Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has a complicated, episodic structure that leaps from quiet island life to the rantings of Mussolini, saint’s day celebrations, soul-destroying war in Albania, politicians’ musings in Athens, treatises on Greek history and the hallucinations of a sick soldier. It is told sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and the style varies between stream of consciousness, social comedy, epistle, wretched confessional and coldly factual historical account. The variety of style and subject encompassed make it hard to summarise in full, so the following will only cover the central story.
The book opens in the first months of World War II, with Dr Iannis and his daughter Pelagia enjoying an innocent, untroubled existence on the island of Cephallonia. When not baffling his patients with fabricated medical terms, Dr Iannis spends his time writing a colourful history of his island and arguing politics. Pelagia minds house, plays with little urchin Lemoni, and flirts with the handsome but intellectually limited fisherman Mandras.
But it isn’t long before the shadow of war falls over Greece: while Mandras asks Pelagia to marry him, Italian troops are massing in Albania. As soon as the two lovers are engaged, Mandras is sent off to the snowy front. When he returns from the brutal Albanian campaign, after the defeat of Greece, he is an unrecognisable mess, and though Pelagia takes charge of his rehabilitation her ardour noticeably cools.
Enter the charismatic Captain Antonio Corelli with the Italian occupation force. A wonderfully unconventional officer who conducts operatic choruses in the garrison latrines, he is billeted on Dr Iannis and Pelagia, both of whom are determined to make his life as difficult as possible. But his irresistible spirit, his intelligence and his mandolin soon win the reluctant heart of Pelagia, just as the recovered Mandras heads off to join the partisans.
While Mandras is being ordered to commit barbaric acts in the name of freedom, Pelagia and Corelli fall in love. She gets to know his devoted trooper Carlo, and his “good Nazi” friend Günter, and Corelli takes her around the island on a motorcycle and composes a mandolin march in her honour. Although Dr Iannis tries to caution both of them, their love deepens even as the gentle Italian occupation is threatened by the fall of Italy and the consequent take-over of Greece by German forces.
Now on the side of the Allies, the Italian forces on Cephallonia are forced to fight their former German partners. The victorious Germans round up and execute the Italian soldiers, but Corelli survives, badly wounded, after Carlo sacrifices himself for him. Dr Iannis and Pelagia treat his wounds and hide him from the Germans. With the help of a British infiltrator, they smuggle Corelli off the island.
Through the subsequent German occupation, liberation, Greek communist rule and earthquake, tragedy is heaped upon the people of Cephallonia. And when Mandras returns, brainwashed by the communists, there is yet more tragedy. It is many many years before Corelli and Pelagia are reunited in their old age and the mandolin Antonia “sings again”.