(previously a post on 19/10/2010 … as people keep finding it it’s upgraded to a “page”)
I’ve been a fan of Louis de Bernieres since his first book, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. I bought it new in hardback, and bought every book since. I bought Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on the day of publication, and foolishly failed to sell it when copies of the first edition were selling for £400. That figure plummeted when the film came out (and wasn’t very good).
So it’s with sadness that I say one short story in the latest short story collection, Notwithstanding, is unworthy of him. The story Colonel Barkwell, Troodos and the Fish is simply an ancient joke, elaborately written up. The story is well-known. There’s a dinner party. They’re going to serve fish (or chicken). The cat eats some. They quickly cover up the bite marks. They serve the guests. They go back in the kitchen and find the cat lying there dead. Everyone rushes to hospital and has their stomachs pumped. They return to find a note, ‘Sorry, I killed / ran over your cat …’ Let’s not even consider whether a hospital would think a stomach-pump effective for rapidly-multiplying salmonella bacteria, though de Bernieres does get around that question by making the Colonel in the story so obnoxious while insisting on a stomach-pump, that the doctor decides to let him have it.
The Sick Cat: Illustration by Paul Sample from Connections in Reading A
I wrote a version of this story myself back in 1986, as The Sick Cat in Connections in Reading A. In my feline-friendly version, it’s chicken rather than fish, and the cat survives too. And I had an illustration from that great illustrator Paul Sample (above). I don’t accuse de Bernieres of plagiarism (though I believe he was an ELT teacher). I had heard the story when Tony Blackburn told it on the radio, and adapted it. It’s in several joke books. Richmal Crompton used similar in a Williamstory in the 1930s. De Bernieres wrapped the old joke elaborately and did it far better than me, but please! For a major novelist this is shameful.
I would add that the excellent story The Happy Death of the General in the same Notwithstanding collection first appeared in a newspaper magazine in 2001. It’s customary to announce the earlier publication in the front matter. De Bernieres put all the previously published references in the back, hidden in a long Afterword. You don’t see them until you’ve finished, because who reads the last two pages of a new book first?
This reminds me of A Funny Thing Happened To Me, a story I wrote with Bernie Hartley in 1980 for Streamline Destinations. Five years later Jeffrey Archer used the same story in A Quiver Full of Arrows. Someone then wrote and accused us of lifting it, and we were appalled. Not so much at the idea of having lifted it, but from the idea of lifting it from Jeffrey Archer. In fact we all took the basic story from Woody Allen. Bernie and I changed Woody Allen’s ‘s mistakenly purloined cigarettes on a train to mistakenly purloined biscuits in a station café. Archer didn’t take as much trouble and wrote it just as Woody had told it.