LONDON (Reuters) - Louis de Bernieres has always considered himself a foreign writer, so setting his latest novel in native Britain is something of a homecoming.
The 53-year-old launched his writing career in the early 1990s with a trilogy about Latin America and since then his stories have taken him to Greece (“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”), the Ottoman Empire (“Birds Without Wings”) and beyond.
Now “A Partisan’s Daughter” centers around two characters in London — Rosa, a Yugoslav illegal immigrant and ex-prostitute whose stories of Balkans life and adventures across Europe beguile Chris, a middle-aged salesman in a loveless marriage.
There is also “Bob Dylan Upstairs,” a young man living in Rosa’s building who de Bernieres modeled on himself in his early 20s. In fact, the whole novel is based on fact.
“I shared exactly that house with exactly that woman, who used to tell me all of her stories,” de Bernieres said.
“It wasn’t for many years that I started to doubt whether any of them were true or not, the doubts sown in my mind by my editor who didn’t believe them,” he added in an interview.
The author altered what he heard and recorded for Roza’s tales of childhood in Yugoslavia, a father who fought with the partisan rebels under Tito during World War Two, her travels to Britain and life in the sex trade.
Neither Chris nor the reader ever finds out if Roza is telling the truth, but de Bernieres believes it does not matter.
“A lot of it is my embellishment,” he said.
“In a way that’s a good thing, because you need freedom from the truth to write good stories. For Chris, she would be a real breath of fresh air and the stories are a large part of that.”
Despite setting the story in London during the “winter of discontent” in late 1970s Britain, when strikes left streets full of rubbish and graves undug, the story also describes the Balkans during and after World War Two.
Roza touches on the religious and national tensions that eventually led to the break up of Yugoslavia, something which the woman de Bernieres met in real life accurately predicted.
“She did always say that when Tito died Yugoslavia would fall apart, and in a way I regret not publishing the novel all those years ago because the prophecy would have come true.”
“A Partisan’s Daughter” is in fact the novel de Bernieres tried to write first, but it took him 18 years since his first book appeared to get it published.
Bernieres calls the book a study of regret, of what might have been if people acted differently at a moment in the past.
Early reviews of “A Partisan’s Daughter” have been mixed, and comparisons with “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” a critical and commercial hit made into a Hollywood movie, are inevitable.
Some commentators have described that success as a curse.
“It’s a curse, but it would be more of a curse for it not to happen if you think about it,” he said. “It’s better to have had one big success than none. I’ve nearly spent the money.”
His reputation as a foreign, rather than British author, has also shielded him because “no book is a failure everywhere.”
In fact, he believes that many of the most acclaimed writers from the British isles focus on too narrow an audience.
“You’re not just writing about other people like yourself. I think Iris Murdoch wrote for people like herself. She was a great writer, but her world was too small.”
Editing by Paul Casciato