Saturday, February 17, 2024

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Moments ago, I placed aside a book which left a lasting impression on my mind when I read it for the first time a few years back. I speak of Lawrence Durrell's book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.  

Written in 1957, the book relates Durrell's experience in Cyprus during the years 1953-56; a transition period between a soft, relatively untroubled Cyprus (if that is not a historical misnomer) and an island of great political upheaval and social unrest. Durrell captures the flavour of living in Cyprus with the detailed eye of a poet and artist. His story is truely bitter-sweet; revealing the hidden delights of Cyprus and its charming people, whilst also unpeeling the deep-seated angst of a trouble nation. It is a story that not only draws you in; it engulfs you until you share in the emotional turmoil. As a result, the final chapter will cause pain for the sensitive reader; and so it should. There are lessons for us all to learn from this chapter of history, and from the depth of human relations it portrays.

The book also reminded me of a personal pilgrimage I undertook a few years ago...

The island is still divided between a Greek southern Cyprus and a Turkish-controlled northern area, with a United Nations buffer zone in between. It is possible to visit both sides, albeit with various passport formalities. However, it is difficult to reproduce Durrell's enigmatic car journey from his village of Bellapaix, near Kyrenia, to Paphos, along the coastal road via Pano Pyrgos and Polis. Nonetheless, from the village I consider as my home in Cyprus - the hillside village of Pissouri - it is, possible to undertake a significant portion of the journey in reverse; a journey I once undertook, driving to Paphos and onward to Polis, with a detour to see Aphrodite's Bath, before continuing on along the north coast road to the border village of Pano Pyrgos.

The route is a beautiful one, taking in breath-taking views of coastal panoramas, set against the steep wooded rocks of the Troodos Mountains. That said, it is not for the faint-hearted, as most of the villages at this time of year (February/March) are devoid of activity, with nowhere for refreshment or refuelling. On top of which, there is the constant reminder of being close to a troubled border, with guard posts, small army camps, and abandoned damaged buildings scattered around the hills and valleys. Neither is there a quick way down. Having commenced the journey, one is left with a choice of driving back the same tortuous route, or traversing an even more tortuous route across the Troodos. (Drivers take note - a car with an automatic gearbox is a must. Mine was a manual gearbox and my left leg was very glad when the journey was over!)

For all that, the long and arduous journey was worth every mile of effort. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to tackle the last portion of the journey to Bellapaix on that occasion. However, it was a priority for a later trip, when I took delight in exploring the much-exulted ruins of Bellapaix Abbey, as well as paying a visit to the house where Lawrence Durrell lived during the aforementioned years. 

Although some might consider such a pilgrimage a slightly foolish undertaking, there is no doubt in my own mind that experiencing at first hand some of the scenes described by Durrell in Bitter Lemons of Cyprus greatly assists one with understanding and reflection. Nonetheless, whether you undertake the actual journey, or simply have an interest in Cyprus and its history, I wholeheartedly recommend Durrell's book to you. I defy you not to take something personal from it.


Andy K said...

An interesting account, nicely written and short enough to be enjoyable to read in a few moments.

Andy K said...

An interesting account and summary of something personal to the reviewer and brief enough to read enjoyably, in a short span of time.

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