Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is an extremely comedic yet awfully emotional story about love, war and music. Set in the mid 20th century during the World War, Berniéres first introduces the reader to the beautiful abyss of the Cephalonian Greek Island, where Dr. Iannis, also a budding literary resides with his lovely daughter Pelagia, an extraordinary cook whose secret wish is to one day, even if just a teensy bit, be a doctor like her father.
She gets engaged to a fisherman Mandras, the first man who makes her swing her hips unconsciously in foolish young love. Soon he joins the army as a non-partisan Greek in a war mainly between the Italians and Germans in the hope of returning to his fiancée as a hero, and not just a poor fisherman. Unfortunately, the man returns affected by the war—sick, enraged and psychopathic. It’s only the island’s cloud of aroma from preparations for Easter’s scrumptious feast that get Mandras out of bed and into lighting a candle and rejoining believers in a holy march, during which both his mother and Pelagia wonder inwardly, if indeed Mandras has also risen like the Christ. After the ceremony, the man goes back to his old crazy and helpless self. During Pelagia’s stay with her man, she finds out that illiteracy hindered him from reading any of the love letters she had sent him during his time in the war. Just as Mandras is coaxing Pelagia to read to him old letters, some of which their intent and heart had since changed, Italian soldiers invade the island—a relief for Pelagia who then thanks heavens and runs away in realization that she’s fallen out of love with Mandras, who then finally rises and heads back to war. Oh the satire.
The Italian invaders chose Dr. Iannis house for their Captain, also a mandolin player Antonio Corelli mainly because the doctor happens to be one of the best Italian-speaking Greeks in the island. The uninvited but noble guest is forever embarrassed by having led this invasion, and even further by displacing Pelagia from her own bed as directed by her father so as to get medicinal supplies in exchange. Corelli spends most of his free time alone with Antonia, his mandolin. He’s mostly dreaming of being a musician while playing and composing songs for Pelagia, who shyly notices. The captain even recruits his officers to sing in his La Scala band, whose memorable times would include singing out loud together with Corelli’s mandolin by the sea and outside the doctor’s house on silent nights.
When the war erupts, two lovers are caught between race, history and allegiances. It’s hard enough to keep alive during war, let alone being in love with an invader. When the Germans invade the invaders, the island becomes crippled as Corelli and his officers face a firing squad. Carlo, one of the captain’s men shields him from the firing bullets with his gigantic body and empowered by the memoir of his long-lost unrequited love, Francesco, a former fallen soldier and ally. The doctor and Pelagia then save Corelli’s life afresh in a night-long surgery with hardly any equipment and medicine apart from a pittance and the captain’s mandolin strings, which the doctor uses to sew up his broken ribs. And would forever be part of his ribs. The captain is forced to flee the island for safety after he and Pelagia promise each other life-long marriage after the war. The now accomplished world musician never returned for at least another 40 years when he coincidentally meets a boy, Pelagia’s grandson Iannis playing [his] old savior Antonia, also after which the boy’s mother was named.
This book is an inspiration that life doesn’t have to be inclined on either side. Whether or not in war, love or music, we are part of history and should make the best of it in the time we have. Long before the war, Corelli complements a woolen colored coat that Pelagia was making for Mandras as “a masterpiece”, even though the owner had just rejected it citing asymmetry. “The human heart likes a little disorder in its geometry,” says the captain who let his rifle rust, and even lost it once or twice, but still won battles armed with nothing but a mandolin. If there were no arms or machines in the world and we had to go to war, what would be your only cover? Maybe not a mandolin or anything as sophisticated, but Louis de Berniéres reminds us all that sometimes to fight the biggest of war, it’s the seemingly most irrelevant things and people around us that will mostly save us.
BONUS: Quote from Carlo, “If there was only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at one another’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this.”