[ilds] The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Denise Tart & David Green dtart at bigpond.net.au
Sat Apr 9 18:51:18 PDT 2016


'Bitter Lemons' won the Duff Cooper prize in 1957 not because Lord Balfour would have approved or because it 'whitewashed' British complicity and folly in the Cyprus crisis, but because it is a fine book and, along with Justine, one of Durrell's best. It is clear, concise, poetic and energetically written with a well selected cast of characters who allow the author to tell the unfolding tragedy from a range of perspectives (Greek, Turkish, British) with wit, humour, wisdom, pathos and a sense of inevitable impending doom; all this through an excellent story arc that moves effortlessly from comedy to tragedy. As such it not a 'political book' in the sense of being an in depth critique of British policy. However, we are left in no doubt of the party line Durrell had to spruik, often reluctantly. The British community is portrayed as inept, boorish and insensitive to local feelings and culture. He shows that the British decision to close the door on Enosis was a mistake and that the Cyprus situation could not be kept as a colonial matter. Although not a fan of Greek administration he is sympathetic to their cause, but also represents the Turkish view and well as that of the administration.

I have read Bitter Lemons several times and, given the balance of perspectives that Durrell weaves through his narrative, find it disingenuous to accuse Durrell of 'whitewashing' the British handling of the crisis. To suggest this is to suggest a different book to one I read. Durrell builds his story from the hint of menace in 'Voices at the Tavern Door' to a 'Feast of Unreason' and then 'Vanishing Landmarks'. He is as critical of British blindness and insensitivity as he is of the nationalistic rhetoric pouring out of politicians in Athens and Ankara, inflaming the local situation. The chapter 'Point of No Return' explores a range of perspectives here. In his role as school teacher, civil servant and inhabitant who could speak Greek and understood Greek culture and history, he was well placed to see all sides and this comes through. Durrell's pain, internal conflict and sadness are palpable; a Greek world that he loved and in which he hoped to live falling apart as he 'achieves nothing'.

It maybe he is too sentimental about the so called historic friendship between Britain and Greece dating back to Byron's time, but we should remember that Durrell had the best of his youth in Greece and if we are in any doubt as to his views of the British administration, I shall leave you with the words of his friend Richard Lumley:

"And I can see him now (Durrell) sitting in the hall, fairly pissed one evening, and the telephone goes and a long, increasingly angry conversation. And this is one of the top in the administration. And Larry's punchline I'll never forget - 'anyway, you're an inept cunt!' Howls of laughter and he puts the receiver down."

Needless to say, Durrell's days in the diplomatic corps were numbered. 

David

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