A Partisan's Daughter [Buy Now]
By Louis de Bernières
Alfred A. Knopf, 193 Pages, $24
I'm drawn to neurotics and their stories.
Mostly because I'm something of a neurotic myself.
A Partisan's Daughter is about two neurotics in an unconventional love story told in a retrospective first person with both trading turns as narrator.
Author Louis de Bernières explores the neuroses that characterize their unusual love affair — outwardly platonic, but also imbued with peals of lust and sexuality that intensify until they becomes destructive.
Set in 1970s London, Chris is looking back at a time when he was weighed down with suburban malaise, when he referred to his wife as "The Great White Loaf," and when he hired a prostitute for the first time in life (or so he says). The would-be streetwalker (she isn't, not exactly), it turns out, is the enigmatic Roza, the titular daughter, who ends up asking for a ride home.
Their relationship revolves around Roza. She tells Chris her story vis-à-vis clandestine meetings in her dilapidated home: from her youth in Soviet Yugoslavia to her decorated partisan father, from studying at the university in Zagreb to arriving in England to work as a so-called comfort hostess (i.e., a highly paid and highly discreet prostitute).
Listening from a dingy armchair in her living room, falling ever more in love, Chris also lusts after her, often listening to her only because he fantasizes about their bodies entwined in acts of passionate lovemaking. He collects the money Roza once told him would be her fee — the sum of 500 pounds.
The narration encourages us to distrust Roza, even as she is narrating. She seems to imply that some, if not all, of her stories are fabrications for Chris' benefit, a ploy to keep him returning to her. Roza remains enigmatic. We're offered very little certainty. "Roza" might not even be her real name.
For a book of such simplicity and brevity, Bernières is able to craft an extremely dense novel, full of interest and subtexts, exploring the cultural dynamic of a middle-aged English suburbanite and a Yugoslavian expatriate, and the subculture of London's bohemian underground.
It also explores the deep-seated history of the Balkans, with their ethnic and tribal prejudices and conflicts and coexistence. The novel abounds with cultural history, touching on the youth and women's movements of the 1970s.
Nonetheless, it's still a love story about two broken people who come together, briefly. Told in retrospect, the entire novel's tone is appropriately sordid, and one can almost hear the quiet sighs punctuating the air.
One is an excruciatingly conventional suburbanite, filled with all the appropriate post-modern self-loathing and brooding, telling the story of his one great adventure in life that he was both driven to and was destroyed by.
The other is a mysterious young woman who tells a story with such conviction and luscious detail that we're left unsure if we know anything about her at all, save for a deep loneliness. She seems to sabotage herself, only half unconsciously, in her simple quest to be loved.
Their sparks unite and burn bright, if only for a moment, and even if only to be extinguished and never rekindled, like fading coals in a fireplace, soon to be less than a memory.