Corelli's Mandolin (de Bernieres)

Corelli's Mandolin 
Louis de Bernieres, 1994
Knopf Doubleday
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679763970


Summary
The Greek island of Cephallonia—peaceful, remote, famed for its beauty, its light, its mythic history—and only just beginning to enter the twentieth century when the tide of World War II rolls onto its shores. This is the setting for Louis de Bernieres's lyrical, heartbreaking, and hilarious chronicle of the days and nights of the island's inhabitants over fifty tumultuous years.

"It was an island filled with gods," writes Dr. Iannis, Cephallonia's healer and fledgling historian. And though the people who fill the island in 1940 may be less divine than their Olympian forebears, they are nonetheless divinely human, and none more so than the doctor's daughter, Pelagia. Willful, proud, independent, and beautiful, Pelagia finds herself between two men: Mandras, a handsome young fisherman, besotted with love for her but determined to permanently secure her love (and a dowry from her father) by finding "something to get to grips with" when he joins the resistance; and Captain Corelli, a charming, mandolin-playing, exceedingly reluctant officer of the Italian garrison that establishes the Axis presence on the island.

Corelli is thought slightly mad in his passion for music and the gentleness of his troops' "occupation" of Cephallonia. Yet his madness quickly begins to make life seem more "various, rich, and strange" for everyone who encounters him—especially, and most confusingly, for Pelagia...

But with the arrival of the Germans and then of the Communists, life on the island becomes more chaotic and barbaric, more certainly a part of the process by which "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then again as tragedy." Pelagia's life, once rife with possibility, an idyll of time, becomes a long search for something fine and lasting amid loss and separation, deprivation and fear.

Her story of love found and changed and misplaced, and the story of the life she shares with the people of Cephallonia—a life permanently altered by the war and its brutal aftermath. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—December 8, 1954
Where—London
Education—Bradfield College; Victoria University of
   Manchester; University of London
Awards—Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1994.
Currently—London


Louis de Bernieres is a British novelist most famous for his fourth novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. In 1993 de Bernières was selected as one of the "20 Best of Young British Novelists", part of a promotion in Granta magazine. Captain Corelli's Mandolin was published in the following year, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book. It was also shortlisted for the 1994 Sunday Express Book of the Year. It has been translated into over 11 languages and is an international bestseller.

In 2008 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in the Arts by the De Montfort University in Leicester, which he had previously attended when it was known as Leicester Polytechnic.

De Bernières-Smart was born near Woolwich and grew up in Surrey, the first part of his surname being inherited from a French Huguenot forefather. He was educated at Bradfield College and joined the army when he was 18, but left after four months of service at Sandhurst. He attended the Victoria University of Manchester and the Institute of Education, University of London.

Before he began to write full-time he held a wide variety of jobs, including being a mechanic, a motorcycle messenger and an English teacher in Colombia. He now lives near Bungay in Suffolk with his partner, Cathy and two children, Robin and Sophie. De Bernières is an avid musician. He plays the flute, mandolin, clarinet and guitar, though considers himself an “enthusiastic but badly-educated and erratic” amateur. His literary work often references music and composers he admires, such as the guitar works of Villa-Lobos and Antonio Lauro in the Latin American trilogy, and the mandolin works of Vivaldi and Hummel in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Books
Latin American trilogy
It was his experiences in Colombia (as well as the influence of writer Gabriel García Márquez, describing himself as a "Marquez parasite") that, he says, profoundly influenced his first three novels, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (1990), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992).

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
De Bernieres' most famous book is his fourth, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, in which the eponymous hero is an Italian soldier who is part of the occupying force on a Greek island during the Second World War. In the US it was originally published as Corelli's Mandolin.

In 2001, the book was turned into a film. De Bernieres strongly disapproved of the film version, commenting, "It would be impossible for a parent to be happy about its baby's ears being put on backwards." He does however state that it has redeeming qualities, and particularly likes the soundtrack.

Since the release of the book and the movie, Cephalonia (the island on which the book is set) has become a major tourist destination; and as a result the tourist industry on the island has begun to capitalise on the book's name. Of this, de Bernieres said: "I was very displeased to see that a bar in Agia Efimia has abandoned its perfectly good Greek name and renamed itself Captain Corelli's, and I dread the idea that sooner or later there might be Captain Corelli Tours, or Pelagia Apartments."

Red Dog
His book Red Dog (2001) was inspired by a statue of a dog he saw during a visit to the Pilbara region of Western Australia and has been filmed in 2011.

Birds Without Wings
Set in Turkey this 2004 novel portrays the people in a small village toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Kemal Atatürk, and the outbreak of the First World War.

A Partisan's Daughter
His 7th novel, published in 2008 tells of the relationship between a young Yugoslavian woman and a middle-aged British man in the 1970s, set in London.

Notwithstanding
Published in 2009, Notwithstanding is a collection of short stories revolving around a fictional English village, Notwithstanding, and its eccentric inhabitants. Many of the stories were published separately earlier in de Bernieres's career and are based on the village where he grew up, Wormley, Surrey, and he muses whether this is, or is no longer, the rural idyll. The author reflects in the Afterword:

I realised that I had set so many of my novels and stories abroad, because custom had prevented me from seeing how exotic my own country is. Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations...We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough...Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)



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



Discussion Questions
1. What understanding does Pelagia have of love as a young girl? How do her ideas come to change during the course of the novel? What is Carlo Guercio's definition of love? How does it guide his actions throughout the story? What is the difference between the love he feels for Francisco and that which he feels for Corelli? How might the other characters define love? Which of them lives up to his or her conception of it?

2. Why do you think de Bernieres chose to make his romantic hero a musician? Why is music, of all the arts, a potential healer of international folly and strife? What significance does Corelli's composition "Pelagia's March" carry within the narrative?

3. After Mandras tries to rape Pelagia, he is very decisively rejected not only by Pelagia but by his own mother. Does Drosoula's rejection of her son strike you as reasonable or heartless? As natural or unnatural? Was Mandras irredeemably lost at this point, or might he perhaps have been saved?

4. What is the role of the Church in Cephallonian life? What does pragmatic toleration of the drunken Arsenios say about the islanders' culture, their character, and their religion? How does Arsenios repay their tolerance? Does the palpable presence of the ancient deities alongside the Orthodox ceremonial enrich the Greeks' faith or dilute it? What importance does the cult of Saint Gerasimos have for the islanders? What interpretation do individual characters such as Dr. Iannis and Pelagia give to the saint's miraculous "cures"?

5. Dr. Iannis writes that the island of Cephallonia is "so immense in antiquity that the very rocks themselves exhale nostalgia and the red earth lies stupefied not only by thesun, but by the impossible weight of memory" [p. 5]. How does their awareness of the island's history and prehistory color the way the Cephallonians see themselves? Does it help them to come to terms with their traditional roles in life? What attitude does it give them toward their recent conquerors?

6. "Honour and common sense; in the light of the other, both of them are ridiculous" [p. 320]. What does de Bernieres mean by this? How do the novel's events confirm or illustrate this statement? Do you find that in certain of the novel's characters these two qualities are not, in fact, mutually exclusive?

7. Carlo Guercio memorably describes the war as "frivolous" [p. 116]. What does he mean by this? How is the quality of frivolity exemplified in the actions of the military leaders and those who follow them? Do you find the adjective an appropriate one for the war described in these pages?

8. What message does this book deliver on the nature of political ideology and political passion? What is the role of political ideology in the lives of Mandras, Kokolias, Stamatis, Hector, Weber, Alexi? How do their actions support or refute their stated political creeds? What political or antipolitical ideals inspire the novel's most noble characters, Carlo and Dr. Iannis?

9. During World War II, atrocities and betrayals were committed on an unprecedented scale. De Bernieres explores the psychology of those who committed those atrocities through several of his characters. Mandras's justification that "it was Hector who was the executioner and he was only the hand" [p. 193] was a common one among Nazi, Fascist, and Communist executioners. How does this justification differ from Gunter Weber's traumatic decision to obey Hitler's order for the massacre of Italian soldiers? Why is Gunter characterized as a "good Nazi"? Is this appellation entirely ironic?

10. Do you find de Bernieres's use of national stereotypes to be effective within his fictional scheme? To what degree can Dr. Iannis be seen as the personification of Greece, Corelli as the spirit of Italy? Do they succeed as three-dimensional characters as well? Do Pelagia's and Corelli's guilt-induced decisions to refute their own nationalities make them any the less "Greek" or "Italian"?

11. Dr. Iannis finds that in writing his history, "objectivity seemed to be quite unattainable" [p. 4]. Carlo says that history tends to be "the propaganda of the victors" when it should consist "only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it" [p. 33]. Does de Bernieres confront these problems in the way he writes his own historical novel? What narrative techniques does he employ in telling his story? In his Author's Note, de Bernieres describes history as "hearsay tempered with myth and hazy memory" [p. 436], yet he himself has in fact remained very faithful to the historical facts as we know them. Why, then, does he offer this apology? Are myth and history significantly differentiated by de Bernieres? By Iannis? By Pelagia?

12. Did Pelagia believe that Corelli died during the war? If not, why does she not leave Cephallonia and try to find him? Does her remaining at home denote passivity or ambivalence about their relationship? What about Pelagia's initial rage at Corelli when they meet again—do you feel that her anger is excessive, or that possibly she is not angry enough?

13. In Pelagia's youth no woman was allowed to enter a kapheneia; thirty years later, the elderly Drosoula runs her own taverna and young Antonia is a successful businesswoman. Changes in social mores might not have manifested themselves as dramatically on Cephallonia during the postwar years as they did in more cosmopolitan areas, but they were in fact radical and profound. How does everyday life on Cephallonia reflect these changes? What role, if any, did the 1953 earthquake play in changing the island, and in the shift in generations? Does de Bernieres imply that the changes are for the better, or for the worse? Or, perhaps, that in essence life has not changed very much at all?

14. Does the happy ending conform with the plot and spirit of the entire novel, or does it represent a shift into a more fantastic, less realistic mode? Do you find it to be an appropriate or an inappropriate conclusion to Pelagia's and Corelli's story?

15. In what way are the novel's characters directly or indirectly compared with figures from Greek mythology? Among the Cephallonians, what modern manifestations do we find of Apollo, Aphrodite, Penelope, Odysseus, Hercules, and other mythological figures? What message about time and change does de Bernieres convey through these parallels?

16. De Bernieres chooses his characters' names with care. What significance can you ascribe to particular names, such as Pelagia, Mandras, Hector, Corelli, Weber?

17. Why do you think de Bernieres has chosen the Humbert Wolfe poem "The Soldier" to launch his narrative? Which themes in the poem are explored in the novel itself? Perhaps the most famous war poem in the English language, by Rupert Brooke, is also called "The Soldier." How does Wolfe's poem comment upon Brooke's? How might the various soldiers in Corelli's Mandolin respond to the assertions made by both poets? Is the kind of idealism glorified by Brooke finally meaningless, as many of his contemporaries, physically and emotionally crushed by World War I, came to find it? Or is it in fact a valuable characteristic, at least within de Bernieres's moral scheme?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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