Extravagant, inventive, emotionally sweeping, Corelli's Mandolin is the story of a timeless place that one day wakes up to find itself in the jaws of history. The place is the Greek island of Cephalonia, where gods once dabbled in the affairs of men and the local saint periodically rises from his sarcophagus to cure the mad. Then the tide of World War II rolls onto the island's shores in the form of the conquering Italian army. Caught in the occupation are Pelagia, a willful, beautiful young woman, and the two suitors vying for her love: Mandras, a gentle fisherman turned ruthless guerrilla, and the charming, mandolin-playing Captain Corelli, a reluctant officer of the Italian garrison on the island.
The center of de Bernières’ story involves Pelagia, a young Greek woman, and Antonio Corelli, a captain in the Italian Army, who fall in love during the early stages of World War II. Under Mussolini’s orders, the Italian militia has come to occupy much of Greece, including Pelagia’s island home of Cephallonia. This puts the Italians in direct conflict with the Nazi occupying force, but also places Corelli into the home where Pelagia lives with her father, Dr. Iannis, the island’s physician and unofficial historian. Despite the deprivation going on around them—and the fact that she is already betrothed to Mandras, a local fisherman—the affection between Pelagia and Corelli deepens during the relatively idyllic days before reality sets in. Indeed, it is when the war comes in full force to their small corner of the world that these two find out just how star-crossed their love actually is.
I enjoyed reading Corelli’s Mandolin quite a bit and learned a lot of specific history that I had not known before. That said, though, the novel really felt like three distinct works fused together: an initial part involving life on Cephallonia before and shortly after the invasion, which was singularly charming and consumed most of the book; a brief middle part involving the brutality and inhumanity of the war; and another short final segment spanning the island’s post-war period over the subsequent 40 years. Only the first two of these sections worked for me; in fact, the last part felt far too rushed and the way in which the author chose to end the novel was both implausible and a little disappointing. Nevertheless, this is a novel that can be savored on a number of levels and it is one that I have no hesitance in recommending.
“I am not a cynic, but I do know that history is the propaganda of the victors.” (Ch 6)
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a vast, sprawling narrative, the main thread of which focuses on Pelagia and her father Dr Iannis, who live on the beautiful Greek island of Cephallonia. Against the backdrop of WWII and the Italian and German occupation of Cephallonia, Pelagia and Captain Corelli, an Italian officer who is a gifted musician, fall deeply in love. Various narrators include an omniscient voice, secret letters, the historical writings of Iannis, and the imagined megalomaniacal ravings of Mussolini. Many of the images of war are graphic; de Bernières himself described this as a novel about "what happens to the little people when megalomaniacs get busy."
In beautiful, poetic prose, de Bernières delivers memorable characters, including Palagia’s goat and her “cat.” Themes include the many forms of love, music, study and literacy, the devastation of war. This is a novel rich in historical description. Truthfully, I found the breadth and depth of it almost too ambitious for a single novel and occasionally found myself losing track in the sheer sprawl of it. (By the mid 1960s, I was beginning to wonder if de Bernières was planning on a history of the world, or whether the conclusion was in sight). And I found the ending, in terms of Palagia and Corelli, stretched believability to the point of convenience.
I read this now because it is in [1001 Books] and because I was curious. While I loved the writing, this one is guardedly recommended for the reasons expressed above. Michael Maloney, on the other hand, is highly, highly recommended. Extraordinary narrator!
Things I loved about this book:
- The drama of intertwined lives and how the consequences of one's choices cascade across other people and future generations.
- The theme of history rooted in place--the way a sense of place informs the lives of those who live in it and links them to their collective past. The residents of Cephallonia (Kephalonia) draw a strong sense of identity from their ties to fabled Ithaca, Odysseus, and the ancient gods of Greece.
- The idea of roots growing together.
- The character of Corelli.
- The narrative scope and depth. The penetration of character. The breadth of characters. The journeys of the imagination into inner lives, including those of known historic figures such as Mussolini.
- The depiction of characters coping with loss, injustice, and simple dumb error, as everyone must who lives in the world.
- Using virtually unintelligible old English in dialogue to convey the effect of an educated officer trying to communicate with the inhabitants by speaking ancient Greek.
- The Anvil Chorus in the latrine.
I was bothered by a few little things--little, but perhaps not trivial--including a surprising misquotation of the famous Schubert Lied, "Gretchen am Spinnrade." And the present translation, alas, failed the biceps test on page 17. But rather than enumerating the lapses I wish someone had caught, which I tend to do only with books that tip my balance scale too far toward the don't-like side, I'll share a few of my favorite quotes:
• [Concerning a young woman named Lulu, daughter of Metaxas, whose family concerns are on a par with matters of state] God knows, one is only young once, but in her case it was once too often. (page 26)
• Moreover, the captain was possessed of a deep curiosity, so that he could sit with unnerving patience watching Pelagia's hands doing the formal dance of the crochet, until it seemed to her that his eyes were radiating some strange and potent force that would give her fingers the cramps and cause her to lose a stitch. 'I'm wondering,' he said one day, 'what a piece of music would be like if it sounded the way your fingers look.' She was deeply puzzled by this apparently nonsensical remark, and when he said that he did not like a certain tune because it was a particularly vile shade of puce, she surmised either that he had an extra sense or that the wires of his brain were connected amiss. The idea that he was slightly mad left her feeling protective towards him, and it was this that probably eroded her scruples of principle. The unfortunate truth was that, Italian invader or not, he made life more various, rich and strange. (page 207; I recognize this as a description of synesthesia)
• [Dr Iannis, speaking of Italian invaders] One can only forgive a sin after the sinner has finished committing it, because we cannot allow ourselves to condone it whilst it is still being perpetrated. (page 281)
• 'Very well,' said Weber, and he closed his eyes and prayed. It was a prayer that had no words, addressed to an apathetic God. (page 324)
• There was always the sea, the source of Cephallonia's being, but also the source of all its turbid past and the strategic significance which was now a curious memory, the same sea that in future times would cause new invasions of Italians and Germans who would be roasting on the sands together and leaving films of moisturizing oil upon the water, tourists puzzled by the empty and surmising gaze of elderly Greeks in black who passed without acknowledgment or a word. (page 343)
This was a beautiful read, costing a little bit of effort, perhaps, but worth it.
I read it first in April 2001, and then recommended it to one of my book clubs and re-read it in Oct 2001.
BTW - The movie was absolutely horrible. Forget the movie! READ the book!
How can I put it? The whole thing seemed to me as if it had been carved out of a turnip with a blunt spoon... The characters were sketchy charicatures, not a cliché missing, even the d*mn island was flat. The historic war parts were interesting, but we could have got as much on internet in about 20 minutes.
I found the artificially hobbled, cobbled English a real strain. While on a remote tramp once I developed bad toothache and for hours suffered jarring pain each time my foot struck the ground. That's how I felt while reading this.
The book as a whole was lopsided in the extreme. I suspect the "mud & blood in Albania" part at the beginning was some old stuff found at the back of a drawer and hastily recycled.
On the contrary - and as other people have said - I found the end seemed to have been dashed off just anyhow and almost as if the writer was flicking a gob of, well, mud in the reader's eye for having struggled so far. It's not so much that the end was not romantic (real life is often lame, flat and exasperatingly unromantic), rather that the almost boorish attitude of the main character could have the effect of whipping backwards and erasing the whole story, for who wants to admit that they could build their life around such an unfeeling person?
The book has some interesting things to say about life in a Greek village - idyllic - and the horrors of war - horrific - but the prose was a touch overdone for me. De Bernieres reminds me of what I dislike about Dickens. All that hyperbole can't be good for one.
Also, he cheats. In the end, (spoiler alert) the explanation for Corelli's long term absence is not convincing. What? He'd love a woman less if she'd been raped? And no-one told him about the fact that the baby had been dumped on the doorstep? Come on!
I particularly enjoyed the amount of time that passes during the narrative. Don't quite know why but I've always liked that kind of thing. That jump cut in 2001 gets me right here every time.
A truly remarkable book. It makes the war a bit less cruel. It has humor, romance and grief. A must read.
I learnt so much about the war in Greece from this wonderful novel, and the characters were so intense and so real that the whole story just came alive for me. This book is many things: a history, a love story, an expose on Nazi Germany, a tale of Mediterranean life, a story about the barbarity of war and how it changes people. And unlike some books where the focus is so much on the romance that one becomes impatient weaving through subplots, I found that I loved reading about every minor character as much as I loved Antonio and Pelagia. Every word of this book seemed lovingly and honestly crafted; every character was like a friend you'd never tire of seeing. For those who struggled through the first quarter of the book like I did, persevere - you won't be disappointed. Louis de Bernieres has a real gift.
I visited Kefalonia - I had read some of the book before I went, and read the rest on my return. I have to say that some of the descriptions of the characters were very accurate portrails of the Kefalonians, friendly, slightly made, eccentric, warm etc.
This is a book I will read again and again...