Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book of the Week: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

"Did you know that childhood is the only time in our lives when insanity is not only permitted to us, but expected?"

Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a story that's been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time now. I've been meaning to read it for well over a year, but it has remained there, unread and neglected, for rather too long. For some reason, I had the urge to pick it up last week and have spent most days doing not much else but losing myself in its pages. It tells the story of a little Greek village called Cephallonia, occupied by Italian armed forces during WWII. Captain Antonio Corelli is one of the soldiers posted to the island, where, at first, he is naturally ostracised by the locals. However, he soon charms his way into their lives and their hearts with a little help from his mandolin. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but what I found was a tale of battle and romance, equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, which really makes you lament the futility of war.

There's something of a musical flourish to Bernieres' writing that had me hooked - not one to read without dedicating your full attention, it's easy to get lost in the fanciful language, and the wonderful descriptions of both countryside and countryman. I love all the funny insights; the amusing little windows into domestic households. Like old man Stamatis, for example, who has been deaf in one ear since childhood, only to be miraculously cured when Dr. Iannis extracts a pea that's been lodged in the orifice for decades. It's little things like this that I found really enjoyable, and also absolutely necessary in balancing out all of the bleak events that befall the charming Greek village.  

Another point of enjoyment for me was the abundance of historical references. Set in Greece, with a healthy dose of Italian influence, it was inevitable that Classical times would make rather a few appearances. Being a graduate of Ancient History myself, I adored all of the ancient anecdotes, and the allusions to the Greece and Rome of a bygone era. For me, they all felt like little in-jokes, and reminders of my university education. For those who are perhaps not as well versed in the Classics, the book is full to the brim of fun facts and interesting mythical stories, and is definitely worth a read if this is something you find intriguing. 

An aspect which I don't think anybody would find particularly enjoyable, but one I found so very poignant, was the insight into the nature of war. It rips apart families, changes people, and makes a misery of lives that once had such happy prospects. The destruction of the picturesque Greek countryside, steeped in history and culture, really is upsetting, and all because of a few megalomaniacs who have seen fit to seize power. One particular scene that really struck me was Captain Corelli's discovery of a little Greek girl's body amidst the rubble of her former home. He thinks of a girl he knows of a similar age, and is overwhelmed by the realisation that this is somebody's daughter. The statistics that we always hear are people - a father, a sister, a lover - all just innocent victims of war. I also really felt for the soldiers on both sides. I'm a rather empathetic person, and it really saddened me to think of all of those men, Italians in particular, who knew they were dying for the wrong cause, but were forced to kill and be killed anyway. 

A character I really enjoyed and admired was Carlo Piero Guercio, one of the Italian soldiers, and closest companion to Corelli. This gentle giant believes that he is a degenerate because he is gay, but he's actually the bravest, most loving, wonderful character in the book. I find it a little sad that being ashamed of your sexuality was just a part of life at the time, especially as, in Carlo's case, it almost wholly contributes to his biggest assets. He compares his disposition and it's relation to the army to the Sacred Band of Thebes, an ancient army of 150 male couples who were near undefeatable on the battlefield. Protecting the man they loved blessed them with unparalleled bravery, and the desire to prove themselves a worthy partner equipped them with the ability to embrace a glorious death, if this is what circumstance called for. When paired with his love for the Greeks, his friendship with Corelli, and his inner turmoil in fighting for a cause that he didn't believe in, he is, for me, the most interesting, loveable and sympathetic character in the book - and in a war story, it's not like he's lacking for competition on the sympathy front! 

After putting off reading Louis de Bernieres' novel for so long, I think I may have found a new favourite. An emotional, charming and, at times, tragic novel, it's absolutely one to add to the reading list if wartime love is your thing. It's a real gem.

Have you read the book? Seen the film? What did you think? Let me know!


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  1. Oh god, this was one of my favourite books growing up. I love the long sprawling descriptions of Kefalonia and all of the amazing things the writing says about love. The characters are all so thoughtfully fleshed out. Gorgeous writing! T xx

    1. I'm a little annoyed with myself for not reading it sooner, I think it would have been one of my favourites too! And I know what you mean, reading all the wonderful descriptions was enough to make me google last minute holidays in Greece! :) xx

  2. I have never heard of this, but now I really want to read it. :)

    Great review.


    1. Thank you lovely! And you should, I can't recommend it enough! :) xx