He lives in England with his partner and is preparing two story collections for publication.
Birds Without Wings is a full-bodied novel set in Eskibahçe (“where, side by side, there used to live Christians who spoke only Turkish, but wrote it in the Greek script, and Muslims who also spoke only Turkish, and also wrote it in the Greek script”), a small town on the southwest coast of Turkey. The story runs from around 1900 through World War I and the tumultuous years that followed in the Levant, up to the mid ‘20s. It was an Edenic place where Christians and Muslims, Armenians and Greeks co-existed, connected by a long history, intermarriage, friendship, and even religion, until war ushered in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the civic harmony. In a British newspaper interview, de Bernières said, “I’m one of those writers who’s always going to be trying to write War and Peace, failing, obviously, but trying.” In the chat that follows, Louis de Bernières fills in the 10 years since we last met and illuminates his Tolstoyian ambitions.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t spent all ten years since Corelli’s Mandolin working on this novel, have you?
Louis de Bernières: No, if I worked flat out I could probably do a novel a year.
LdB: They would all be the same. [both laugh] After Corelli did well, I wanted time to change and settle down and for my style to evolve. Actually, it hasn’t, I don’t think.
RB: It hasn’t?
LdB: It hasn’t. Not very much, no. Lots of things happened. Because Corelli did so well I became inundated with correspondence. So when I sat down at my computer I got 50 letters and 50 emails rather than writing a story. And I moved house and spent three years doing DIY [do it yourself], painting rooms and putting up tiles and all that sort of thing.
RB: Was that good?
LdB: Yes, I enjoyed it very much but I’m glad it’s over now. When I finished the house I got the book finished pretty quickly. So a lot of things have been going on and I had published a children’s book [Red Dog] and a radio play in that time and several short stories. I wrote Red Dog for 12-year-olds, but funnily enough none of my publishers ever told the public that. [both laugh]
RB: Why would they? Isn’t it still buyer beware or aware?
LdB: I think it is. And it seems to be doing well with kids and adults, really.
RB: Is it a mini-trend that more literary fiction writers are attempting young-adult and children’s books? Are you aware of that? Do you pay attention, given your seclusion in the DIY world?
LdB: [laughs] Well, I do pay some attention, but mostly to what’s happening with my friends. It’s only good manners to keep up with what your friends are doing. I am fairly ignorant of general trends. I didn’t know that literary writers were also tending to write for children. If that is the case, I think it’s a very good thing.
My mother or father used to read to me at bedtime, so I got into the habit of liking stories when I was very young and I think that there was never a time, almost, that I couldn’t read. And when I went to school at the age of four I could already read. And I don’t remember anyone teaching me. I think it was from following my mother’s finger around the text or something.
RB: Also people like Madonna.
LdB: Oh yes. In the U.K., a lot of adults love reading children’s books themselves, into later life. My partner Kathy reads a lot of children’s books. She loves them.
RB: I like Maira Kalman, who is an illustrator, but I can’t get into the Tolkien/Rowling/Pullman stuff. Are you talking books strictly for children?
LdB: No I’m not talking strictly at all. [Philip] Pullman’s an obvious example of someone who overlaps into different categories. [J.K.] Rowling as well. In the U.K., they produced the same book under different covers. One edition for children and one for adults, so that adults reading it on the train wouldn’t feel embarrassed.
RB: Another triumph of marketing.
LdB: I sometimes go back and read the books that I loved when I was a kid. There was one about smuggling called Moonfleet by John Meade Faulkner. It’s a wonderful adventure story. All about finding diamonds in rotten coffins. And crypts under churches full of smuggled brandy and that kind of thing. I still read that book with great pleasure.
RB: It’s funny when I started reading, when my mother took me by the arm and off to the public library, most of what I read was nonfiction. There was a series called the Real Books about this or that. And also the sort of traditional boys’ stuff, Hardy Boys—I didn’t like any stories until I got to high school.
LdB: In my case, my mother or father used to read to me at bedtime, so I got into the habit of liking stories when I was very young and I think that there was never a time, almost, that I couldn’t read. And when I went to school at the age of four I could already read. And I don’t remember anyone teaching me. I think it was from following my mother’s finger around the text or something.
RB: That’s wonderful.
RB: You remember the stories from your youth?
LdB: Oh, quite a lot of them. Yes. Like any other little boy I used to read comics, which are obviously packed full of stories. We had Equal comic and Swift and all sorts of things. You might have had some of the same ones here, for alI I know. Did you have Equal here?
RB: I didn’t read comics but I did read Mad magazine. Which I found hilarious.
LdB: I didn’t understand Mad magazine. [both laugh]
RB: It’s quite possibly a solely American sensibility—just plain goofy.
LdB: We definitely had it.
RB: Maybe the British lack a certain free-ranging goofiness?
LdB: We have quite a farcical sense of humor, though. A bit like the French. We like comedies where people’s trousers fall down.
RB: You were clearly working on this book when we spoke about Corelli’s Mandolin, so many years ago. At that point I had the impression that the Armenian genocide was central—it’s obviously a part of Birds Without Wings, but—
LdB: Well, when I first started thinking about it was because I discovered an ossuary in this little deserted town with some Greek bones still in it. The Greeks had apparently—
RB: How did you know they were Greek bones?
LdB: Because the Muslims used to bury their dead. And the Greeks would bury their dead for a few years and then dig them up and then wash the bones in wine and stack them in an ossuary. And this town I visited, there were two ossuaries with the old bones still there. And that’s what gave me the idea for the whole thing, because there used to be quite a mixture of peoples in that region. And now there isn’t. I was interested in what happened to these people who had been deported or just disappeared. I thought, “Well lets start the book in 1900 and take it to 1923, when the populations were exchanged between Greece and Turkey.” And so that obviously was going to have to include something about the Armenians. When I looked into this story, the region where I set the story there actually weren’t many Armenians. They were mostly in the East, around Lake Van and places like that. But in this book I decided to have at least one Armenian family in it because you couldn’t possibly write about this period and miss that. The governor of that region was very keen on deporting Armenians, but there weren’t very many for him to deport.
RB: Is it correct to say that this is an anti-war book?
LdB: Well, people said that about Corelli’s Mandolin as well. Uh, I don’t mind them thinking that, but it wasn’t actually written as an anti-war novel or as a bit of propaganda. I am quite happy if people take it that way. There just isn’t any dispute that war is vile, is there?
RB: There were any number of things that stopped me and I thought more about. But about 200 pages in, you wrote about empires, war and history, “Where does it all begin? History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the Paleolithic age. When the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and therefore there is an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victim of one time become the victimizers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism, and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by another.” And these themes are constantly reiterated in the book, nobody is innocent, no one is pure, or totally good.
You get these great big ideas which sound terribly noble and even patriotic but which actually produce a fantastic amount of evil. That’s what I hated. I hate it when people do evil things in the name of big ideas.
LdB: And nobody is really bad either.
RB: I thought the one irredeemable person was going to be the Greek schoolteacher but he turned out also to have a streak of decency despite being obnoxious.
LdB: Yes, of course he did.
RB: Yes, but you waited very late in the book to reveal that.
LdB: No, that’s true, I made him very tedious and tiresome up until the point where he has his moment of redemption.
RB: His relatives couldn’t stand him.
LdB: That’s how I feel about the human race. None of us are entirely good or bad. The beast within is very easily let out, if given permission.
RB: Most of the villagers in Escaqbay—I ended up also listening to the audio version of Birds Without Wings to help me grasp the pronunciation of names, one reason I don’t read Russian novels
LdB: When I read Russian novels I used to shorten the names to suit myself.
RB: I was going to say the villagers are very much innocents. Who is an evil person?
LdB: When Tamara is being stoned, for example, they all join in, including Iskander the potter, people who are actually really good.
RB: Yes, I did somehow excuse that as having a religious basis. But it did get worse—when the town drunk beats up the Armenian—that was stunning.
LdB: As we know when crowd psychology kicks in people don’t act as conscientious individuals anymore, do they?
RB: Then that moment is over and there is great shame. And someone offers to help him up. I am reminded that in the edit from audio to text, so much good stuff is left out of the audio. Have you listened to it?
LdB: I haven’t. I couldn’t bear to listen. I never have listened to these things.
RB: [laughs] I suppose it’s OK if you don’t read the book. When I went back to the book I found myself questioning where this or that scene went and why they were chopped out. I didn’t mean to genre-fy the book by bringing up that it has been called an anti-war novel but its impact is profoundly anti-war.
LdB: If I can respond to that—
LdB: OK, I won’t. Nice day—I am not anti-war per se. For example, I thought the Second World War had to be fought. It would have been shameful not to fight against Hitler. So I am not a pacifist. I know sometimes you have mortal duty to resist oppression, that’s it. But what particularly vexes me is when you get great ideas, often in the name of God or in the name of communism or whatever. Possibly even in the name of democracy.
RB: Like pan-Hellenism.
LdB: Yes, or whatever. You get these great big ideas which sound terribly noble and even patriotic but which actually produce a fantastic amount of evil. That’s what I hated. I hate it when people do evil things in the name of big ideas.
RB: The juxtaposition of this isolated town where there is this admixture, this great variety of peoples—no Jews come to mind—
LdB: There are a couple actually.
RB: In the village?
LdB: No, as far as I can remember the only Jew who turns up as a character is a clerk to the recruiting sergeant. In those days, Jews often had important positions in Ottoman society.
RB: In my high school history text the Ottoman Empire was referred to as “the poor man of Europe.”
LdB: “The sick man of Europe.”
I can remember when I was a kid everybody knew that the British Empire had been a very good thing for everybody.
RB: Which is not what one gets from reading this novel.
LdB: I even know a few Greeks who thought life was better under the Ottomans. [both laugh] They are rare, but they exist. The point is, under the Ottoman regime tolerance was compulsory. They had no toleration of intolerance because everyone was sat on more or less fairly and equally heavily; there wasn’t much trouble between the ethnicities and the religions.
RB: I can’t think of another portrayal of a such a diverse cultural environment in which there is such congenial back and forth between backgrounds. If you are a Muslim, there is no problem asking a Christian neighbor to light candles in the church—seemingly hedging all bets.
LdB: It wasn’t like that in the big cities, like Smyrna, where there were separate quarters, Armenian quarters, Jewish quarters, et cetera, but in the more remote, little places over the centuries, people’s cultural identities got awfully blurred. These were the kind of people who as you say, if you were a Christian and you were ill, you could swallow a little line from the Koran as your medicine.
RB: The Muslims still called their Christian neighbors infidels, and there were good infidels and bad infidels. It seemed not to mean that much.
LdB: The common insult for an infidel was to call them rayah, which means cattle.
LdB: Or to put it nicely, “the flocks.” They thought of them as flocks, like sheep. Or gior was another insult. I am not quite sure what that means. Anyway, there was a certain amount of intermarriage and the same families lived in the same towns for centuries. So as long as you didn’t get involved in any blood feuds or anything, it was basically quite harmonious.
RB: I almost came to tears at the death of the imam.
LdB: Abdulhamid Hodja.
RB: You give him such warmth and wisdom. I came near tears when his horse was commandeered, which was a prelude to his decline.
LdB: He was based on an imam who used to live in Rhodes, that island in the Dodekanissos [a group of 12 Greek islands—ed.]. There was an imam there who had a magnificent white horse, who had the brass decorations around her neck and everything. I was told about him by an artist friend of mine in London who used to live in Rhodes. So I transferred him.
RB: This man was respected by the whole village.
LdB: Well, yes, back in those days, Islam was far less rigid. What happened, to be frank, is that Saudi Arabia set up schools all over the Islamic world, which they funded, which taught this radical Wahhabi stuff that they go in for. [The Wahhabi movement calls for Islam’s conversion to its pre-950 A.D. forms—ed.] Before the Saudis started poisoning the water, it was a lot better for everyone.
RB: Are they also responsible for the myth of Arab nationalism?
LdB: That’s an old one. Pan-Arabism goes back a long way. It’s much older than the Saudis.
RB: Back to T.E. Lawrence [the British-born explorer also known as Lawrence of Arabia, leader of an Arab revolt against Turkish domination in 1916-18].
LdB: Before Lawrence, I think. I seem to recall that originally pan-Arabism was more of a socialist thing than a Muslim thing.
RB: To whose benefit?
LdB: I think people gain self-esteem when they start to think that they are something special and better than everyone else or different from everybody else. It’s hard to explain. I can remember when I was a kid everybody knew that the British Empire had been a very good thing for everybody.
RB: They did?
LdB: It’s only later when you start revising you opinions with the wisdom of hindsight.
RB: That’s true in the States, too. We’ve done wonderful things for Puerto Rico and Cuba and Central America. They have blossomed under the American concern.
LdB: How grateful they must be. [laughs]
RB: This is not a book that you could write sitting in your study, wherever your study is. You did have to go and immerse yourself in the cultures, yes?
LdB: I made three trips to Turkey. Really more than anything to get the atmosphere and to notice things like capers growing out of people’s brick walls. All that is very important.
RB: The different colored poppies?
LdB: I noticed the funny-colored poppies on a Greek island once. They had all turned pink one year. I have used that as an image in the book but I’m a not quite sure what it means, so don’t ask me. [laughs] I went through a lot of Foreign Service archives as well, because back in those days all the irrelevant information was sent to the British.
RB: [laughs] I want to make sure, you said “irrelevant”?
LdB: Yeah. A lot of the diplomatic reports were in French, but fortunately I can read that. It was very interesting to see Lord Curzon’s comments in the margins of some of these letters, “We cannot send a fleet to Armenia.” [laughs]
LdB: I read a lot of travel books and even a few books on anthropology as well, for the Greek burial rituals.
RB: The mother of Polyxeni—she was exhumed because—
LdB: She had been accused of being a poisoner and the Greeks believed and, in fact, they still do in some places, that if your corpse doesn’t rot properly it means that the earth has refused to accept you and that’s because you are sinner, you are guilty. So when you dig up your dead relative after five years, you have not only got all the trauma and emotional stress of digging up something that now only a skeleton but you have also that worry about whether the bones are clean.
RB: [laughs] Are there cases in which the bones wouldn’t be clean after five years?
LdB: If you bury a body too deep it rots a lot more slowly. It’s important not to bury it too deeply. And there are certain conditions of clay, which will make it rot more slowly. Usually when the body hasn’t rotted properly, they can think of an explanation.
RB: [laughs] Is it part of the Greek Orthodoxy?
LdB: Not all of the Greeks do this. It appears to be something that goes back to pre-Christian times.
RB: Are you happy with Birds Without Wings?
LdB: I am 95 percent happy. I think it’s better than Corelli’s Mandolin. But possibly less cuddly.
RB: Hmm. I could see why you could say that. That’s not a literary category for me.
LdB: No. It has more substance and more ambition. What slightly worries me is that the sections about Mustafa Attaturk. They slightly unbalance the narrative. I wanted them in there so people could follow the course of the history if they actually wanted to. They can always skip those bits if they don’t like them. [chuckles]
RB: Right, sure. You did counterbalance that with the story of Philothei, the town beauty. Were you thinking to do that?
LdB: Yes, you have Mustafa Kemal Attaturk who is practically a mythical figure. He is almost superhuman like a god or something. Then you have this unimportant but pretty and charming little girl in the middle of nowhere. They counterbalance each other.
RB: Cuddliness. That’s an interesting word. What do you aspire to when you write a story?
LdB: The trouble with wanting to do something is that it doesn’t come about. A book turns into itself regardless of your intentions. Somebody who is going to be a baddy turns out to be a goody and there is nothing you can do about it. I knew I couldn’t possibly write another charming romance, as is a substantial part of Corelli’s Mandolin. I thought it would be better to explore the other kinds of love or the different kinds of love that humans are capable of. I have several different love relationships in this book. It’s just that none of them are like the Antonio Corelli and Pelagia one.
RB: Tell me how you see your first three novels now, today?
LdB: They have some of my best writing. And they’ve got a certain young man’s energy and humor, which I enjoy, a great deal. But I think of them really as an apprenticeship more than anything else. At that time I had been reading nothing but Latin Americans for about 15 years. So not surprisingly when I started writing I came out with three Latin American novels. I sort of had to do that. You tend to get out what you put in. [laughs] I had been putting in Latin American novels and that’s what I got out. I am still very proud of them, actually. [But] I no longer think of them as my central work.
RB: I remember them as very funny but finally, after reading Corelli, less substantial, and all I could do was describe them as comedic.
LdB: Well, I think there is more to it than that. What I have always been interested in is the abuse of power. And the first one, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, was about the abuse of military power. The next one [Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord], because it was about the cocaine trade, was about the abuse of economic power. The third one, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, was about a crusade of religious fanatics. So that’s about the abuse of ideological power. I was thinking of it in those terms.
RB: Now that you have explained the books to me I should reread them. I am constantly reminded of the subjectivity of one’s appreciation. Books I read before I now can’t understand why I liked then and vice versa—
LdB: Very much vice versa. I used to be besotted with [Gabríel Garcia Márquez’s] One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then when I started to read it the fourth time, I thought, “This is just tiresome.” I wish I had never done that.
RB: That’s funny because I have read it three times and intended to read it again. As with Love in Time of Cholera.
LdB: The one of his that I particularly love is that long short story about innocent Ererdira.
RB: There was a movie made of that. Did you see it?
LdB: No. It’s got some beautiful writing in it. It’s like a long prose poem.
RB: I like the story collection Strange Bedfellows.
LdB: I also like that one about the angel, the tatty angel who ends up in the hen coop. I’m lucky I have friend in Colombia and he sends me anything that has to do with Gabo as soon as it appears. [laughs]
RB: Do people forgive him his friendship with Castro?
LdB: I don’t.
RB: This is an oddity. I spoke with someone who considers Kissinger to be a friend. I asked if she was troubled by claims that he is a war criminal. She said something to the effect that she had been friendly with him for a long time and that something took and she admired him.
LdB: He’s probably personally very charming. I imagine Castro is, too. The point is that Castro locks up musicians and writers. There is a slightly democratic deficit in Cuba. As far as I know, Marquez is the only Latin American intellectual left who has any time for Castro. It’s easy to say that Castro has done good things. For example, Cuba has an excellent rate of literacy but for someone like me whose life depends on freedom of expression, I—
RB: Yes, I must confess in my blindly naive Stalinist years I thought health conditions and literacy went a long way, diminution of racism, to excusing Castro. But after a long time I understood it doesn’t wash away the repression. Have you been to Cuba?
RB: The thing is, you go there and it is not a dreary Socialist state. So whatever your vision is of the Eastern European Soviet satellite with fog and scummy buildings, it’s not like that.
LdB: You can’t make Latin Americans gloomy. You just can’t do it. [both laugh]
RB: When people talk about wanting to go to Cuba before Castro dies, suggesting that an immense change will then be forthcoming, it’ll become Disneyworld South or something, this is just wrong. The Cubans seem to have their own twist on things.
LdB: It’s going to be a brothel.
RB: You think? It’s a brothel now.
LdB: It’s going to be worse.
RB: Why do you think so? Because of the shattered economy?
LdB: Well, yes, that’s it. In the village I stayed in in Colombia, there were at least two brothels. Which were just glorified mud huts. But in one village, two brothels? That’s what poverty does to you. The other thing, because funnily enough, money does the same thing to you. If you can earn enough money easily, really, you conveniently forget about HIV for the time being, won’t you?
RB: How’d we get to Cuba from the Levant? It’s called the Levant, yes?
LdB: Yes, I often refer to that bit as Anatolia because that’s what the Greeks called it.
RB: That’s how it’s referred to in the book. Does Smyrna still exist?
LdB: It’s now called Izmir. It’s the same word but the Turks called it—
RB: It isn’t what it was?
LdB: No, because after the fire [in 1922, which destroyed the city], it was rebuilt in this rather Mussoliniesque way, grand with huge public squares and great, big chunky, heroic statues and things. Very little of the original Smyrna is left.
RB: What has been the response of Muslims to your book?
LdB: Well, the Turks are very enthusiastic about it. They have given me a huge amount of money as an advance, which is rare from Turkey. They liked Captain Corelli as well. That’s been through 26 editions in Turkey. And that’s about Greeks, for God’s sake.
RB: Perhaps you should move there. By all reports Istanbul is a wonderful city.
LdB: I’m a country boy.
LdB: I think the Turks are going to enjoy it. In other Islamic countries, there actually isn’t much of a reading tradition. Greece, tiny little Greece, on its own, translates more books into Greek than all of the Arab countries put together translate into Arabic. It’s like literature is off the map for many of these countries.
RB: Is it possible for any Muslims to find your story blasphemous?
LdB: The book should offend everybody.
RB: [laughs] Right.
LdB: I can foresee that it might offend Greeks and Turks and Armenians even, and possibly even Kurds. I am very unsympathetic towards religion in general, even though I come from a religious background and therefore understand what it’s all about. So I could offend a lot of people. But I don’t think there is anything in there that will earn me a fatwa. Not least because they generally reserve their fatwas for Muslims who have gone astray. I am outside the faith, so it probably isn’t going to bother them much.
RB: That’s odd that there is no reading tradition.
LdB: The Ottomans were keen on poetry. And I believe poetry is practiced a lot in Iraq.
RB: There is the Persian poet Rumi—
LdB: That’s a long time ago. [laughs]
RB: There is that charming international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. Do you know that book?
LdB: Yes, I do.
RB: But then the Persians aren’t Arabs and there seems to be interest in Western culture.
LdB: A horse of a different color, yes.
RB: Hey. uh, excuse me for saying “hey”—
RB: It just occurred to me, you mentioned the central myth that starts off John O’Hara’s Appointment In Samarra—which is that Death will come and get them at a certain place and they go to another place and they run into Death and Death says, “Oh, I was going to meet you in Samarra.”
LdB: It’s quite common and years ago it was used by Kahlil Gibran in one of his books. It’s about the inevitability of fate. It’s a quite common story. I quite like that one. It also appeals to the British sense of irony; you set out to achieve one thing and what happens is that you get exactly what you didn’t want.
RB: I found Iskander, who is set up as a creator of proverbs, wonderful. Are you making up these things out of whole cloth or retrieving sayings from the culture?
LdB: One of my reviewers said he didn’t believe that ignorant Turks would be clever enough to come up with these proverbs. Actually a lot of those are current, all over the Middle East and Turkey and everybody knows them. He was very condescending. Some of them obviously are made up.
RB: “Ignorant Turk”? Geez!
LdB: I think he said, “illiterate.” Some of those were made up. Usually the humorous ones, like, “He who seeks the shade of the red pines gets shat upon by doves.” That happened to me in Turkey, so I know the truth of that one. But other ones like, “He who slaps his own face should not cry out.” That’s an Arab proverb that everyone knows.
I emptied out my living room and put all the chapters, separately on the floor and sorted them into a proper order. Then I read the book through to make sure that it was coherent and [that] there weren’t some anachronisms and so on. And then I added in extra bits to tie in the pieces together.
RB: And that which gives the book the title, “Birds are men without sorrows and men are birds without wings.” Where is that from?
LdB: I think that is a actually a saying from the Middle East but I got confused on this issue, there is also a song by [Mikis] Theodorakis, who wrote the music to Zorba, called “I Am an Eagle Without Wings,” and I know perfectly well what he means by that. We want to be splendid and free and beautiful, but we are earthbound. And it’s a metaphor for the condition of mankind.
RB: Yeah. [pauses] Maybe the book is [malaproperly] Tolstoevskisan? [both laugh] What has the critical response been like?
LdB: The only bad ones [reviews] I’ve had have been from London hacks, funnily enough, tired old literary journalists, one of them was absolutely scornful about it. But on the other hand, in the rest of the world—I mean the rest of the U.K.—I have had nothing but praise, really. Which has been really gratifying. The first review was the London one and I thought, “Oh, it’s going to crash.” But then I started getting reviews from Ireland and Canada and New Zealand and so on and they were all very, very complimentary.
RB: What was the London hacks’ criticism?
LdB: Oh, God. That I didn’t care about my characters. I tried to erase it from my mind actually. It was so uncomfortable. There were ignorant criticism like, “De Bernières tries to make his characters more exotic by calling them things like ‘the Snow Bringer’ or ‘the Broken-Nosed’ or ‘the Potter.’“ The fact is that those days in the Ottoman Empire people didn’t have surnames, so you had to call them the Broken-Nosed or the Snow-Bringer. It was just ignorance.
RB: No failure on your part but I couldn’t visualize what [the character called] the Dog looked like—what his disfigurement was.
LdB: He had been made to bite down on a red-hot bar, so his teeth and tongue and gums were all burned out.
RB: Yes, but I don’t quite know what that would look like.
LdB: Well, his lips were OK. According to my account, he had his lips held open while they did this to him, whoever they were. We never find out who it was or why or what his identity is.
RB: Was that a common form of punishment or torture?
LdB: No, I made it up. I wanted him to be a complete mystery. Because his identity is such a mystery, nobody can use his identity against at the end of the book. He can’t be deported or anything. Nobody knows what he is, they don’t know if he is a Christian or Muslim or what.
RB: And then you have the group of village idiots sitting on the wall giggling and pissing themselves.
LdB: The reason I do this kind of thing is that I have been affected by Homer. When Homer mentions the same characters or the same things and they nearly always have the same epithets attached to them, see. That’s me being Homeric. I also think it’s nice to ring a bell in the reader’s mind, just tinkle a bell occasionally. Yeah.
RB: They turn out to provide a certain jollity.
LdB: There was a time when every village had an idiot, wasn’t there? And people just looked after them in a fairly jolly way, without making a big fuss about them. I don’t know what happens to village idiots now. They are probably institutionalized.
RB: No, they are drugged and tossed into the streets.
LdB: We have a town schizophrenic in my nearest town, but he wanders around gesticulating and talking to himself. You wouldn’t call him an idiot, actually.
RB: And what about the man who is constantly blaspheming?
LdB: The Blasphemer, he has something like Tourette’s syndrome. This guy comes out with obscenities whenever he meets a cleric of any faith. It’s just a strange psychological condition that I also invented. [laughs]
RB: Did you write this book start to finish, straight through? Or sections here and there and so on?
LdB: I wrote in no particular order. I started it in Calgary years ago when I was doing a month at the university.
RB: In Canada?
LdB: Yeah. I finished it in Calgary many years later when I was on a visit. Symmetry. I wanted to come full circle in the same city. But I wrote it in bits and pieces. For example I wrote all the Philothei bits one after the other and then I distributed them through the book. It wasn’t written in a logical order at all.
RB: It does follow a time string.
LdB: It does. I made sure it did. I emptied out my living room and put all the chapters, separately on the floor and sorted them into a proper order. Then I read the book through to make sure that it was coherent and [that] there weren’t some anachronisms and so on. And then I added in extra bits to tie in the pieces together.
RB: Allow a hypothetical: Had Corelli’s Mandolin not been such a success to allow you to write this book at your own pace, would it have been more urgent for you to produce this?
LdB: Yes, it would have given me a lot more pressure. Undoubtedly I would have got it done sooner I have no doubt about that. But I don’t think it would have been as good. The one thing that keeps me going more than anything else is the dread of having to go back to teaching. [both laugh] If that ever looms on the horizon, I shall rapidly come out with a meretricious bestseller. [laughs]
RB: Speaking of which, you said there were 26 printings in Turkey of Corelli’s Mandolin? How many languages was the book translated into?
LdB: I’ve lost count. It’s a lot.
RB: Is there a rush to translate this book [Birds Without Wings]?
LdB: It’s being translated into Dutch as we speak.
RB: I’ve never understood that. The Dutch seem to easily acquire English—
LdB: That’s why. They’ve got to get it out before everyone buys the English edition. [both laugh] It’s a problem I’ll never have in France.
RB: Translated in Japan?
LdB: It is. Croatia. Finnish. I was going to be in Korean but that fell through. I’m out in Russia. I have separate translations for Brazil and Portugal. Because the language diverges so much.
RB: Wow, Brazilian Portuguese is that different from Portugese?
LdB: Yeah, obviously they understand each other but you do have to do separate translation. I am in one of the Indonesian languages as well. I can’t read it.
RB: You went to the Edinburgh Literary Festival and something happened that I won’t mention—
LdB: Really, what was that?
RB: OK, the computer theft.
LdB: Oh yes, yes. Someone stole my laptop computer.
RB: Which made headlines in the online literary world
LdB: I lost 50 pages of my next novel. But it doesn’t matter really because as I realized it had been stolen I thought of a better way of telling the story.
LdB: That’s my way of giving two fingers to the thief. [giggles]
RB: Now I know you have been to Edinburgh, Calgary, Turkey, and you went to La Tomatina years ago. How widely do you travel in support of your literary work?
LdB: I am quite a keen tourist. So I’ll go anywhere which it seems it might be nice to go. The good reason for coming to Boston is that the seafood is so good. [laughs] So I’m here to eat chowder and lobster. And talking to you is the price I have to pay.
RB: I’ll try to be brief.
LdB: That’s OK, I had chowder for lunch.
RB: Actually, you are the person who introduced me to La Tomatina.
LdB: Oh, Tomatina.
RB: Have you ever been back?
LdB: No, I haven’t, but that was the best day of my life
RB: I remember you said that at the time.
LdB: I wouldn’t want to spoil it by going back.
RB: Was there a second-best day? Any thing that comes close?
LdB: Are we excluding passion here?
LdB: OK, we’re excluding passion. Umm.
RB: That would be too personal.
LdB: Yes, umm. [long pause] Something that was as much fun as that. I think the kind of high that you get after you’ve played a good concert is similar to that. I play with some musicians in Oxford; they are all proper classical musicians and I’m the only amateur. It’s a bit frightening. We did one concert last year which went so well and the audience was so pleased that we were all on a high for several hours. It’s that sort of feeling.
RB: What do you play?
LdB: I play classical guitar and mandolin and flutes and a bit of clarinet, and we all have to take turns on percussion when there is nothing better to do.
RB: What is the group’s repertoire?
LdB: We keep changing it. We started off with a program of French flute music and poetry. I do the poetry and as well as some of the music. The one we have been doing for several months now is Renaissance and medieval poetry and music. We are thinking of going a bit folksy for the next lot and doing traditional Celtic music—we all love that. And normally as a classical musician you don’t get a chance to play it. We have lot of programs planned and it’s another reason why books are taking longer to appear. Because I’m spending too much time playing music.
RB: There is an incredible pressure once you are success to keep feeding the publishing pipeline.
LdB: My pressure is mostly from my mother. Nobody else really hassles me. [both laugh]
RB: What does she say?
LdB: “You’ve got to get it out before I die.” [laughs] “I want to read it before I die.” That might be an incentive for not finishing it, if you think about it. Keep your mother hanging on. It does get annoying when people say you have writer’s block and come up with all these myths.
RB: Is your society a society of writers? You’re a country boy, away from the fray.
LdB: The county where I live is called Norfolk and is often referred to as the graveyard of ambition.
LdB: It’s a really, really nice place to live. And so you think, “Why bother to do this when I can just go for a walk in paradise?” I am removed from the metropolitan literary set in London. I don’t despise them but I am not even sure who they are, a lot of time. I don’t mix with them very much, any more. On the other hand in East Anglia, in Norfolk where I live, there are quite alot of other writers living. I am by no means short of stimulus and especially as I also associate with musicians a lot. And my girlfriend is an actress. And I’m always surrounded by actors. Who are probably the best company of all. [both laugh]
RB: My impression of being a career writer is that there are all these auxiliary activities, touring and dealing with agents and movie deals, and so there is a lot that goes with it.
LdB: There is too much that is not to do with being creative. I get really pissed off with having to make business decisions at the drop of a hat. Just because someone has rung me up. When I became liable for value added tax, I practically committed suicide. I am not interested in filling in tax forms. I don’t even understand them. I can read Latin but I can’t understand tax forms. A lot of these things I find very wearisome and tedious.
RB: I found hilarious when Rustim Bey is looking for a new woman in a really seedy area and you are listing all the miscreants and low types and such and in that elaborate list are tax collectors. Your not-so-subtle dig.
LdB: [laughs] Yes. Actually, they were very much despised in the Ottoman Empire, as much as we esteem them in our culture. [both laugh]
RB: Even if you could compact the amount if time that you spend on the book, it didn’t actually take 10 years, but you started thinking about it 10 years ago. Now it’s done. What is the resonance of the book in your thoughts?
LdB: I wonder about the old age of Rustim Bey. He’s a man condemned to solitude, whatever he does. He never conquers his solitude. It’s a very Latin American theme. But I wonder what his old age was like.
RB: He did seem to find comfort with the three Armenian girls. Not too bad.
LdB: Yeah, it’s awful isn’t it? It shows that when you get to a certain age, like our age, your scruples disappear, don’t they? [laughs]
RB: So, how much do you continue to think about Birds Without Wings or any project that you have completed?
LdB: You can get very depressed. You have suddenly lost all your friends in fairyland. If you are writing you live in an imaginary world a lot of the time and it’s a kind of controlled madness. So when that suddenly disappears it can be devastating. But fortunately towards the end of a book you get on a roll—the end is in sight and you go at it and suddenly the book is finished but you are still on the roll. So what I did was started my next book straight away. And that’s the one that got stolen. But that carried me over the grief and the loss.
RB: Do you not write other forms of fiction. Short stories?
LdB: I do lots of short stories. I got two collections ready.
RB: Ready? So not it turns out that the 10 years have been more productive that anyone suspected.
LdB: Yes. I used to write a lot of poetry and I want to go back to that.
RB: That speaks of confidence. Many people who start give it up because they don’t think they are good enough.
LDB: I thought I wasn’t. I dared myself to do one for these music concerts and people were asking me for copies of it. So I thought, “Right, I can’t be that bad.” And I’ve since done two poetry readings of my own stuff. So I guess I am officially a poet now. But they need a lot of work, the old poems.
RB: Can you talk about the next novel?
LdB: If I go back to the one I started that was stolen, when I was in my 20s I shared a derelict house in London which had no roof, with three other people. We paid five pounds a week in rent. And I was pretending to be someone called John Horace because it was supposed to be his room. There was a sculptress in there. She had a badge saying “A woman needs a man like fish needs a bicycle.” She was always out with her boyfriend; I hardly ever saw her. And there was an actor who had a little theater company that was doing all right and there was a woman from Yugoslavia, a Serbian who was 28 or 29 and she said that she had been a prostitute in a hostess club and that she had so much money that she had been able to retire. She said she had all the money in a trunk under her bed.
RB: And that is why she was living in this roofless squat?
LdB: She disappeared in the end. I don’t know what she was intending to do with the money. But she used to spend hours and hours telling me her life story. Which was very interesting. It may not even have been true. But that doesn’t matter for my purposes. And so when I left that place, misguidedly, to go and do teacher training, I wrote it all down as a novella and since then it’s been through several drafts. Getting bigger and bigger and more and more fictionalized. And was never quite good enough. There was something wrong with it, And then I thought, “Why I don’t bring in a completely different character, who has nothing to do with reality at hand have him become sexually obsessed with her?” I wanted to use her life story but put this story of a sexual obsession over the top. Which should be quite un–de Bernièresque. I’ve never dealt with that kind of thing before. I don’t know how long it’ll be or even if I’ll ever finish it. But that’s really the next project.
RB: You don’t know if you’ll finish it?
LdB: Well, there might be a fatwa because of this one. [laughs]