Corelli's Mandolin (de Bernieres)

Book Reviews
Heartbreaking, beautiful and deeply moving—if not always entirely believable—de Bernieres's extraordinary novel is based on a historic episode: the Nazis' occupation of the sleepy Greek island of Cephallonia and their slaughter of thousands of occupying Italian troops who turned against fascism in solidarity with the native Greeks. The novel's central love story, pairing willful Greek beauty Pelagia and jesting Italian captain Antonio Corelli, a mandolin player, reluctant soldier and despiser of Mussolini, veers toward sentimentality until their idyll is shattered by the German invasion. Pelagia's immature fiance, Greek fisherman Mandras, becomes a fanatical Communist, commits atrocities and later returns from battle to beat Pelagia, who shoots him. By this time, Corelli—saved from a Nazi firing squad by his driver, Carlo, a closet homosexual who unrequitedly loves him--has left to fight the Germans. Pelagia narrowly survives, but her father, an erudite widowed doctor, is killed by Greek Communists. De Bernieres follows the fortunes of his resilient heroine and the war orphan she adopts through 1933, when we learn that Corelli, presumed dead, has absented himself for decades due to a calamitous misunderstanding. Swinging between antic ribaldry and criminal horror, between corrosive satire and infinite sorrow, this soaring novel glows with a wise humanity that is rare in contemporary fiction.
Publishers Weekly

 Set on the Greek island of Cephallonia, this splendid novel spans five decades beginning in the late 1930s just before the Axis forces occupy the island. Using myriad voices to chronicle the horrors of combat and the boredom of occupation, it is by turns funny, sad, and cruel. Corelli is an Italian army captain, a member of the first extraneous forces to occupy Cephallonia, and the lover of Pelagia Iannis. It is through Pelagia's voice that much of the story is revealed, but the chorus includes her father, various Greek villagers, Italian and Greek soldiers, and a goatherd. Besides showing considerable knowledge of historical events and of stringed instruments, the author reveals a keen ability to switch perspectives from young to old, monarchist to Communist, combat soldier to passive peasant, male to female. It doesn't matter that the plot becomes a bit sappy in the last 20 pages because most readers will have already guessed the conclusion and are reveling in the glitter of all that precedes it.
Library Journal

A felicitous change of setting to Greece after an epic trilogy set in Latin America (The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, 1993, etc.) seems to have liberated de Bernieres's particular brand of intelligent satire. Dr. Iannis, a wise-father figure of the sort familiar from de Bernieres's other books, plays choric host to a portrait of life on the island of Cephallonia as Greece is invaded by Italian and German troops during WW II. His brilliant and beautiful daughter, Pelagia, is the story's heroine. Swirling around them are de Bernieres's trademark crowd: earth mother, feral girl-child, village strongman, drunkard priest, politically argumentative old man, inarticulate goatherder, and Mandras, an illiterate fisherman who feeds dolphins. They are joined by the soldiers: Carlo Piero Guercio, a tightly closeted homosexual; Captain Antonio Corelli, his clown of a commanding officer, who is a virtuoso mandolin player; and Gunter Weber, a German who carries around a gramophone so that everyone can enjoy "Lili Marlene." Beginning with Dr. Iannis removing a 60-year-old pea from the ear of one of the villagers and miraculously restoring his hearing, the narrative features one scene of biting political satire after another, although excerpts from Dr. Iannis's historical writings sometimes slow the pace. De Bernieres has toned down his predilection for magical realism; there is just enough of it here, used in just the right way and at the right time, to enhance the sense of wonder and horror intertwined throughout the book. The horror comes from the immediacy of war, the starvation, illness, and madness it brings with it, and the insidious way it changes the innocent Mandras from haunting merman to haunted, sadistic beast. The wonder comes from moments like Pelagia's spying on young Mandras while he frolics with dolphins and the antics of Corelli, Pelagia's fascist lover. Good, thoughtful reading: a black comedy in the Vonnegut tradition.
Kirkus Reviews

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