There are novels whose delightful phrasing and charming plotlines whisk the reader through blissful scenes of enchantment and beauty. There are others that rub the reader’s nose in the brutal reality of man’s worst behaviours and tendencies. Few manage to do both, but that is the extraordinary balancing act that Louis de Bernières pulls off in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This is a tale of heady romance, of bittersweet love, of torture, ideological destruction and unbearable cruelty. Perhaps because a certain passage is so often quoted at weddings, it has come to be thought of as a love story set against the epic – even romantic – backdrop of war. But that is a gross simplification of what is a complex and multi-faceted account of human nature in all its noblest and vilest extremes.
The book opens with a long and disjointed introduction to island life, to Mussolini, to the war in Albania, to all the pieces of the jigsaw that will come together on Cephallonia. This fractured, slow build-up is part of the book’s charm, but it has also put a lot of readers off. Captain Corelli himself does not appear until page 157 in my edition. Nevertheless, it is absolutely worth persevering, even if the quixotic delights of medical pea removal or bibulous priests does not initially captivate you. A story of immense force and emotion awaits.
De Bernières combines many talents in his writing. There is great erudition in the detailed history he serves up in an unconventional format. There is rich characterisation aplenty, from the tragic gentleness of the homosexual soldier to the eccentric efficiency of the Homeric Greek-speaking British spy and the cowardly brutality of the sulky, vicious partisan leader. The witty banter, the charming social vignettes, the fruity colloquialisms, the farcical situation comedy and the powerfully bleak representation of war all evince an undeniable mastery of the written word.
Perhaps de Bernières’s greatest achievement is the contrasting depictions of three very different types of love. There is the adolescent love of Mandras and Pelagia, playful but limited; there is the deeper, sadder delicate love between Pelagia and Corelli, at times foolish but also infinitely wise; and then there is the repressed, self-sacrificing love of Carlo for his comrade in arms. All three are accentuated by the grim setting of conflict and loss. The author never shies away from the vividly repulsive or shocking in conveying the miseries that men so readily inflict on their own species. In his rage at the real-life injustices and perversities that pepper his tale, de Bernières occasionally veers into the hysterical. But the rage is always real, and appropriate to the event.
If there is disappointment in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, it is to be found in the drawn-out and ultimately unconvincing ending. The last act is undoubtedly too long, dragging the characters and the reader on eighty pages and several decades beyond what one might feel is the natural end of the story. But if the first and last few chapters could have done with stricter editing, what lies between is an undoubted masterpiece. The brilliantly eclectic characterisation and worldview that defined de Bernières’s splendid Latin American trilogy is here brought to bear on a larger, more immediate canvas to magnificent effect.
Joseph Heller : "A wonderful, hypnotic novel of fabulous scope and tremendous iridescent charm"
The Observer : "an emotional, funny, stunning novel which swings with wide smoothness between joy and bleakness, personal lives and history...it's lyrical and angry, satirical and earnest"
A.S. Byatt : "His novel will give pleasure to all sorts of readers. It is also so good that it will last."
Library Journal : "Using myriad voices to chronicle the horrors of combat and the boredom of occupation, it is by turns funny, sad, and cruel"
Kirkus Reviews : "The narrative features one scene of biting political satire after another, although excerpts from Dr. Iannis's historical writings sometimes slow the pace"
Washington Post : "Brims with all the grand topics of literature--love and death, heroism and skull-duggery, humor and pathos, not to mention art and religion. . . . A good old-fashioned novel"
New York Times : "Stunning. . . . A high-spirited historical romance"
Los Angeles Times : "An exuberant mixture of history and romance, written with a wit that is incandescent"
San Francisco Chronicle: "So joyous and heartbreaking, so rich and musical and wise, that reading it is like discovering anew the enchanting power of fiction"