Books Every Woman Should Read: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
WHEN a book begins with a doctor curing a patient’s decades-long deafness by removing an ancient pea from his ear, you know you’re in for something different.
In the hands of a lesser author, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin could be terrible, schmaltzy stuff; a doomed love affair between an Italian captain and a local Greek girl during the Axis’ occupation of the Mediterranean country in World War Two. Indeed, the less said about the 2001 film adaptation – starring Nicholas Cage as the good captain – the better.
However Louis de Bernieres has taken a standard star-crossed lovers’ tale and transformed it into a story which can speak to any of us.
Pelagia lives on the island of Cephalonia with her father Iannis (the aforementioned doctor). Life on the island is unchanging and constant. The local customs and the characters that inhabit Pelagia’s world are brought beautifully to life. You can almost smell the rosemary and feel the Greek sun on your face.
Pelagia is engaged to a local fisherman, Mandras, and her life seems confidently mapped out for her until war breaks out. The Italians invaded Greece in 1940 and were successfully repelled by the Greek army, who pushed them back as far as Albania. To save their allies’ blushes, the Nazis sent German troops to Greece and Yugoslavia (as it then was known) and soon overran the region. Some historians believe that this event – which led to a delay in the planned Nazi invasion of Russia – led to the downfall of the Third Reich. Leftist rebels also continued a guerrilla war against the invaders, which would lead to a civil war in Greece once the World War II ended.
It is against this backdrop that the charming Captain Antonio Corelli is sequestered with Iannis and Pelagia. Corelli and his men are far less interested in war and more in opera. Led by the musical Corelli, the soldiers soon reluctantly charm the locals. Antonio and Pelagia begin to fall in love. However the arrival of the Germans on the island and the worsening of the war changes everything.
Mandras goes and fights with the communists and becomes brutalised by his experiences. Meanwhile, the Italians’ surrender in 1943 is not left unpunished by their former allies. The real-life massacre of 5000 Italian troops on the island is one of the most horrific passages in the novel.
It is this quality of horror mixed in with beauty that gives the novel much of its power. Each character is infused with a humanity and reality which ensures the novel lingers long in the memory. It’s hard to forget Carlo, the brave soldier who struggles with his sexuality; Dr Iannis, who reminds his daughter of the importance of solid foundations to love or even Psipsina, the adorable pine marten Pelagia adopts.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’s ending is a must-read for anyone with a love for history and realistic romance. You will close the book with a possible tear in your eye and a definite longing to go to Greece.
On a semi-related topic, fans of Roald Dahl with an interest in World War Two should check out the story ‘Katina’ which is also set in Greece during this period. Dahl was a flying ace with the RAF and fought in the Greek campaign, and it is one of his most affecting and moving stories.
Photo c/o prezi.com