Louis de Bernieres
Vintage Books. First published 2009.
The book is subtitled 'Stories from an English Village'. There are 20 short stories, concerning 20 eccentric people, or the occasional eccentricities of 20 people, all in the south English village of Notwithstanding in the 1960's and the 1970's. As always with de Bernieres, the writing is sweet and gentle. It flows smoothly from idea to idea, from description to description, without a single wrinkle or misstep. The characters are all lovable, and even the worst ones are shown only in their all too human aspects. This again is standard for de Bernieres, the complete lack of hateful villains in his books. (Well, there is one, a nouveau riche and nasty businessman called Royston Chittock, who however soon gets his comeuppance for his meanness.) The book starts with Archie gluing birdseed his drawing room window, and the rest of that story explains why. There are stories about 'all the lonely people', about young triumph, young love, very young love, old death and very old death. In fact almost half the stories are about death, but the narration robs them of any real sorrow, leaving behind sometimes only a feeling of melancholic nostalgia for a life, I for one, never knew first hand but only through books. Towards the end of the book, reality intrudes in the form of neoliberalism, and funnily enough it is Margaret Thatcher's conservative economics that is held responsible for the 'progressive' destruction of village life. In an afterword, de Bernieres describes how many of the village institutions and establishments described in the stories were taken from his own life as a child and young man in an English village that served as a model for Notwithstanding. Some of them still remain now in 2009, but many are gone. Most of all, with increasing urbanisation, the special relationships between the people that can only exist in a rural milieu is gone.
De Bernieres, however, clearly skips over all the ugliness that must necessarily exist in such settings - the small mindedness, the insularity, the intolerance, and the racism. The 60s and 70s were a period of increasing multiculturalism in Great Britain, when the colonies struck back at the Empire, by flocking to it in ever-larger numbers, to enjoy the prosperity their ancestors had willy-nilly contributed to build. It is hard to imagine that Notwithstanding could remain aloof, a kind of isolated idyll, not having to confront its own darknesses. But de Bernieres does not say he set out give a true journalistic report of the life in those times and those places. In any case, his writing is so good that much can be forgiven of him. There are of course many such collections of stories of village (or town or city) life in various countries - think 'Swami and Friends'. That however does diminish in any way the pleasure of reading this particular collection of slices of Life with a capital 'L'.