Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell

4 out of 5 stars

Durrel had been five years in Serbia and really wasn’t sure if he wanted to live in the Mediterranean anymore. He couldn’t afford to live in Athens so the next best thing after that was Cyprus. Decision made he makes his way to Venice to get the boat there. Falling into conversation with a man there, he questions why Durrell wants to go there at all: ‘It is not much of a place’, the man says, ‘Arid and without water. The people drink to excess.’ To Durrell, it sounded perfect.

As they depart, they are shadowed by a grey destroyer for a while before it turns abruptly and fades into the horizon. He opens the book that he had acquired from an overturned bookstall in Trieste, A Lady’s Impression of Cyprus by Mrs Lewis. It offered a splendid picture of the island and confirmed that he had made the right decision.

They docked at a town with a desolate silhouette, and he was overcharged portage to disembark. Passing through the customs check is an early eye-opener as to what the people of this island are going to be like. Most are surprised that he is fluent in Greek and it is in conversation with a man over the glass of the heavy red wine that he is provided with a man who could take him to the village of Kyrenia. One scary journey later and he is ready to spend his first night on the island.

Lodging with a friend, Panos, he can begin to get a measure of the people and culture. It is idyllic sitting on the terrace drinking wine before heading down to the harbour to watch the ‘sunset melt’. It was with this friend that he truly came to understand the meaning of the word ‘kopiaste’, or Cypriot hospitality. It was also the best way to see if he could really afford to buy a small place to live in. It would be.

The process of him buying a house there is one of the most entertaining passages that I have read in a while. He first charms the local rogue, Sabri, in the village into helping him. Between them, they agree on a budget and a few days later he is informed that there is a property that may be suitable in the village Bellapix. They visit on a rare wet day but the property is sound and dry but does require some work. Negotiations begin between Sabri and the feisty owner of the property and they are protracted and heated.

Eventually, it is resolved to all parties satisfaction and the essential renovation works begin. Soon after he moves in his visitors begin to arrive, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Sir Harry lake. They bring wine, laughter and books and conversations that go deep into the night. AS he settles into life on the island other opportunities present themselves, he is first offered a position as a teacher and then the post of Press Advisor to the Colonial secretary is advertised. Much to his surprise, he gets the job.

The timing of this is unfortunate though as this is just as there is growing civil unrest in Cyprus. Students are joining the rebellion and there are small acts of terror from grenades and homemade bombs. The British (as usual) misjudged the situation and made a bad situation much worse.

Lamplight, wine and good conversation sealed in the margins of the day so that one slept at night with a sense of repletion and plenitude, as if one were never more to wake.

This is the first Laurence Durrel book that I have ever read even though I have had a few of them languishing on my shelves at home. I thought that his writing is very evocative as he writes about the people and place of this island. It was good to see the brief appearances from Gerald and his mother, Louisa in the book too. The later part of the book turns more serious as the civil unrest grows, and it loses the warmth that is very much evident in the first part of the book. I did find that he has a traditional perspective with regards to colonialism and dealing with the local population, which I was a little surprised about. It is a book of its time though. All that said, it is a really good read and I can highly recommend it.

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  1. bobblogger2012

    I remember the bit when Gerald visits him and he says something along the lines of ‘my brother came over and brought his usual assortment of beasts with him’ – I read the book 20 years ago so that quote is quite fuzzy. I made me laugh though.

    • Paul

      That part was quite amusing. You could sense the disdain in his voice. My wife has actually met Gerald Durrell, way back in the 1980s

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