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Louis de Bernières: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (US: Corelli’s Mandolin)

De Bernières has moved away from his Latin American settings and written a novel primarily set in Cephallonia, Greece. The island is a relatively quiet and peaceful place where people get on with their lives. We meet the doctor’s daughter, the beautiful Pelagia, with whom Mandras, the fisherman, is in love, Kokolios, the communist, Father Arsenios, the fat and gluttonous priest and the doctor himself, phlegmatic and practical. But this is 1941 and their lives are about to be changed. De Bernières introduces us not only to the Greeks but to the Italians. Mussolini is given a scathing though fairly obvious satirical roasting while one of his soldiers, known initially only as L’omosessuale though, subsequently, as Carlo is presented sympathetically. He is part of the futile and inept Italian army invading Greece, in the company of his comrade Francisco (shouldn’t it be Francesco, if he is Italian, Francisco being a Spanish name?). Carlo is in love with Francisco and almost wishes himself dead when he sees Francisco killed by the Greeks defending their country.

Eventually the war comes to Cephallonia and Carlo comes to. Though we have occasional references to him before, it is not till now that we meet the eponymous Corelli. Corelli is an Italian army captain who, like many of his countrymen, is not very enthusiastic about the war and his country’s role in it. He is billeted on the doctor and his daughter. Mandras, too, has fought in the war – against the invading Italians. He has now returned and seems to have given up everything. Pelagia is losing interest in him, when he goes off to join the partisans. He joins the communists and de Bernières takes the opportunity to criticise the communists as much as he criticised Mussolini. Pelagia soon start taking an interest in the more cultured, dashing, mandolin-playing Corelli, even though he is the enemy. Of course, it is all going wrong as, after the surrender of Italy, the Germans decide to make a stand on Cephallonia, generally at the expense of the Italians.

This book has garnered rave reviews and it is very enjoyable, with de Bernières’ sympathetic portraits of the ordinary people caught up in war, be they Greek or Italian. What jars are his vicious attacks on everyone involved in prosecuting the war. Yes, we know Mussolini was bad and the Germans were bad and the Churchill was happy to play Realpolitik with people’s lives and, after the war, the communists did very nasty things in Greece but a vicious satire and a gentle, sympathetic portrait of the Greeks, running side by side, clash like wearing green shoes with a blue dress.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Secker and Warburg