Magazine article The Spectator

Packaging at Its Best

Magazine article The Spectator

Packaging at Its Best

Article excerpt

LABELS

by Louis de Bernieres One Horse Press, 4.99, pp. 40

Like the authors of Lord of the Flies and The Collector, Louis de Bernieres had to wait until early middle-age to see himself in print. Since then he has published four sizeable novels in as many years and several short stories as well. He is that rare phenomenon, a writer who is both popular and first-rate. De Bernieres stands out as a true novelist in an age of brazen charlatanry when writers of glib sentences and meretricious paragraphs compose 'novels' not only barren of any insights into human beings but devoid of any discernible content at all (the kind of work where one skips from, say, p. 107 to p. 229 without feeling one has missed anything of consequence, returning to the 'novel' as one comes back from the buffet-car to find an inane monologue continuing in the carriage). The literary short-change artist makes a great parade of counting out a peacock sheaf of fancy banknotes to the reader while refraining from dealing in the worthwhile currency of the novel. De Berni*res takes on the apparently simple but in reality most difficult task of fiction. There are breathing people as well as a litter of corpses in his novels. Some are larger than life, some truly low-life specimens. The reader becomes absorbed in sweeping narratives balanced by sharp domestic tableaux and enlivened by the grimmest wit, all conveyed in elegant and flexible prose which can cope with the full range.

I find his three Latin American novels much more satisfying artistically than Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It's not the real Latin America, it's not my Latin America, it probably isn't yours either, but it works on the page. De Bernieres offers fusion fiction, a piquant sauce of English irony dressing robust and gamy Andean and Amazonian materials.

His technique is quite cinematic in some respects, a collage in others. Whatever the geographical setting, he operates with an accumulation of shortish scenes done in entitled chapterettes, jumping back and forth between characters and sub-plots. It's utterly idiosyncratic but works very well. However, if you aim high, sometimes you fall on your face. The stream-of-consciousness monologue, purportedly the Duce's, in Captain Corelli should have been a prime candidate for editorial lynching. (J. G. Farrell's similar failed attempt to get into the real-life General Percival's mind in The Singapore Grip should be a warning to all novelists that it is deceptively difficult to do this kind of thing.)

Labels has its third life in this reprint. It appeared in a British Council collection and was also imaginatively produced as a limited edition rarity by the Muswell Hill Bookshop. …

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