#19 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

By dancingintheraine

February 1, 2012

Category: Uncategorized

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All of Greece is bursting with pride and gratitude for our men who are greater than Achilles and Agamemnon put together.” (Pg. 106, para. 1)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, released simultaneously as Corelli’s Mandolin in the United States, is a 1994 Louis de Bernières’ novel, imbued with a mythical weight and a delightful tragicomic lightness that bursts with tenderness and wit.  It takes place on the island of Cephallonia (Kefalonia) during the Italian and German occupation of World War II. The main characters are Antonio Corelli, an Italian captain, and Pelagia, the daughter of the local physician, Dr. Iannis. An important event in the novel is the massacre of Italian troops by the Germans in September 1943 — the Italian Acqui Division had refused to surrender and fought the Germans for nine days before running out of ammunition. Some 1,500 Italian soldiers died in the fighting, 5,000 were massacred after surrendering and the rest shipped to Germany — although 3,000 drowned when the ship carrying them hit a mine or were bombed by the British.

New empires were now lapping against the shores of the old.  In a short time it would no longer be a question of the conflagration of a valley and the death by fire of lizards, hedgehogs, and locusts; it would be a question of the incineration of Jews and homosexuals, gypsies and the mentally afflicted.  It would be a case of Guernica and Abyssinia writ large across the skies of Europe and North Africa, Singapore and Korea.  The self-anointed superior races, drunk on Darwin and nationalist hyperbole, besotted with eugenics and beguiled by myth, were winding up machines of genocide that soon would be unleashed upon a world already weary to the heart of such infinite foolery and contemptible vainglory.”  (Pg. 17, para. 1)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has a complicated, episodic structure that leaps from quiet island life to the rantings of Mussolini, Saint’s Day celebrations, soul-destroying war in Albania, politicians’ musings in Athens, treatises on Greek history and the hallucinations of a sick soldier. It is told sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and the style varies between stream of consciousness, social comedy, epistle, wretched confessional, and coldly factual historical account. The variety of style and subject encompassed make it hard to summarize it, not that I would, as I feel it would allow you to expect the twists and turns.  But I will tell you that the story takes us to a tightly-knit community, with the attendant cast of quirky characters, refusing to be dominated by its “conquerors.” This is the story of love found, betrayed, lost, and at long last found again.

Corelli’s Mandolin is not in the least a simple love story. It is a portrait of a fiercely proud and independent little community rebelling in what small ways it can. It is a snapshot of the horrors endured by the men in combat during the Second World War. It is a damning commentary on the grandiose lack of sense among the leaders who would mold the world to fit their petty desires. It is a witty, charming, intelligent tale that possesses the reader to finish without stopping. It is a tragic story of star-crossed lovers given one more chance at happiness after a lifetime of loss, and it is worth every moment you spend turning its pages.

How the mighty have fallen!  He was a meteor who had turned out to be an incandescent fart.  All our commanders were incandescent farts… “ (Pg. 104, para. 1)

While most WWII stories seem to portray the Germans or the Italians as a whole, this novel meshed people of different personalities, different religions, different political viewpoints, different nationalities, and different ethnicities into one intricate story, showing how they interacted and were intertwined forever.  Marxists lived peacefully with Royalists and Communists.  The Italian Occupiers lived smartly with the Greek Occupied.  The religious lived tolerably with the not-so-religious.

Empedocles said that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  If that is true, then I don’t need to go to church.  And I don’t need to believe the same things as you to see that you have a purpose.” (Pg. 53, para 3)

It also made perfectly clear that the effects of war were far reaching, beyond merely the physical.  It didn’t matter what side you are on, or what role you played.

We found that there is also a wild excitement when the tension of waiting is done with, and that sometimes this transforms itself into a kind of demented sadism once an action is commenced.  You cannot always blame soldiers for their atrocities, because I can tell you from experience that they are the natural consequences of the inferno of relief that comes from not having to think any more.  Atrocities are sometimes nothing less than the vengeance of the tormented.  Catharsis is the world I was looking for.  A Greek word.” (Pg. 61, para. 2)

I have read many accounts of the Second World War, been to concentration camps, and watched WWII movies, and I don’t believe that I’ve seen one mention of Greece in any of them.  It is easy for one to forget that there were more battlegrounds than just Germany, Austria, Italy, or Poland in this war.  How the occupied populations dealt with the brutality of the Nazis is no different, though, nor was the general opinion of the people about the Nazis.  The admirable human quality of perseverance was a streak of iron throughout the Cephallonian population.  Like a plant regrowing after a case of bad pruning, the effects of war can be seen in the masses, as they are memories that will never be forgotten.

The islanders remember that the Germans were not human beings.  They were automata without principles, machines finely tuned in the art of pillage and brutality, without any passion except the love of strength, and without belief except in their natural right to grind an inferior race beneath the heel.” (Pg. 358, para. 2)

She thought about war, and felt her heart grow heavy, reflecting that in the old days men were the playthings of the gods, and had advanced no further than to become the toys of other men who thought that they themselves were gods.” (Pg. 88, para 2)

In the end, everyone lost.  The Greeks were betrayed by the British.  The Nazis were betrayed by the Italians.  The Italian Army was betrayed by their leaders.  As it is with even our Army today, those in control cannot (or will not) see what is going on in the field, and haven’t a clue to the reality that the Soldiers must face, and nor do they care.   Decisions are made based on politics and self-interest, not for the welfare of the Soldiers or the people, or even our country.

This novel was written upon a backbone of truth.  And it is fascinating to imagine who might be the inspiration for the characters within the novel.  Any time anyone writes about historical times, there is bound to be similarities in the characters of both history and the novel.  While de Bernières has denied that the character of Corelli is based on Amos Pampaloni who was then an Italian artillery captain in Cephellonia, it is acknowledged that there are many similarities in their stories. Pampaloni survived execution, joined ELAS, the Partisans in the Greek civil war, and fought with them in Epirus for 14 months. Pampaloni was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper in 2000 and expressed the view that the novel was unduly critical of the Greek left.

The novel also shows some similarities to Bandiera bianca a Cefalonia, a novel by Marcello Venturi published in 1963, translated in English as The White Flag (1969).  I wonder, though, can there really be no similarities if writing about a single delicate event as on an island?

I have ordered the movie from the library for one of our movie nights.  I see that it has Nicholas Cage in it (smiles).

“All of Greece is bursting with pride and gratitude for our men who are greater than Achilles and Agamemnon put together.” (Pg. 106, para. 1)

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