Louis de Bernières discusses that journey that led him to writing his latest work, The Dust That Falls from Dreams, an epic story of love and war, and of England in the first half of the twentieth century.
One day our family had a big shock. A solicitor informed us that my grandfather had died at the age of ninety-six, in Canada. My father was dumbstruck, because his father had entirely disappeared decades before, and we had all assumed that he must be long dead. My father had been very bitter about his father’s apparent desertion of his mother, and did not really know how to feel.
Not long afterwards I had to go to Toronto, and I questioned my aunt as to where my grandfather might have been. This was a bad idea, because although she was very sweet, she was somewhat vague and not very bright, and she confirmed that her father had been in Toronto.
He hadn’t, of course, and after much futile research it transpired that he had been living in a tiny green hut in the Cascade Mountains, in the Canadian Rockies. My girlfriend and I went to BC to find his friends, visit his grave, and hear his side of the story, and it was this that gave me the whole idea for The Dust That Falls From Dreams.
My grandfather had been an ardent motorcyclist and was even friends with the Nanaimo chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Possibly their mad antics were like those of his old comrades in the Royal Flying Corps. My most memorable visit was to see a man called Dave Bermingham. This gentleman and my grandfather had constructed a very large white submarine, with the intention of finding the Okanaga Lake Monster. Dave said to me ‘I’m going to find that monster if I have to put it there myself!’
My grandfather had been a very good engineer, and the submarine actually did work very well, but once they had got it into the lake, it transpired that the visibility was nil, and they might as well have been exploring a giant bowl of oxtail soup. Dave decided to give us supper, and fetched a huge turkey from the freezer. He then removed the crown with a chainsaw. When we left he gave me enormous bush hat, for riding in the wilderness.
I gathered from my grandfather’s friends that he had been in Ceylon, in Africa, and in Germany between the wars. Apparently he had lived with a Jewish family that one day disappeared whilst he was at work, and then a Gestapo officer turned up and told him that he could either be locked up, help them with the Luftwaffe, or get on his motorcycle and go home, so he went straight home and joined the RAF. He once advised a young friend not to join the armed forces unless there was a war on, because peacetime service is ‘a bit of a dry run’. When he arrived in Canada in the early nineteen fifties, and drove from New York to Vancouver on his Brough Superior, he was dressed in his flying gear, and still impossibly handsome. He looked thirty years younger than he was. In Penticton he set up a business called ‘Motorcycle World’, and next to it was a sweetshop manned by a young woman called Joan, who was to become his devoted friend for the rest of her life. She is very frail now, but still talks about him. In retirement he became night watchman at a quarry owned by the Similkameen Indians, near a river which, in season, is heaving, and rich red from the mass migration of salmon. In extreme old age he lost his sense of smell, and would eat rotten things from his fridge because he had no idea that it wasn’t working, and his deafness increased his isolation. He would converse by means of scribbled notes.
It seemed to me that the framework of my grandfather’s life could take in most of the twentieth century, a project I intend to complete in three volumes. However, I am a novelist, and was not intending to write a family history, so my deal with myself was that I should be completely at liberty to tell as many lies as I liked. It is a hideous fate to get trapped by the facts, when what you are after is virtual or metaphorical or poetic truth.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams ends in Ceylon, which is where the next book begins, so the next part of the journey is to return to Sri Lanka to soak up the atmosphere up in the hills where the tea plantations are. I shall collect stories there, because the truth is that reality is far more fanciful than anything you can invent, and I am as much a thief of stories as an inventor of them.
The Dust The Falls From Dreams, Louis de Bernières (Harvill Secker) is out now.