Sunday, August 12: Tonight I finish the amazing 1994 novel, Corelli’s Mandolin. I love the world created by British author Louis de Bernières so much that I will probably linger in it for quite some time, despite the fact that this world was filled with unimaginable hardships and horrors. The book’s characters, though imaginary, are full of depth and life. The setting is historical, and thus factual for the most part, set on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during and after World War II. The Italian army occupies the once tranquil island, and sets in motion a chain of events that is both heartwarming and utterly devastating.
From Goodreads (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin): Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set in the early days of WWII, before Mussolini invades Greece. Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephallonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he teaches much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn’t so bad–at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler” with his own “Heil Puccini”, and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. It isn’t long before Corelli and Pelagia are involved in a heated affair–despite her engagement to a young fisherman, Mandras, who has gone off to join Greek partisans. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches.
What makes the novel so amazing are the characters. Dr. Iannis is the local doctor who spends much of his spare time writing about the history of Cephallonia and nurturing his beloved only daughter Pelagia. Pelagia is not like other women on the island in that she is highly respected, educated and loved by her father. She even has dreams to become a doctor, unheard of in those days for any woman. Pelagia first falls in love with Mandras, a young, handsome local fisherman. He also falls in love with her, only to destroy their relationship by going to fight in the war, and ultimately becoming a cruel and inhumane man obsessed by Communism. Antonio Corelli is an Italian captain with a love for music and life. He despises the war, and falls in love with Pelagia; but the war inevitably tears them apart again. Corelli is one of those energetic and charming men with a great sense of humor, the kind of man all women love to love. The interactions of Corelli and Pelagia are entertaining and endearing, and, as a woman, I can see why she falls for him. She is equally charming and smart; I can easily understand why he falls in love with her.
A major player in the story is Carlo Guercio, a good-natured, but closeted, homosexual Italian soldier who falls in love with a straight Francisco, only to lose him to the war. He later falls in love with Corelli and sacrifices his life to save the Captain’s. This homosexual, and unrequited, love is never acted upon by Carlo, except in ways that are self-sacrificing and honorable. He’s an amazing character.
The theme of love is explored heavily in this novel, starting with the lust-love of Pelagia and Mandras. Love is described by Dr. Iannis as “what is left when the passion has gone”, and it certainly appears that this criterion is fulfilled by the love of Corelli and Pelagia. The paternal love of Iannis for Pelagia is also strong and never-ending.
Music is a major theme, offering a direct contrast to the horror and destruction that the war brings, showing how something beautiful can arise from something horrible.
The war is described in graphic detail, particularly the death of Francisco, Carlo’s unrequited love. It is responsible for the fall of Mandras and the German Weber, the deaths of Carlo and Francisco, and the separation of Pelagia and Corelli. It is the source of much suffering and devastation, much like in the book I read earlier, Eleni by Nicolas Gage. The war demonstrates the horrors that people are capable of inflicting on one another in the name of ideologies such as Fascism, Nazism and Communism.
As horrible as this world was, the characters made the world somehow palatable, even romantic. The love between Pelagia and Corelli is one of those timeless and enduring love stories that I will hold in my heart forever.
Louis de Bernières (Louis de Bernières) published his first novel in 1990 and was selected by Granta magazine as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Novel.
As well as writing, he plays the flute, mandolin, clarinet and guitar. He was born in London in 1954.