Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres
by Robert A. Parker
This 1994 work is a serious, imaginative, and moving novel, but not the great novel it might have been. It does, however, reveals much more depth than its almost frivolous title suggests.
This is the story of a small Greek island town at the time of World War II. It is a story of adventure, romance, heartache, and loss. The town’s story is that it endures the Italian occupation, a German reprisal massacre, and a postwar earthquake. The family story revolves around Dr. Iannis, the father, and his beautiful and spirited daughter Pelagia. But taken into the family are handsome Mandras and his mother Drosoula, and then Antonio Corelli, the captain of the Italian occupying force, who is a virtuoso of the mandolin. Another Italian is Carlo Guercio, a homosexual soldier, while there is also a sensitive German lieutenant, Gunter Weber. Others are citizens of the town, such as strongman Velisarios, and two adversaries, royalist Stamatis and communist Kokolios.
The entrancing first half or more of this novel begins with the pre-war romance between Pelagia and Mandras; each believes they are destined to be together. But war interferes, and then political belief as Mandras goes off to fight. Whereupon he is slowly replaced by Captain Corelli who flirts with Pelagia and wins her kisses but nothing more. He becomes her true love.
But the war eventually interferes, not only with both their romances, but with the novel also. The Italians government surrenders, and the brutal Germans take over the Italian occupation of Greece, including Corelli’s town. And with the novel and its characters taken over by history, our friends no longer control their lives, and we read page after page of fictionalized history.
There are brief dramatic moments, involving an operation, murderous firing squads, and a soldier’s return, but they are momentary before we return to the narration of history. Which continues after the war, as the novel becomes a chronicle of the events experienced by this family and this town into the 1990s—all beautifully described in often lyrical prose, but with all the accounts being told more than dramatized. Finally, there is a dramatic finale, beautifully and emotionally described, and yet more the result of a decision by the author than by the characters involved.
The author obviously intended this novel to be a great work. He writes chapters on both a personal level and an historic level. He writes from the viewpoint of various characters and various political, emotional, and historical perspectives. He writes dramatically and lyrically, brutally and romantically, and with a common touch at times and a tragic touch at others.
The result is that I was enthralled by the first half of the novel, and disappointed by the remainder, despite those occasional dramatic and emotional moments. Since the author is British and wrote earlier novels with a Spanish environment (he lived for a while in Colombia), one senses that this portrayal of events on a Greek island during and after World War II was carefully chosen. And carefully researched. But after the marvelous start, he allowed the research, and an historic message, to take over. This may have been because he wished to create two kinds of potential lovers and then to separate them. But he never created a true romantic triangle, and, for me, he lost the lovers to history. He did try to restore the emotional connection at the end in each case, but while the scenes do work emotionally they are not fully convincing. In one case, his male lover is too brutal, and in the other case he, or the author, is too romantic.
Two themes dominate this novel. The first is the presence of love in the lives of otherwise insignificant people. The other is the impact of war on these same insignificant people. And the author uses history to emphasize the helplessness of these people in any attempt to enjoy one and avoid the other.
One traditional love is Iannis’ love for his daughter, plus that between Pelagia and Mandras, and then, when she believes Mandras is dad, between Pelagia and Corelli. Another is the love of these Greeks for their country and their history. There is also the love of the homosexual Carlo for a fellow soldier, and then his hidden love for Corelli. Not to forget Corelli’s love of music and his mandolin, which, with his wit, turns him into a sympathetic character. And finally there is the love of the townspeople for one another, especially for Dr. Iannis and Pelagia.
The impact of war and violence on otherwise insignificant towns and people is also the theme of other works by de Bernieres. Here, he takes us from the Albanian front as the Greeks defend themselves against the Italians to the violent reprisal of the Germans when the occupying Italian company refuses to abandon these Greeks they have come to appreciate. The reprisal is particularly brutal and treacherous. And, later, the helplessness of the townspeople before history is underlined by an earthquake that completely destroys their lives. (Which is followed by a sardonic revival when tourists arrive and help to rebuild the town and its economy.)
The idea of history is introduced at the very start of the novel, with Dr. Iannis writing a history of his town and its island, and finding it is not easy. He believes that true history is to be seen in the lives of the people, not in movements or the records kept by leaders. Which also reflects the author’s interest in history, for he, too, is writing of the impact of modern history on this island and this small town. What de Bernieres wants us to be aware of is that we cannot avoid being subservient to history, even as we try to be the master of our own destiny.
I have read and enjoyed a later de Bernieres, and remain interested in his other works. I will note, however, that I had a similar criticism of Birds Without Wings. It was, again, a novel about the negative impact of war and violence on a small town and its people, and I again commented on its overemphasis on history during the final quarter of the novel. I would also note that that novel, too, has a sympathetic lieutenant who is part of the Italian occupation of the novel’s small Turkish town. Perhaps the more things change in this author’s work, the more they stay the same. (February, 2016)