Louis de Bernieres is a British novelist who shot to fame with his fourth book namely, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It won several awards and was later made into a film that was much talked about. While many saw it as a simple war-time romance, local people and those who were connected with the resistance and the Communist party, were strident in their criticism of the partisan nature of de Bernieres’ treatment of the subject. Cephallonia became a popular tourist destination after the movie was shot there. But several locals resented the intrusion into their privacy.
Relevance of the Title
The title is relevant as the theme of music runs through the novel alongside several others. The mandolin is an effective symbol for Captain Corelli’s pacific nature. The music serves as a counterpoint to the barbarism of the war.
Love and War
Love in the times of war is a theme popular with writers. When there is bloodshed everywhere and people are faced with annihilation, love blossoms in the unlikeliest of places. In the story, Pelagia is engaged to Mandras, a local fisherman. Captain Corelli is part of the occupying force; getting romantically involved with her is not the best thing to do. Though Pelagia resists at first, she gets drawn to him through his gentle nature and his virtuosity on the mandolin. Contrasting the beauty of music with the ferocity of war, the author shows how so many lives were blighted by pointless fighting. Pelagia and Antonio lose a life each – one which could have been delightful, lived in each other’s company. When they finally get together, they are too old.
The people of Cephallonia have barely recovered from the invasion when they are struck by civil war. Greeks turn against Greeks displaying hatred of epic proportions. There is mistrust everywhere with families torn asunder because of conflicting loyalties.
As though the wars were not enough, Cephallonia is hit by a terrible earthquake. Every family loses loved ones, with young children caught in crumbling houses and the elderly left to fend for themselves.
Antonio Corelli must be considered the main character as the title of the novel bears his name although he makes his first appearance only in chapter 23. A soldier with a mandolin is unusual to say the least but he is never seen without it. He plays it like an angel and when he leaves the island, the mandolin is left behind with Pelagia, with the promise that he will come back for her and the mandolin. Captain Corelli’s sensitive character is revealed by his love of music; he is clearly unsuited for life as a soldier. The way he interacts with children and animals show his humanity. His naivety about politics and war, his humor and love for jokes give him an aura of childlike innocence. He believes what he sees and it is this that robs him and Pelagia the chance of happiness in life.
Dr. Iannis is many things rolled into one. He is the village doctor, the village historian, a savior to local people and a loving father to his motherless daughter. He is a liberal who does not mind expressing his views even when they come into conflict with the opinions some of his friends hold. He suffers torture which robs him of the power of speech. Nevertheless he does not lose his faith in humanity.
Dr. Iannis is a multi faceted doctor who lives in the island of Cephallonia with his motherless daughter, Pelagia. She is really her father’s daughter. Like him, she is unafraid to speak her mind. She helps him in his surgery and is something of a doctor herself having watched her father at work. Though still very young, Pelagia falls in love with Mandras, a local fisherman and though clearly unsuited to each other, they get engaged. Before they can marry, war breaks out and Mandras leaves to join the army. Pelagia writes to him often, but she is perplexed why he never replies.
Part of the story is narrated by Guerico, an Italian homosexual who joins his country’s army which is attempting to capture Albania. In one of the battles, Francisco, his dear friend is shot by the Greek army which comes to the help of the Albanians. The Italian army is ineffective and it takes the Germans to quell the Greeks. Backed by the Germans, the Italian army conquers Greece. A contingent of Italian and German soldiers arrives at the island of Cephallonia which is a beautiful place.
The locals make their hatred for the occupying forces obvious. The gentle Captain Corelli with his mandolin is to billet with Dr. Iannis and his daughter but Pelagia resents his presence. Corelli tries to win over the locals with his music. Meanwhile, Mandras, injured in war, returns to Cephallonia. Though Pelagia nurses him devotedly, she realizes that she no longer loves him. He tells her that he is unlettered, that’s why he has not answered her letters. Mandras leaves to join the underground which is fighting the occupying forces. As time passes, Pelagia gets to know Capt. Corelli better; she finds him sensitive and civilized. He is also skilled at playing the mandolin. Inevitably, they fall in love. There is no news of Mandras. Believing him to be dead, she gets engaged to Corelli.
Meanwhile things happen in politics. Italy breaks ranks with Germany and joins the Allied Forces. In the garrison, the Germans and Italians are now on opposite sides. In a sudden move, the German soldiers, launch an attack on the Italian soldiers. Though Corelli is wounded, his life is saved by Guerico who shields Corelli using his own body. Capt. Corelli is carried to Dr. Iannis house where Pelagia hides him. Nursed by her, he recovers. As the Germans are searching for him, Corelli escapes to Italy as soon as he is better. He leaves behind his precious mandolin with Pelagia, promising to return as soon as the war is over.
The Germans, finding that Dr. Iannis has been shielding Corelli, torture him to the extent that he loses his power of speech. Unexpectedly, Mandras returns. He is now a Communist and he has taught himself to read. When he reads Pelagia’s later letters to him, he realizes that she does not love him anymore. It is Corelli that she loves. Enraged, he tries to rape her. She resists and he runs away; later when he realizes the extent of his crime, he is ashamed and commits suicide.
The war is now over. In 1953, Cephallonia is hit by a catastrophic earthquake that devastates the land. Dr. Iannis perishes in the quake. Sometime after this, Pelagia discovers a baby girl who has been abandoned on her door step. Naming her Antonia after Corelli’s beloved mandolin, she adopts the baby. Pelagia believes Corelli has died as she sees his ghost flitting about. Antonia is now a young woman. She marries and later has a baby son who is named Iannis.
Pelagia is now old. One day, an old man visits her. It turns out to be Capt. Corelli, now a famous mandolin player. Many years ago, he had come back to Cephallonia to marry Pelagia. But he sees her with little Antonia in her arms and believes that she has forsaken him and married someone else. Bitter, he quietly leaves the town. Now he knows the truth but it is too late.