Book review: Whimsy and absurdness at play in Louis de Bernieres' Labels And Other Stories

   Whether his stories are set in the streets of Brazil or among rural Turkish ruins, Louis de Bernieres shows off his keen eye for detail with trademark whimsy.
Whether his stories are set in the streets of Brazil or among rural Turkish ruins, Louis de Bernieres shows off his keen eye for detail with trademark whimsy.PHOTO: HARVILL SECKER

Review Fiction

LABELS AND OTHER STORIES

By Louis de Bernieres

Random House/Paperback/200 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars


Labels And Other Stories is a slim collection of 14 tales. But brief though it may be, this second volume of short stories by British writer Louis de Bernieres takes readers on some fantastical journeys - both physical and emotional.

Whether his stories are set in the streets of Brazil or among rural Turkish ruins, de Bernieres - who once declared he has never written about a place he has not been to - shows off his keen eye for detail with trademark whimsy.

For example: "The dawning sun washes its first pastel shades on to the horizon behind Lisieux, making the sky look like a bathroom whose decor has been chosen by an elderly woman of excellent repute."

Besides his ability to set a scene, the prolific author also creates wonderfully flawed characters, who hold up a mirror to our own failings but are written about in such comedic fashion that one's first instinct is to laugh out loud.

The jaunty undercurrent is a welcome change from his novels. The acclaimed Captain Corelli's Mandolin and last year's So Much Life Left Over, for example, take on heavier themes like war and political upheaval, and often veer into sentimentality.

One story in the collection goes down this path, but Gunter Weber's Confession serves more of an epilogue for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, where we return to the Greek island on which the 1994 book was set.

Many of the stories have a sense of the absurd. In the titular Labels, a bailiff is mired in debt after inexplicably buying tins and tins of cat food for their labels over the years. He loses his job, then his wife and finds himself destitute.

Driven to the brink of desperation, he turns to his collection for sustenance and realises that "a touch of garlic, a few herbs" are all it takes to transform food for felines into a very respectable terrine. He sells them to upmarket restaurants and stores and the success of the operation restores his dignity, wealth and marriage.

It is a happy ending, but also slightly disturbing.

Some stories, written 20 to 30 years ago, have not aged well. (Frustratingly, not all of them are dated.)

Stupid Gringo, set in Bogota and written in 1997, plays on the stereotypes of thieving, crafty Colombians. While the protagonist's fears are proven wrong, it seems unnecessary to belabour the point about unfounded biases in 2019 - the conversation should be taken forward.

But there are more gems than duds.

De Bernieres crafts whimsical stories each less than 15 pages long, but the characters in them are all larger than life. While the tales border on the fantastical, the people who populate them are recognisable.

Our prejudices, our obsessions, our desire to be free - these are part of the human condition. His stories make these flaws palatable and leave us food for thought.

If you liked this, read: Skin And Other Stories by Roald Dahl (Puffin, 2001, $13.95, Books Kinokuniya). The author, famed for his children's fantasy books, shows a deft hand in exploring the darker undercurrents of life.