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November 30, 2007

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell – review

Book front cover
Title:
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
Author:
Lawrence Durrell
ISBN:
0571201555
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
A beautiful and peaceful island lyrically described by a great travel writer. The influence of an ancient civilization unveiled. Character-rich islanders. Poets, intellectuals. And then chaos and violence. I argue that Durrell’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of nationalism, European and global politics, and the stupidy of the British colonial power.

What is travel writing? Consider a book in which the narrative and characters pivot around a single tree, rooted to the centre of a lonely cliff-top village on an island almost forgotten to the world. The tree is more than a totem or a metaphor: rather it is a geocosmic force around which the entire Earth rotates. Younger villagers feel it’s centrifugal effects, spinning them out to sea to be caught up in strong currents and carried off to other lands. The old have learnt to get close to the centre of the force, where all is stillness, willingly embracing the inertia beneath its shady branches. The most successful in the art of doing very little have enjoyed its peace for so long that their olive-coloured wrinkled skins are indistinguishable from its roots and its branches. It is then the ‘Tree of Idleness’ around which the book pivots.

And what of the book’s author? He’s pretty adept at this kind of life – island life. He has a reputation as an island poet. Corfu was his family home, along with other animals. Cyprus seems to be a familiar habitat. But his great achievement is this: he gets close enough to the pull of the Tree of Idleness so as to know it like a native, he speaks it’s Greek, he adopts its Byzantine mannerisms and customs; and yet he can pull away when necessary, both physically (making small but intense journeys around the island) and intellectually (seeing the tides of history, politics and empire washing around its mangrove roots). And that then qualifies this not only as travel writing, but genuinely great travel writing – which is never measured in terms of miles traveled on the map. Travel writing as an intensive journey through differences, in time.

What mode of transport is used? If this is travel writing, there must be a vehicle. In fact there are many, small and large, all bobbing around the shallows of the Eastern Mediterranean with varying degrees of shipwrecked helplessness. 571 miles from Athens. 470 miles from Istanbul. 151 miles from Beirut. But amongst this loosely assembled convoy of fates and desires, the principle traveller is the island of Cyprus itself. In the three years covered by the narrative, Cyprus travels a remarkable route. It had already circulated, or been passed back and forth between great powers, East and West, many times. In 2800BC Aphrodite was worshipped. In 550BC it almost floated down the Nile like a papyrus barge. 285BC took it off to Macedon. The birth of Christ was a pull towards Palestine, or rather the beginnings of its conversion into the crusader army’s battle cruiser, sitting menacingly off the Levantine coast. With the great schizm it raised the flag (and murals) of Byzantium not Rome, only to be captured by the Ottomans in 1571. But surely none of that compares to the glory of her Majesty’s Royal Navy? It served her with great devotion, love even, from 1878. And then in 1955, half way through the book, the mutiny began.

The author quickly realised that the historical key to unlocking the culture of Cyprus, as it was before the all-perverting influence of nationalism, was not that of the Ancient Greeks, or even that of Ottoman Islam. Rather, it was a kind of Byzantium. There’s a suggestion that the relative peace within which Greek and Turkish inhabitants cohabited belonged to that of a more ancient civilization, with patterns of daily life more compatible with the landscape and the climate. Each colonizing wave had been assimilated to the island, never conquering it beyond the surface. There were of course differences still, national characteristics, described with a delicious style. A Turkish businessman moves like honey off a spoon – imperceptibly, effortlessly, but still nevertheless purposefully. Durrell’s prose is often, very often, brilliant – way beyond any other travel writer that I know. It is a style that emphasises character without resorting to stereotype, with both efficiency and visual extravagance. Being also an accomplished poet he has techniques and literary tools that other writers never even know of. Principle amongst them is the depth of his knowledge of plants, animals and geography, and the way in which they provide texture and life to the text – rocks, flowers, animals, landscapes, people (their characters observed like an array of species) all permeate his writing, giving its form and its dynamic; the importance of natural history to his prose adds irony to his occasional dig at his zoological brother Gerald (who appears in the book to yet again turn a Durrell house into a menagerie). And it is precisely the observational power afforded by those textual skills that led Durrell to grasp, so well, the forces and movements happening around him: an ancient and unique island ecology battered by storms and turbulent currents from elsewhere.

It would have been easy to write a very different, more stereotypical book. As he discovered when working as a school teacher in Nicosia, the young Greeks were already writing that book. And in that act of national story telling was seeded an invasive weed which would eventually strangle the Tree of Idleness: the Cyprus tragedy. That other story was written under the drugged influence of Lord Byron, hero of Greek nationalism. Durrell tells of young students in his class reciting (badly) tales of Byron, with tears in their eyes. Byron the liberator, Byron the unifier. Throughout Durrell’s story, a paradoxical attitude amongst the Greek Cypriots is observed: they love and respect their British masters, and at the same time they want them off the island. Britain, personified by Byron (who helped to raise a navy to depose the Ottomans), signifies freedom, national unity, racial integrity, and most of all modernity. Greek nationalism, craving ‘enosis’ (unity), was jealous of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. No longer wanting to be treated as children of the Empire, ready to stand alone. In return, the colonial masters behaved with the usual incompetence and misunderstanding, imagining the Cypriots to be an eternally childish people, perhaps even noble island savages. Anthony Eden had more global and devious intentions (Cyprus being not far from Suez, Palestine, Syria), and in secret tensions between Turkey and Greece were being deliberately inflamed. But the colonial administration made a more basic error. Cyprus was part of a Europe that had changed, matured even. But the administration simply could not see that truth. It was no longer an island of farmers, but rather a homeland to a highly mobile international workforce, dispersed across Europe and America. The island that they thought they were governing, the island of the Tree of Idleness, was disappearing fast. And as Durrell smartly observes, by simply ignoring the issue for so long, an extremist result only became more likely – after all, there’s plenty of time to sit around under the tree, or in the café, continually exaggerating the nationalist story; the Cypriots being great story tellers.

Bitter Lemons is a most extraordinary book. As the work of a lyrical travel writer, we first see beauty. And then horror, as the revolt starts to grow. By 1956, when Durrell finally abandoned the island, murder and destruction was everywhere. A true tragedy. But one documented incrementally by a master of lyrical difference, of the slow and imperceptible transformation of things. As a record of normality slipping uncontrollably into chaos, and the failure of politics and administration to even perceive its fate, it is a vital story, a text book even, the crisis being in many ways a precursor to Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Palestine. Sadly it seems that it’s lesson has been largely ignored by the politicians who might just have made a difference to those terrible developments. Being optimistic, one could imagine that an ‘enosis’ is now inevitable. Not union with Greece, but rather the union of the whole of Cyprus with the new Europe, the early undercurrent of whose formation was in reality the force that stirred the crisis of ’55. But undoubtedly the politicians will still rabble-rouse and play off minorities so as to get their snouts closer to the trough.