Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell is one of those end of Empire books that many British writers attempted in the decades that followed the Second World War. Durrell’s corner of the ever-to-be-sunlit territory was Cyprus, which in the 1950s was embarking on its own bid for independence and boasted its own continuing sunlight. The book has long been acknowledged as a classic of its indefinable kind, that mix of biography, travel, politics and memoir that is obviously literary whilst not apparently aspiring to literature. It is an impressionistic but deeply serious account of the experience of a participant in the brewing trouble and change. And now, almost sixty years after its publication, Bitter Lemons still has much to say about its setting and subject.
Lawrence Durrell went to Cyprus in the 1950s. At the start of the book, it is not obvious that he will soon be an employee of HM Government, a colonial officer charged with making sense of events that were already rapidly running towards violence and insurrection. The author’s arrival and initial activity as a teacher form a light but keenly observed prelude to the book’s later journey. The purchase of a village house in Ballapaix is both comical and empathetic. There is much that is farcical, but throughout the author presents himself as merely another participant. Nowhere does he express anything other than respect and affection for the local foibles and nowhere does he appear to place himself either detached from or in control of events. Equally, the school in which Lawrence Durrell works displays much that is caricature, but the scenarios are never anything less than completely credible. His interpretation of teenage girls’ curiosity about their foreign teacher as attraction may display just a touch of vanity, but throughout the narrative convinces the reader of its participation in events, rather than its invention of them.
Bitter Lemons is replete with the keen observations and arresting reflections of an interested traveller. Here is someone who immerses himself in local life and culture. He does not come to study this society as a detached observer, an anthropologist, self-defined, pointed towards a self-directed purpose. Neither does he come to impose his own values, assumptions or will on communities whose social interaction and culture clearly do not conform to his own values. Lawrence Durrell seems to rejoice in the differences he records and he usually stops short of judgment when confronted with experiences that contradict his expectations. And he speaks Greek.
But Bitter Lemons is also a political book. It attempts no analysis and so always stays on the journalistic, even impressionistic side of events. There is a movement to break colonial ties, to end colonial rule. ENOSIS is a concept that embodies Cypriot union with Greece. EOKA is a military campaign, a terrorist action in current terminology, designed to fight the British. And sure enough, there is Durrell, already on the island, already accepted in his community, already a Greek speaker, a ready-made listening post for local gossip, and an intelligent gatherer of intelligence. Thus he is adopted by the colonial authorities and paid for his services.
Lawrence Durrell never really tells us the nature or extent of his duties. The activities he describes within the covers of Bitter Lemons suggest that his presence was low key, perhaps inconsequential, rendering him little more than another observer, even at his most active. But surely reality was tougher than he describes and there must be at least one more book in here that might relate what he actually did.
Well before the end, the eventual direction of events seems assured. There will be struggle, death, injury, treachery and finally accommodation, however ephemeral. But the real joy of Bitter Lemons is Durrell’s ability to communicate the seriousness of the conflict and aspiration through a prism of continued affection and association. There is a story of a young man who postpones his joining of the armed struggle for independence from the British because he has won a university place in England. There is also the committed anti-cleric who observes that opposition is expressed through affection. And thus, via a light, impressionistic touch, Lawrence Durrell creates a text that delves surprisingly deep into a complex but enduring relationship between nations, cultures and interests.