BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Passionate Mixture of History, Polemic and Romance : CORELLI'S MANDOLIN by Louis de Bernieres; Pantheon $24, 437 pages
Its three principal characters--a redoubtable Greek doctor, his beautiful and even more redoubtable daughter, and a lyrically impulsive Italian captain who is billeted on them--are larger than life. They also display a number of authorial stretch marks.
These are particularly bothersome at the start, when De Bernieres introduces us to his small Cephalonian community just before the war. There is a forced touch of Garcia Marquez's Macondo, an effort at comic fabulousness. There is the immensely fat and sodden village priest, Father Arsenios, and Velisarios, the village strongman who lifts donkeys and carries around a small cannon, which he fires off like a pistol, to impress. Part of its discharge impresses a young fisherman, Mandras, who comes to Dr. Iannis for treatment and falls in love with Pelagia, his daughter.
The doctor, a free spirit and a humane but passionate Greek patriot, is initially portrayed with a degree of arch grandiloquence. He is at work on a history of Cephalonia but can't strike the proper heroic note; and each evening, relieving himself in the garden, "he nitrogenated the herbs in strict succession."
This incenses Pelagia; in turn, her goat chews on the doctor's manuscript. "Pelagia, your accursed ruminant has eaten everything I've written tonight," Iannis expostulates. The two are proud of each other--the unconventional Iannis wants his daughter to become a doctor--and when war comes, each becomes a hero.
War, in fact, floats "Corelli's Mandolin" off its whimsical dry dock. It provides rigors and tragedies that give the author scope to exercise his powers for horror, irony and sweet human comedy without seeming forced. The account of the Italian army's disastrous winter campaign in the northern mountains is told brilliantly through the wistful and outraged voice of Guercio, an Italian soldier whose hidden homosexuality and vocation for heroic sacrifice fuse radiantly at the end.
Lodged in Dr. Iannis' house, the Italian captain, Corelli, manages to bridge after a stormy start the gap between invader and invaded. His pacific nature, his lyrical optimism and his astounding proficiency on the mandolin state a humane alternative to the barbarism of war.
His solution to the dehumanization of a communal military latrine is to organize the users into a choir. When a fanatical Nazi officer happens by, Corelli returns the "Heil Hitler" with a "Heil Puccini." The German will eventually be confronted--tragically, it turns out--with his own humanity; but the process begins when Corelli magnanimously inducts him into the choir. Because he has no voice, he is assigned the position of "dotted demisemiquaver rest."
The comic inventiveness--the mandolin is well-chosen for its flowery ornamentation of sad songs--is inseparable from the tragedy. De Bernieres may overdo the whimsy at times, but he is terribly convincing about the awfulness, whether it is the massacre of the Italian garrison by the Germans, Dr. Iannis' fearsome improvisations as he sews up the terribly injured Corelli without medical supplies (he uses four mandolin strings), or the wretched, starving state of Greek villages during and after the war. (When an American relief officer walks through a village with his one Greek word, "Hungry?" he fails to emphasize the question mark, and the starving peasants scrounge him up a banquet.)
De Bernieres has not only written an impassioned story; he has written it from an impassioned point of view. Mandras, Pelagia's former fisherman-fiance, becomes a communist guerrilla, commits all kinds of atrocities, shirks fighting the Germans, and returns, grossly fat, to attempt to rape her. It is, to say the least, a shorthand way of taking historical sides on a civil war in which there was plenty of horror to go around.
Despite the forced beginning, and routine ending that hastily sums up 50 years of postwar Greece through Pelagia, her adopted daughter and the daughter's son, the author has mostly used his passion well.
Inflated at times; at others, "Corelli's Mandolin" is authentically outsized and alluring.
Imbued with a mythic weight and a delightful tragicomic lightness, Louis de Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin bursts with tenderness and wit. This is the story of a tiny Greek island, occupied by the Italian army and subsequently forgotten, for a time, while the attention of opposing powers was focused on larger theaters during World War II. This is the story of a tightly-knit community, with the attendant cast of quirky characters, refusing to be dominated by its "conquerors." This is the story of love found, betrayed, lost, and at long last found again.
A country doctor without a formal degree, Dr. Iannis has tried to raise his motherless daughter, Pelagia, as best he could. With a medical knowledge acquired over years of far-flung sea travel, Dr. Iannis is nonetheless respected in his small village on the tiny island of Cephallonia. A gruff but lovable man, he has raised his daughter to become an intelligent and beautiful young woman. The doctor and his cronies listen to British radio reports of a world-altering conflict driven by two madmen, Hitler and Il Duce. While the older men wait for war to wash up on their shores, Pelagia falls into her first love with a handsome local fisherman, Mandras.
The doctor, resigning himself to the fact that he will think no one worthy of his daughter, acquiesces when Mandras asks for Pelagia's hands. But the young fisherman himself feels less than worthy of his prospective bride. Mandras asks Pelagia to wait to marry him until after he has returned from fighting in the Greek army against the encroaching Italians. Pelagia reluctantly agrees, and over the ensuing months writes Mandras letter upon letter. Never receiving a reply, she feels her love for him waning and begins to suspect he will never return. The prospect brings an unwelcome sense of guilty relief.
The Italians take over the island, and Dr. Iannis and Pelagia find themselves billeting Antonio Corelli, a mandolin player who happens to be a captain in the Italian army. Irreverent, exuberant and handsome, Captain Corelli wins the heart of Pelagia without her even realizing it. The Italians on Cephallonia, abandoned to their own devices by their generals, nearly achieve acceptance into the communities they purportedly "hold," but they are still the enemy. The captain and Pelagia do what they can to keep the love everyone can see a secret.
Inevitably, the harsh realities of war rain down with brutal force upon the island. The incompetencies and indecisions of the Italian commanders sentence their troops in Greece to death at the hands of their former allies, the Germans. Death and sorrow smother the brief happiness Pelagia has known with her Italian soldier, atrocity replacing beauty on tiny Cephallonia. Fate holds in store bitter loss for the young Greek woman whose beauty has faded with the deprivations of war. With all of the unlikely truth of an ancient Greek myth, Pelagia's wounds are reopened and salted. Her pain will be rewarded, though, in the end, in a bittersweet reunion whose intensity of renewed loss could wring tears from the eyes of even the most stubborn cynic.
Corelli's Mandolin is not in the least a simple love story. It is a portrait of a fiercely proud and independent little community rebelling in what small ways it can. It is a snapshot of the horrors endured by the men in combat during the Second World War. It is a damning commentary on the grandiose lack of sense among the leaders who would mold the world to fit their petty desires. It is a witty, charming, intelligent tale that possesses the reader to finish without stopping. It is a tragic story of star-crossed lovers given one more chance at happiness after a lifetime of loss, and it is worth every moment you spend turning its pages.