I’ve been meaning to read Louis de Bernières’s Corelli’s Mandolin (or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, if you’re in the UK) for literally years, but it wasn’t until a used copy found its way onto my bookshelf last month that I finally gave it a try. I’ve seen it on several top book lists (including 1001BYMRBYD), so I knew I’d enjoy it—and I did.
In a (very limiting) nutshell, CM centers around Pelagia and her father, Doctor Iannis, who live on the Greek isle of Cephallonia during the Second World War. As their idyllic village is occupied first by Italian soldiers, then Nazis, then their own Greek countrymen as Communist militia, it becomes doubtful whether the peaceful residents of Cephallonia will ever recover from the horrific travesties of war.
My first impression of de Bernières’s writing was its uncanny resemblance to that of Gabriel García Márquez: its sweeping expanse; its all-encompassing narrative; its casual approach to miracles, saints, and other supernatural occurences. CM is written in 73 sections, ranging from omniscient narrative and monologues to letters and propoganda. The first section of the novel—the Greek partying and festivals, the megalomania of Mussolini and his compatriots, the young romance between Pelagia and the fisherman Mandras—seemed fragmented and shallow to me: enjoyable enough to read, but never emotionally reaching below the surface. It wasn’t until Carlos, the giant Italian soldier who harbors a deep and forbidden love for his fellow soldier, began his story that I felt truly compelled to dive deeper into the book. Luckily, the rest of the novel never disappointed.
Once he dove right into my heartstrings, de Bernières never surfaced. The atrocities of the war were described in full detail, pinpointing again and again the tragedy of young men performing horrible acts for a government they didn’t understand. The Greek villagers’ bewilderment at the presence of the Italian Acqui Division, begrudging yet gradual acceptance for the relatively peaceful occupation, then ravagement and utter horror when the Nazis took over was shared at every turn by me as the reader. A self-proclaimed history buff, I had never heard of the Cephallonia massacre, when, after the Italian armistice, German troops slaughtered 5000 Italian soliders from the Acqui Division for refusing to turn against the Greeks with whom they had lived among peacefully for the past two years.
At the heart of the war is Pelagia and Captain Corelli, a fun-loving musician who, despite earning the trust and respect of his men, would prefer to sing operas and play with children than fight in a war. This sounds trite, I’m aware, but the blossoming (and reluctant, and forbidden, and dangerous) love between these two is such a touching outcome of this wartorn backdrop. At once hesitant, scornful, and tender, Pelagia, her father, and Corelli precariously coexist in one house for the duration of the Italian occupation, and only realize the significance of that time in each of their lives when it is too late.
I won’t spoil anything, but the ending was almost the hardest part for me to read. Skipping through several decades in relatively few pages, I felt torn out of my element, having invested so much emotion (and tears?) into the early 1940s stories of Pelagia, Corelli, Mandra, Dr. Iannis, Carlo, and so many others. Still a strong finish, though—and a strong recommendation for admirers of history, romance, and strange small miracles.