07 February 2010

Louis de Bernieres at Jaipur Literature Festival 2010

It must have been a dream
It’s definitely one for the memoirs that I spent a very enjoyable time chatting with Louis de Bernieres at Jaipur last month – and also that I managed to ruin it all by carelessly sending in copy that spelt his name wrong.
Here’s the slightly-longer version of what I wrote for Sunday Mid-day today, and of course posterity can read it with the wrong spelling on this link. Ironically, it begins with an explanation of his rather exotic (for a completely unpretentious Englishman) name.
You have an interesting name.
Bernieres is a small town on the Normandy coast. My ancestors came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066 but went back to France after an argument with the king.
In the early 18th century, one of them, Jean Antoine de Bernieres, became a Protestant, a Huguenot, exactly the time when Louis XIV started persecuting the Protestants. He was a soldier and he went off to Northern Ireland where he married into another Huguenot family. In my family we still have a lot of French habits such as drinking wine and arguing about politics and religion at mealtimes. And I’m the only Englishman I know, apart from Prince Andrew, who kisses his father!
You mentioned your regret at the loss of the folk tradition among the English.
Yes. We don’t know folk stories or folk dances and the children don’t learn the folk songs. The English have been made to feel guilty about being English! Even though the empire was largely built by the Scottish – that’s why Sikh regiments play the bagpipes! We once had an imperial confidence, and felt we had the right to be everywhere and tell everybody how to do things but that’s gone now.
Have you heard the joke about Indian restaurants in Britain? There’s this place called A Taste of the Raj. You go in and they hit you on the head with a stick and get you to build a complicated railway system!

But of course Britain today wouldn’t be what it is without the Indians – it’s Indian energy plus British order that makes it so successful!

You grew up in Britain?
My father was in the British army in my early infancy so we were all over the place at various army bases. When I was born we were in Jordan and then I was sent to Cyprus, where it was cooler. But I could say that I grew up in the south of England, in a village in southern Surrey, surrounded by farm land, lakes and forests and meadows. I was sent to boarding school and the first one was really brutal. One of the headmasters was a sadist and the other one was a paedophile and I’d rather have had the paedophile any day. Then I was sent to a public school in Berkshire which was also in the countryside.
When I was 18 or 19 I spent a year in South America, in Colombia, and I consider that’s where my life began.
You were a teacher there?
Yes. I worked with a rancher who was Anglo-Colombian in the middle of guerrilla country. People would get kidnapped and there would be ransom demands. The first thing I had to learn when I got there was how to use a revolver! My first three books were set in an imaginary Latin American country. It’s Columbia but I’ve borrowed politics and history from the other countries. The book is annoying to Latin Americans because they want to know which country it is!
Is that the only reason they find them annoying?

Yes. I had one of my nicest fan letters from Venezuela. I wrote a book called Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord about the ravages of the cocaine trade and I received a letter from a woman in Venezuela saying, “Dear Mr. Bernieres, thank you for getting it right.”

I’ve had comments from Greeks and Turks asking, “How do you know us so well!”
I don’t really know. I just go there and listen. But I haven’t always got it right! In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin I borrowed names from Kazantzakis – and of course they’re all Cretan names. I didn’t realise at the time the names on Cephallonia were quite different!
Would your consider writing something based in India?
I certainly would if I got to know it well enough, but not after being here for 5 days! Except – if I had a brilliant idea for a short story, I would write it and then I’d show it to Indian people that I trust. If you show your work to enough people, they can always put you right.

Tell us something about your journey as a writer.

My first big influence was my father. He’s written poetry all his life and he’s he’s very good, in an old-fashioned way. He writes as Piers Alexander.
I was also very lucky at school. I had a series of teachers who got me fired up. We had one who used to make us memorise metaphors and similies and proverbs. We had to remember a poem ever week and had to write a story every week. Another was a heavy-duty intellectual, into TS Eliot and that. Another had been an actor at Stratford and he understood Shakespeare from the inside and he used to act out all the parts to the class. One minute he’d be Othello murdering Desdemona and the next minute he’d be a murdered Julius Caesar collapsing on the floor. He was wonderful. Yes, there was another boy called William Revier and one year we had to share the English prize. He’s also a novelist – he lives near me in Norfolk … and he’s also of Huguenot origin! We weren’t friends at school but we are now – so we got at least 2 novelists out of that!
And how did you start as a musician?

Rather late, actually – when I was 17. It was the early hippy days and the only way you could get a girlfriend was if you could play the guitar. So I got a guitar mostly because of the girls but I fell in love with it. I’m still in love with the classical guitar. It’s my instrument really. If I don’t play every day, I start to go mad. As time has gone by I’ve got more and more dependent on music psychologically and emotionally.

I’ve been professional for about 6 years now so I have 2 careers. It doesn’t pay nearly as well as writing so I have to stop for a while and write for a bit.
I can play almost anything with strings and frets though I must say I’ve never tried playing the sitar – I refuse to sit on the floor with my legs crossed! (giggling) If I was allowed to sit in a chair I might try!
And what are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel which is also based in India to some extent. It involves the lives of one of my grandfathers. He was in Sri Lanka for a while during imperial days and then he was in the North Western Frontier, trying to control the Afghans which was as impossible then as it is now! In fact the technique then was the same – you just bribed them to behave themselves. He was never able to settle down because he had a very bad marriage and his wife refused to divorce him, so he spent his life wandering about the world. I don’t really know very much about him which is actually a very good thing because I just know he had an interesting life. I want to build a fairly epic novel about his life and just recently I had this idea that at least a third of it I could turn into a ghost story! My little boy gave me the idea – he’s only 5. I said, brilliant! Yes, I have a 2-year old daughter too. They’re my best creations!

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