A Farewell to Arms: Review of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'
Kelly McWilliam
Back to 'words' section index

Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin
10 Sept. 2001
 
Bit
Bit
1
  First published almost seven years ago, Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has become the latest ‘overnight success’. Driven most recently by the 2001 release of John Madden’s film adaptation of the text, de Bernieres’ novel has been widely celebrated. After winning the ‘Best Book’ category at the 1995 Commonwealth Writers Prize soon after being published, de Bernieres’ novel has spent many (many) weeks in various best-seller lists around the world, and has become a staple for book-clubs and reading groups, even more so since the film’s release.
Bit
2
  Set amid the Second World War, on Cephallonia, a small Greek island, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is an intricate tragi-comedy about both the macro- and micro-cosmic effects of war on the island’s small population, and its initially unwelcome intruders. De Bernieres’ novel represents a significant departure from the style of his earlier trilogy that began with his critically successful debut novel The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts in 1991, and concluded with The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. Indeed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin features a distinct move towards historical fiction, and an almost self-conscious realism that contrasts with de Bernieres’ earlier ‘magic-realist’ approach. That said, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin also has a lot in common with its predecessors (albeit to varying degrees), including the requisite group of eccentric characters, a quirky presentation of regional idiosyncrasies, and a distinct focus on the humanity evident in tragic situations.
Bit
3
  At the centre of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is, well, Captain Corelli and his, erm, mandolin. The novel is, however, most significantly concerned with Cephallonia’s local physician, Dr Iannis, and his daughter Pelagia - the attractive, but headstrong young woman typical of the historical/romantic genre from which de Bernieres’ book is based. The novel follows Pelagia’s ‘first love’ with Mandras, a beautiful local fisherman who, after what must regrettably be called their ‘blossoming love’, leaves to fight in the war. Soon after, Cephallonia is invaded by Italian soldiers, who are (almost) caricatured in their slightly lack-lustre quest to hold the island captive, an unfortunate result of Mussolini’s (enthusiastically) caricatured alliance with Hitler. Perhaps predictably, a passionate Italian captain - Antonio Corelli - soon begins a romantic intrigue with Pelagia (who suffers a not-entirely-convincing guilt, regarding the apparently M.I.A. Mandras), that moves quickly to the ‘wartime love’ also typical of the genre.
Bit
4
  The mandolin-as-symbol works particularly well throughout the novel, and Corelli and Pelagia’s relationship - while structurally predictable and, towards the end of the novel, thematically frustrating - is as engaging and charming, as it is tragic. Carlo’s desperate love for Corelli is, on the other hand, handled with a pathos that moves uneasily between an awkward empathy and a latent incivility. The long list of minor characters in the novel are, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the text, and provide an unusual and consistently enticing counter-point to the novel’s protagonists, and the always uncomfortable and devastating threat/experience of war.
Bit
5
  Also of interest - particularly considering the international acclaim the book (and author) has received - is the increasing murmurs of criticism about the content of the novel. Indeed, criticism for the book has apparently spread to producers of the recent film adaptation, who also faced fierce condemnation from Cephalonian war veterans, who consider the book a dramatically inaccurate portrait of the period (and of the Cephalonians in particular). In particular, Captain Amos Pampaloni, an ex-Italian-soldier “whose experiences almost exactly reflect those of the fictional Corelli, accuses the British author of rewriting the story of Cephalonia's war and ‘pandering to racism’ by portraying Greek partisans as ‘barbarians’”. Pampaloni refers to the later half of the novel where the Cephalonians abandon the Italian soldiers who, by this stage, are attempting to defend Cephalonia against the German invaders. Also of interest - particularly considering the international acclaim the book (and author) has received - is the increasing murmurs of criticism about the content of the novel. Indeed, criticism for the book has apparently spread to producers of the recent film adaptation, who also faced fierce condemnation from Cephalonian war veterans, who consider the book a dramatically inaccurate portrait of the period (and of the Cephalonians in particular). In particular, Captain Amos Pampaloni, an ex-Italian-soldier “whose experiences almost exactly reflect those of the fictional Corelli, accuses the British author of rewriting the story of Cephalonia's war and ‘pandering to racism’ by portraying Greek partisans as ‘barbarians’”. Pampaloni refers to the later half of the novel where the Cephalonians abandon the Italian soldiers who, by this stage, are attempting to defend Cephalonia against the German invaders.
Bit
6
  As someone who was not involved in the war, and is not a Cephalonian, I am invariably unqualified to comment on such claims. What I can confirm however, is that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel that suffers heavily under the weight of various historical and social biases that render it strikingly problematic. It is, nonetheless, a commendable novel, and a ‘good read’. That said, to label Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an anti-war novel, or a romance, or an historical drama, would be to simplify it. Overall then, perhaps it is most useful to consider it a book that is most concerned with individuals and their various contexts and, for this reason, a book worth reading.
     
Bit
7
  Details

De Bernieres, Louis. Captain Corelli's Mandolin. London: Vintage, 1999.

Hardback:
ISBN = 0436201585
H/B Price = $52.65
First Released = 1-05-1994

Paperback:
ISBN = 0749397543
P/B Price = $21.90
First Released = 1-06-1995

     
Bit
8
  Citation reference for this article

MLA style:
Kelly McWilliam. "A Farewell to Arms: Review of Captain Corelli's Mandolin" M/C Reviews 10 Sept. 2001. [your date of access] <http://www.media-culture.org.au/reviews/words/corelli.html>.

Chicago style:
Kelly McWilliam, "A Farewell to Arms: Review of Captain Corelli's Mandolin," M/C Reviews 10 Sept. 2001, <http://www.media-culture.org.au/reviews/words/corelli.html> ([your date of access]).

APA style:
Kelly McWilliam. (2001) A Farewell to Arms: Review of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. M/C Reviews 10 Sept. 2001. <http://www.media-culture.org.au/reviews/words/corelli.html> ([your date of access]).

[image]
Links:
Vintage
 top
© M/C Reviews