‘Love is not breathlessness; it is not excitement; it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love”, which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.’
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel by Louis de Bernieres. Set in 1940s Cephalonia, the novel explores the realities of love, life and war for the people of the island. This review will have spoilers but it was published the year I was born so I think it’s been around long enough!
I’ll admit that it took me a long time to finish this book. The writing is incredibly detailed and rich, and as a result can be quite difficult to get into. It’s certainly worth the effort though, and de Bernieres’ characters are incredibly realistic and multidimensional, as is his description of the island.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is for the most part almost like a collection of short stories, as opposed to one novel – it is told through various peoples’ viewpoints, which eventually overlap and merge into one story. Although it was hard to get into, it is easier to tackle if you read it part-by-part. This method of writing is an interesting one, and certainly something de Bernieres does well. In using different viewpoints to tell the story he not only keeps the writing interesting and varied for the reader, but also adds to the effect of the story. This way of writing builds up the world in a way that simple physical description can’t –realistically we all see the world in different ways, and de Bernieres’ characters are no different. Dr Iannis, for example, sees Cephalonia in a largely intellectual way; he sees history, his pride for his home is built on hundreds of years of imperialism and rebellion, survival and victory. Captain Corelli, on the other hand, has no such connection – he simply sees it as a beautiful island. He grows a connection to it, but one completely different to anyone else’s and unaffected by the history and ancestry Dr Iannis associates with the place.
In the same way, we see many different views on life and the war. De Bernieres’ characters are all sympathetic in some way – readers even find themselves sympathising with Gunter Weber, a German soldier who follows Nazi ideology quite firmly. In fact I think while reading it I found myself sympathetic to almost all of the characters – Mussolini and Hitler being obvious exceptions.
The setting of Cephallonia itself is an interesting one, and lends itself to incredibly tragic historical context. In 1943, the island was the location of one of the biggest prisoner of war massacres of World War Two, and yet it isn’t widely known about or discussed. The Massacre of the Acqui Division saw over 5000 Italian soldiers killed. De Bernieres uses Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to give a voice, not only to the island and normal people in the war, but also to those killed in this tragic event. It seems a shame to me that events like this aren’t put into history books, and that we often only see the facts and figures, rather than real stories. De Bernieres is an advocate for social history, and this is obvious throughout Corelli.
Okay, let’s get on to the unpopular opinions. The ending. I know a lot of people who love this book, and for the most part I agree, but I found the ending largely unsatisfying. I understand what de Bernieres was trying to do in separating and later reuniting Pelagia and Corelli, and I realise the effect that leaving the novel on a hopeful note has, particularly in a social commentary like this, but I’d almost have preferred the book to end without the reader knowing what happened to Corelli. Maybe I’m just cynical but it felt like de Bernieres was told to make the ending happier by his publisher. It’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and in that time I’ve come to terms with the ending and why de Bernieres chose to end it that way, but I still can’t say I like it, personally.
All in all, this is a brilliant piece of historical fiction and portrayal of smaller social groups in a largely generalised and politically regarded historical era. Corelli is realistic, funny and surprisingly optimistic. Maybe one day I’ll learn to love the ending. Maybe.
See you soon,