‘War is wonderful, until someone is killed.’ Such is the beauty- harrowing, hilarious- of Louis de Bernières’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. This epigram is typical of the writer’s uncivil genius. Another stroke of it: ‘Honour and common sense; in the light of the other, both of them are ridiculous.’
The novel follows happenings on the Greek island of Cephallonia, during World War II. As Pelagia says of her eccentric father, Dr Iannis, Bernières ‘made my feet grow into the earth by telling me its stories’.This idyll and its citizens are devastated by invasion and we are taken through every stage with sympathy and delicious skill. Bernières juggles comedy and tragedy artfully- amidst the chirping lyrics of town life there are staccato beats and refrains warning of catastrophe that reaches an agonising crescendo. Through him, time travel is possible- he leads the reader behind the ‘moss and honeysuckle’ to a paradise of the past, turning the world into an amphitheatre, regaling a happiness now on par with myth.
Myth, allegorically, is the starting point: an Elysium the setting- which is raped and ruined- and villagers strong as Hercules; likened to Apollo; evocative of Persephone. The weather, too, is made magic: ‘We were enveloped in snow, and an accursed Arctic wind sprang up from the north that flung itself upon us like the bunched fist of a Titan.’ All this seems part of Bernières’ effort to keep the Giants of the past alive, thus spotlighting the existing Earthly Gods: Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini etc. What Bernières seems to be asking is, what is wrong with fantasy? Or even, is there such a thing? He fluctuates from romanticism to reality throughout. When Socrates, sufferer of neurasthenia, is healed by a Saint’s Day parade he ‘performed the most athletic and spectacular tsalimia that any of them had ever seen’– do you readers disbelieve, he asks? Yet you can conceive a war of pandemonic proportions?
Bernières augments the poignancy of it by zeroing in on individual’s tragedies. As a storyteller, he shows himself to be a master of the polyphonic. In the first eight pages we have sympathy and can laugh with Dr Iannis. The second chapter, purely using the speech of one man to illustrate a scene, is so starkly different from the former narrator but recognisably Bernières in the deft use of vocabulary. It is the defiling of a fisherman, Madras, who swims with befriended dolphins, ‘A man who jumbled marriage together with whitebait and war […], with dolphins‘ that in some ways eclipses, defines, epitomises, if even for a moment, all the horrors of war. Such specifics make WWII- an intangible fantasy to many- raw and real. Metaxas, a ‘poodle amongst wolves‘; ‘A formidable widow who sometimes dreamed in Turkish but had forgotten how to speak it.‘- the cast is as formidable and intricate as Isabel Allende’s in ‘House of Spirits’.
Almost sacrilegiously (for a war novel), the story is jubilantly weaved with long syntax buoyed by effervescent vocabulary. This creates a highly comical voice rich with hyperbole and bathos. Visconti Prasca is, for example, ‘A meteor who turned out to be an incandescent fart’. Bernières sophisticates simplicity, as is seen in the passages below:
“You have an exorbitant auditory impediment,” replied the doctor, ever conscious of the necessity for maintaining a certain iatric mystique, and fully aware that ‘a pea in the ear’ was unlikely to earn him any kudos. ‘I can remove it with a fishhook and a small hammer; it’s the ideal way of overcoming un embarrass de petit pois.’ He spoke the French words in a mincingly Parisian accent, even though the irony was apparent only to himself.’
‘He took the old man over to the window, threw open the shutters, and an explosion of midday heat and light instantaneously threw the room into an effulgent dazzle, as though some importunate and unduly luminous angel had misguidedly picked that place for an epiphany.’
‘It had been a good day for payments; he had also earned two very large and fine crayfish, a pot of whitebait, a basil plant, and an offer of sexual intercourse (to be redeemed at his convenience).
The prose is generally poetry:
‘It exposes colours in their original prelapsarian state, as though straight from the imagination of God in His youngest days, when He still believed that all was good.’
‘[…] the Morse code of virgin light glancing after the perpetual motion of the waters, conspired together and unknotted the dry bones in his heart.‘
‘Its pupil began to transfix her like an awl.‘, not- one can note- ‘she was hooked’.
Bernières mocks the human race for its arrogance whilst simultaneously lionising them, making clowns of the ringmasters and star acts of commoners. Personification and anthropomorphism are prevalent techniques for this, in themselves symbolic of humans’ attempted domination of all, and the animation of the inanimate provides tension in the surprise of what will affect the story next. There is mastery in characterising a mine as ‘forlorn-looking’.; ‘With a metallic crash the gun leapt backwards, its base hopping on its bed like an excited dog jumping for a tidbit.‘; ‘martens […] gathered together in groups […] waiting like opera-lovers before the overture begins.‘ This raconteur knows the imagination and entertains it as a gifted host.
What is further evinced by the above is Bernières’ exciting ear for language. ‘Insufficiency of fish in the ocean‘- this gorgeous rush of sounds echoes the ocean itself. A character ‘spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose’, ‘talks Greek like a Spanish cow.‘ The title of the book proves prudent as this theme of sound, of musicality, is cardinal. Corelli is a name that sounds like the sweet strum of a mandolin, and the man is one with ‘nightingales in his fingers.‘ His love story with Pelagia- a resplendently intelligent and liberated woman- is lovely but was not the focal thread for me, so wrapped was I in the whole tapestry. Bells are struck by bullets and ‘she listened to the ominous silence of the morning, and realised that it was more consoling to listen to the barrages and thunderbolts of war.‘ Such attention to the aural is perfect given the traditional nature of the setting and the inhabitants affection for the inherited past, as when stories were oral events.
It is a book that is as enlightening as it is reproachful, contemptuous and sensuous, centering on the heartbreaking truth of the fallibility of humanity. I loved this book for what it taught me and finish this laud with a final quote:
‘I have always tried to show you the affection that I have felt, without taking anything from you and without giving you anything that you did not want.‘