The Dust That Falls from Dreams

91e3i+vVdTLI go back a bit with Louis de Bernières. Well, I say that – like most I started reading him thanks to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – the first few lines of which were used as discussion point in an A-level English class in – I’d guess – ’97. The perfectly self-contained opening chapter, a beautifully written piece of charming prose, a (what I know now to be) typical de Bernières style light-hearted slice-of-life scene setter with a fantastic description of an inner ear as “an aural orifice more dank, be-lichened, and stalagmitic even than the Drogarati cave”.

I took the print outs containing that first chapter (Dr Iannis Commences his History and is Frustrated) home, passed it to my father and the book was soon in our home and passed into my hands following his. It’s a novel well-known, commented upon, discussed and dissected. As such I won’t here.

There followed the discovery of and lapping up of de Bernières’ South American Trilogy, earlier novellas and plays, the stop-gap Red Dog and, my personal favourite Birds Without Wings. 

Birds Without Wings arrived some ten years after the publication of de Bernières’ previous novel. But he isn’t a writer of small books; his novels are of epic proportion and scope.

It’s not too surprising, then, that The Dust That Falls From Dreams arrived another ten years after the publication of Birds... Not that he was idle. Between times there was A Partisan’s Daughter a (somewhat smaller though nonetheless impressive) novel set in more contemporary times and familiar locales and, in 2009, Notwithstanding – a charming, if non-consequential collection of semi-linked short stories all set in an English village of a certain southern England type and charm, populated by characters of a particular eccentricity.

Perhaps, in hindsight, those stories within Notwithstanding were perhaps something of an exercise. I’m inclined to see them as de Bernières – known for novels set in Greece, Latin America and Turkey – setting out his stall in ‘middle England’, gaining confidence in the styles and character types that would populate his next saga for, as we’re now aware, The Dust That Falls From Dreams is the first of a planned trilogy.

And so, to it.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is every bit the opus I’ve been waiting for as a fan of de Bernières. Yes, some will complain that he’s switched a setting like Cephalonia or Cochadebajo de los Gatos for Kent, but arseholes to them. This is a novel of epic proportions and every bit as “de Bernières” as his previous five “big” novels.

Kicking off with death of Queen Victoria and the commencement of the Edwardian era, we’re introduced to the McCosh family as they hold a belated coronation party with their neighbours. With a sudden time-jump we’re off to the Georgian era and slap bang on the doorstep of the First World War.

Of all the writers to task themselves with chronicling this most heinous of periods, the upheaval and destruction it wrought, there are few who could do so as well as de Bernières (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is, of course, another exemplary example) – bringing all too real the events both home and abroad that bought an end to an era and threw individuals into a torrid world where the sense of the individual was lost.

CJAjyIFWcAEeatZIn The Dust That Falls From Dreams de Bernières is at his best. The plot and author play with our fears and guesses and – as those familiar with the author will expect – deliver both uproariously funny and uplifting moments with one chapter before just as skilfully delivering gut-wrenching emotional blows to the heart in the next (this is the Great War, after all). I won’t dwell and deliver spoilers as to who de Bernières casts asunder but will say I felt the final one, unrelated to any ‘cast’ member was a little uneccessary and particularly crushing, especially after the soul hitting account of the Folkestone bombings. Though, in hindsight, this too shows the author’s mastery at engaging a reader and rendering you completely spellbound.

The McCosh girls’ visit to a local medium and the scenes that unfold add a welcome touch of the fantastical, hearkening back to the author’s Latin American Trilogy, and well-chosen historical references help set a thoroughly well realised setting in both time and place, home and abroad.

At times the characters could perhaps be considered a little two-dimensional (though I don’t recall too many layers being attributed to Don Emmanuel) but this is the start of a trilogy and I have little doubt that as the whole saga of the McCosh family unfolds in de Bernières’ magnificent style, all will become fully rounded and developed.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a saga that encompasses three families at one of the most dramatic times the World faced. It deals with a vast array of subjects beyond the core of love and death, picking up the politics of class and gender, religion and industrialisation as it goes.

While not quite up there with Birds Without Wings this may well be the start of something amazing as the saga continues and should well be considered a fantastic novel in its own right. I await the next instalment with high expectations.

On a side note; why do we get lumped with such a cack cover image in the UK compared to the more attractive cover design they get in US?

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He’s Back, and he’s Fuhrious

I’ll admit it – I bought this book after seeing the advert at a tube station and laughing at the pun “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious”

Modern day Berlin. A man wakes up on a piece of scrub land in Berlin. He’s in full military uniform. He’s unaware how he got there and has trouble remembering anything of the previous day or two. He’s Adolf Hitler.

The Adolf Hitler.

IMG_4755So – Hitler has, somehow, been removed from the pages of history and deposited back among modern Germans. A world he expected to not exist: he had given orders for it to be burnt to the ground. He believes that he’s here due to the intervention of ‘fate’ and has been enlisted to save Germany, again, from the horror it – according to him -finds itself in.

Mistaken as an impersonator, a very intense one who refuses to break character, he finds himself taken in by a newspaper vendor conveniently located close to a television production company who buy into his act and line him up with a slot on a comedy tv show.

The humour here in Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back is both laugh out loud and extremely dark.

There’s a fantastic section early in where, having been caught in civvies while his uniform is cleaned, Hitler berates a young tv producer who had made a comment about Poland. Chastising him for his slovenly appearance, Hitler launches into a tirade, doubting that the young man even knows where Poland is, demands to know if he’s ever served in the army while doubting so as he clearly does not know where his uniform is. Hitler knows where his uniform is at all times, produces a ticket from his pocket and announces “it is at the dry-cleaners”.

There’s the suggestion that Hitler write a marriage / relationship advice book: “you could call it ‘Mein Kempf – With My Wife'”.

There’s the point that Hitler’s uniform is a little damp and, for some reason, smells of gasoline…

The combination of Hitler of old mixing with the modern world is funny but can run the risk of being a one-joke pony with diminishing results. So Vermes uses the voice of Hitler to take a satirical swipe at present day politics – Putin is admonished for appearing with his shirt off, Merkel mocked, the ideals of Germany’s Green party likened to some of his own and the Hilter of old rocking up on the doorstep of the current National Democratic Party and tearing them apart as pale imposters.

There are, however, two elements that stop this book from being a great one. Both are down to the fact that the character here isn’t fictional. It’s hard to imagine the real Hitler ever acclimatising and adapting to modernity quite as wilfully and quickly as he does – in order to propel it toward it’s function – here. The fact that he takes so easily to computers and smart phones enables all that follows and is necessary as such but isn’t quite plausible. That being said, suspend your element of disbelief and get past it, it’s a comedy after all.

And… therein lies the rub. It is a comedy, never lays claim to be serious. But while the book is clearly a satire and takes swipes at all things modern and politico, it does so from the eyes of one of History’s monster. As a bit of a history buff I’ve spent several years expanding my knowledge of World War 2 – not the dates and the statistics, the human stories. A large part of my bookshelves are given over to it. I’ve read the accounts of those who both witnessed, suffered and lost at the hands of this nasty entity and his followers.  Even if we are continually reminded that “the Jews are no laughing matter.”

There’s a theory that if you expose an audience to only one point of view, one take, one narrative for a certain amount of time, they’ll begin to find little ways to identify with that voice. To do so with Hitler is a very bold move. It works at times but the over-riding element here, especially given the lack of character change and arc (there’s no reason the real Hitler would consider any opinion other than his own so wouldn’t change), is that this is still told through the eyes of a man responsible for some of worst atrocities known to man.

As such Look Who’s Back fails to be completely laugh out loud throughout – it’s hard to laugh with abandonment at his admonishing of modern day Nazis for failing to to live up to the party when you know just what his version of living up to that party would be. But it is a very funny, satirical swipe at both how he rose to power in the first place and could, conceivably, do so again – anyone who’s been sickened by the rise of the petty, small-minded and similarly prejudiced Farage and his friends can see it’s not too much of a stretch after all.

This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and a few moments that make you think.