Louis de Bernières's Mandolin & The BMW's Advance/Retard LeverTuesday, September 25, 2007
Driving past the Stanley Park rose garden last week on my way to West Vancouver I noticed that some of the roses had not given up yet. Some of them had buds but they will ball up with the recent rain and cooler nights. I saddened at the thought. My melancholy dissipated as I thought of a happier time that happened this week but back in 1995.
I was driving to Horseshoe Bay in a maroon Maserati Bi-turbo and my passenger, the English writer Louis de Bernières, turned from looking at the roses, fingered the single mandolin string we had purchased at Ward Music (then on Hastings) and said through some unspoken chain of connections, "My grandfather, my father, and I all had a bad right leg because of our fascination with motorcycles."
He was speaking to me in the tangential magic realism of his early books (The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, 1990, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, 1991, Cardinal Guzman, 1992) and has what seems to be a symbolist's fascination for motorcycles, Lee Enfield rifles, his grandfather's life story, and mandolins.
Earlier that day, when I had entered his room at the Holiday Inn on Howe Street, I was surprised to see a case for a flat-bottomed mandolin. De Bernières said: "Yes, there's a mandolin inside it. I have three. I have a nice round-backed Italian one, the sort that slips about. It's a fake Italian one from Czechoslovakia. I have an absolutely exquisite one from Portugal. It's a flat-back and it really sings. Even the bass sings, unusual for mandolins, which are quite trebly. And this is my traveling mandolin. It's a Portuguese imitation from Spain. It has no volume, so it's ideal for hotel rooms." Removing it from the case, he sat down to play Vivaldi's Concerto for Mandolin in C major.
De Bernières was in town to promote his then latest novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. But at the same time he was taking advantage of this North American leg of his tour to search Nanaimo for traces of his grandfather, who disappeared from England in the 1920s and surfaced in British Columbia in the 1950s. "People ask me if I am going to write about him. He was 96 when he died. He had a long and picaresque life which ranged from Ceylon, Africa, the Northwest frontier, First World War, the RAF in the Second, and so on. I would love to turn it into a novel but my father and my aunt are still alive. I could cause some hurt and upset. Mario Vargas Llosa (the above listed trilogy by de Berniéres reads like translated Vargas Llosa on acid) upset his relatives with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. So did Isabel Allende. Maybe they think that art is more important. I don't."
He explains in obscure fragments, how his grandfather ended up in B.C. "My grandfather had a misunderstanding with his daughter, my aunt. He thought she was going to get married in New Zealand. He waited and waited to hear from her and didn't. As it happened she had not married and had stayed where she was in England. It was a futile misfortune." Searching for his daughter, whom he never heard from again, de Bernières's grandfather came to Canada.
Quiet and self-effacing, de Bernières rarely volunteered information. His remark on his family's fascination with motorcycles came only when I asked him why he had so painstakingly described a BMW motorcycle's advance/retard lever in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. When I asked him if he played the mandolin because he was a failed violinist, he replied, "I did play the violin for a while and my cat would howl, but no. I played classical and flamenco guitar until I damaged the ligaments of my hands." While talking about Spanish Guitars, de Bernières confided: "The three members of the military junta in Don Emanuel are named after the three most famous guitar-makers in Spain. And that Canadian poet living on a Greek Island in Captain Corelli's Mandolin is your Leonard Cohen."
As I dropped off de Bernières at the ferry terminal I wondered (and still wonder) whether I'd ever find out how his grandfather(not to mention his father and himself) hurt his leg with a motorcycle. I hoped then and hope now, that he might risk offending his father and aunt. We would be richer for it.