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READ THE SECTIONS ABOUT VILLAGE LIFE AND SKIP THE SECTIONS ON POLITICAL CONFLICT.
on 22 February 2016
This books deals with Durrell's life in Cyprus before and during the struggle which lead to independence for Cyprus (and ultimately to partition).
In a sense, it's actually two distinct books - the longer one deals with life before the conflict, and is a little like "South from Granada", though very much its inferior, in the sense that it describes the local peasants and their communal life in patronising but still genuinely affectionate terms. This section includes "prose-poems" where Durrell describes sunrises or landscapes. I enjoyed these to begin with but towards the end of the book I started to skip them.
The other book is an inside account of the ham-fisted response the Brits in Cyprus made to growing demands from Greek Cypriots for union with Greece. (An "inside account" as Durrell joins the British diplomatic service in Cyprus part way through the book). Throughout this second section Durrell assumes that "we" are the Brits, that Cyprus is "ours", and naturally enough from this starting point, "we" want to hang onto "our" possession for as long as possible. You can't accuse Durrell of sitting on the fence - "...of course, our moral and legal title to the island was unassailable..." he says on page 182 of my version, and elsewhere he does nothing to question the morality - or advisability - of the authorities hanging a convicted terrorist. "He has killed. He must die." he tells a neighbour on the day of the execution. He tells us that the authorities dealt "crisply" with a riot, whatever that means, without saying if it involved the use of the pick-axe handles he noticed in some army trucks. Durrell whines that the Brits were fair-minded and incorruptible, without asking himself how he might feel if his country was ruled from overseas, no matter how fair-minded and incorruptible the overseas rulers were.
In this section he calls his fellow-Brits "colonialist", but it's hard to see Durrell himself as anything else. He complained about the lack of infrastructure available to him as a civil servant - not seeming to consider that such infrastructure would have given career paths to educated Cypriots. As far as Durrell was concerned, the role of the Cypriots was to be loveable peasants, and they should stay that way.
Durrell himself comes across as quite a repellent individual. His whole life seems to revolve around alcohol, and if he did not have a drink problem while in Cyprus he must surely have been well on the road to one later. He lied to the villagers, telling them that his brother had died fighting for Greece. (He does not record what they thought when his brother turned up alive and kicking). He cheated a peasant woman for the fair price of her house as he knew that piped water would soon be coming to the village, and she did not. (None of us like to pay too much for a house, but he was an educated privileged citizen of a wealthy country while poverty had run in her family for generations. His lack of funds arose because he did not want to work, and at least he is refreshingly frank about this wish). He was a terrible snob about many of his fellow-Brits with their Morris 1000 cars and suburban architecture.
His daughter was with Durrell throughout this time according to Wiki, but he mentions her only very briefly, so if you're hoping to gain insights into their much-debated relationship you won't find much to go on here. The impression given is that perhaps she paid a visit rather than being with him from the outset.
Durrell does not seem to understand that peasants down the ages have manipulated their betters by telling them what they want to hear and presenting themselves as loveable fools. It never dawns on him that they might be his equal in intelligence, and outwit him. He lied to them - but the possibility that they lied to him when they said how much they loved the Brits does not even occur to him.
For all it's flaws, though, the book provides a record of a Cyprus now long gone - one where villagers of Greek and Turkish heritages lived side by side, and a condescending English drunkard lived among them and was tolerated, probably without even realising how much tolerance was exercised by the villagers he looked down on. Read these sections and not the more political parts, and it will be an enjoyable read. But read "South from Granada" first.