Thursday, November 20, 2008

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts

Louis de Bernieres is one of my favorite authors and this is a book club pick that I pitched. Liked it lots.

De Bernieres' novels are typically set in another time and place. Corelli's Mandolin is set on the Greek island of Cephalonia occupied by the Italian army during WW II. (If you had the extreme misfortune to see the movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin, just completely disregard. There's no comparison.) Birds Without Wings is set circa 1900 in the Ottoman Empire as it comes to an end and the nation of Turkey is formed under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (These two books would make my top five favorite books of all time.) TWODENP is his first novel and it is set in a fictitious Central or South American country in recent decades. All three novels showcase a large cast of eccentric characters (plenty of whom you fall in love with) set against the backdrop of enormous geopolitical upheaval and war. One of his recurring themes is the dichotomy between the antlike quality of people as forces out of our control toss us around, squash us or remake us, and the power of the individual including the ability of a single person to alter the course of history.

De Bernieres’ novels are always deeply researched and filled to the gills with detail. In TWODENP, there’s even an entire chapter on economic manipulations in this fictitious land, complete with references to Friedman, obviously commenting (though not with a clear angle) on political events in various Central/South American countries in the 1980s.

TWODENP has a touch of magical realism, that he doesn’t use in CM or BWW. I’m not generally a fan of magical realism because it can be used as a cheap ploy for an author to get past plot problems, but de Bernieres uses it judiciously.

If you’re inspired to read something by de Bernieres, I recommend BWW or CM first. Know that the first 50-75 pages are tough (he admits his novels have a built-in mechanism to weed out readers with poor concentration), but after that they're glorious. I find it absolutely necessary to make a list of characters for reference in the beginning.

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