I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when I was on holiday in Spain. Soon after starting, I realised my mistake. I should have been reading it on holiday on a Greek island, preferably Cephallonia, where the book is set. However, I carried on regardless and, although I think the surroundings of a Greek island would have made the experience even better, it was still an incredible book.
I hadn’t heard much about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin before I read it. I knew it was set abroad and that there had been a film made of it starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, which I hadn’t seen. My sister, an infinite source of book wisdom, had never raved about it to me so I didn’t really know what to expect.
What I got what a beautiful piece of writing, with some of the most emotive and heartbreaking passages I’ve read. The characters and their relationships are documented with such care and attention, but there’s still passages where I laughed out loud. It’s got a great mix of content – I cried, I laughed, I felt heart warmed, uneasy, outraged and empathetic – all in one book.
The eponymous character doesn’t actually appear until quite late in the book, which always gives you as a reader a bit of a build up: who is this Captain Corelli and how does it fit into the lives of these other characters who are, by now, quite well established? It gives you the impetus to keep reading to find the answers to these questions, and when you do eventually meet the Captain, you see how his character ties together all the different threads and stories that have been working throughout the beginning of the book.
The book is set in World War II, with the main emphasis being the role that Italy played, particularly in Greece, during the conflict. We follow Dr Iannis and his daughter, Pelagia, who live on Cephallonia, and see the impact that the war has upon their homeland; first the threat of the war, and the subsequent invasion of the island by Italian forces. Pelagia becomes attached and engaged to a young fisherman, Mandras, who leaves Cephalonia to fight in the war. The story follows her as her emotions change towards her betrothed over the course of their separation, which is juxtaposed with the horrific experiences of Mandras fighting with the Greek army against the Italian invaders. These chapters are an interesting echo of others in the book that follow Carlo Guerico, a homosexual Italian soldier, as he fights the war on the other side, facing similar atrocities. They both serve to demonstrate the grim reality of war – a far cry from the heroic undertaking it is often billed as.
Captain Corelli arrives on the scene as part of the Italian invasion forces, and a love story ensues between him and Pelagia, as Dr Iannis is forced to house the captain in his home. Theirs is a gradual romance, full of the tension of anticipation, and the pang of futility over their future – how can they be together when he is her enemy, and his presence threatens her homeland?
Finally, when Italy changes allegiance and declares war on Germany, the fate of the Italian soldiers in Greece becomes uncertain. Captain Corelli and his men are in danger, and it is only an act of true love that saves the captain from his inevitable sentence.
The story is ultimately one of love – a true, unending love, as its most famous quote (seen in the excerpt at the start of this post) represents. However, it also deals with the horror of war, and the appalling consequences that decisions made by those in power have upon ordinary people. de Bernieres pokes fun at Mussolini, criticises senior army officials and paints an idyllic picture of the Greek countryside before conflict, which lies in stark contrast to the landscape after the invasion. The changes that the characters undergo as a result of the war – in particular, Mandras – also serve to demonstrate the sheer depravity of the conflict. The story is also one of loss; loss of loved ones, loss of livelihoods and loss of surroundings, which gives it a sombreness, even with the all-pervading theme of love.
The book is generally easy to read; I was, for the most part, engrossed. Areas of low engagement for me were the chapter written from Mussolini’s point of view, early on in the book – it was quite confusing at the time but, in hindsight, I can see why it’s there, and I do think it adds to the whole composition. Dr Iannis is composing a history of Cephalonia, which entails several passages of prose about the island and its environment, the mythology and history on which it is founded and his personal reflections upon the changes it has undergone, which could be less interesting for some, but none of these passages are excessively long, and I didn’t find them a barrier to the thrust of the actual story.
A definite recommendation – the perfect holiday read!
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥