Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

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Read sometime in 1995 or 1996

Rating: 3 stars

We were out for dinner last night with friends. Talk turned to books and in particular books that are fêted but which we don’t like. One such book for one of our group was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Or, as he renamed it, Captain Corelli’s Fucking Mandolin.

I’m with him on his dislike for the book. Perhaps not as vehemently, but I understand all the things he was saying about it.

I read it not long after it came out in paperback, roughly 20 years ago. I didn’t make notes on my reading back then, and I haven’t re-read the book since, but I do remember how it made me feel.

I had read Louis de Bernières’ South American magical realism novels and enjoyed them for the silly romps with a slight political message that they were, so I was interested to see what a war novel by him set in Europe would offer. De Bernières is open about being influenced by Gabriel García Marquez, and initial buzz about this novel made it sound as though he had created something in the narrative style of Love in the Time of Cholera.

The novel mostly worked for me. For anyone watching Greece’s current economic woes and scratching their heads about how it came to this, if you don’t want to read actual history about the occupation of Greece by the Axis forces during the 1939-45 war, then there is enough historical background in this novel to tell you that Greece was pretty much destroyed by German/Italian occupation and never really got the chance to recover (I’m massively over generalising, of course, it is more nuanced than that). I thought the portrayal of life on a Greek island during the war was well drawn. I liked the way de Bernières didn’t shy away from brutal facts about occupation and the effects of war on the psyche of those fighting and those left at home. I thought the different stories woven around the central story, and the conceit of Dr Iannis accidentally writing a story about his daughter while trying to compile a history of Kefalonia helped strengthen the novel and enriched it. I didn’t like the schmaltzy romantic element, or the characterisation of Corelli as just a humble mandolin player caught up in a war who was a misunderstood guy and not really the enemy. I thought he could have been given more depth. But perhaps over the years that have passed since I read the book, I’ve replaced book Corelli with Cage Corelli. I do remember thinking as I read that the Corelli-Pelagia story was too sentimental. The end of the novel is ridiculous, really disappointing. It feels as though de Bernières either ran out of ideas, or lost faith in the reader being able to accept a realistic ending. There’s nothing subtle about it, and it feels like de Bernières spent the first 300+ pages trying to refine his emulation of the narrative style of García Marquez, and then panicked and became mundane.

I don’t think the book is all bad, but I don’t think it’s worthy of the adulation it receives. It could have done with some editing. I didn’t read another book by de Bernières for a long time afterwards. Not until I finally picked up Birds Without Wings back in 2012, in fact. Birds Without Wings is the better book.

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