Reading this book has been a long time coming, partially due to the unfortunate fact that the well-known film adaptation was released before I got around to it, a situation that typically puts me off picking a book up. However, after reading Louis de Bernières brilliant The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts whilst camping in Scotland I began to realise that I could be missing out on something very special indeed.
How naive I was to proclaim just a couple of weeks ago that I was picking this book up because I was in need of some romance and sunshine! Romance there certainly is, but, given the setting, this is a tale of love set in very grisly and gritty times, please banish all images of Penelope Cruz reclining on sunbaked beaches and frolicking in the crystal clear water from your minds if you’re able (clearly I haven’t seen the film either!)
Village sweetheart Pelagia lives a peaceful life on the island of Cephallonia with her beloved father; the local Doctor Iannis. This happy existence is disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the inevitable invasion by Italian and German troops. The heavy historical setting serves as the backdrop, as we see in many novels, for the moving stories of the individuals caught up in it; in this case the unexpected and controversial romance that blossoms between Pelagia and Antonio Corelli, an Italian officer garrisoned in her humble home. Despite her reluctance to feel any affection for this invader and his troop of fun-loving, singing soldiers (nicknamed ‘La Scala’) coupled with her engagement to local fisherman Mandras, this unlikely pair form a deep bond that truly stands the test of time.
De Bernières has clearly done his research here and it is pleasant to come away from a book knowing that you have not only enjoyed the fictional story but also learnt something as well. Although my shame at my complete ignorance of important historical events is certainly not as great as it was when I finished reading Wild Swans, I am utterly appalled at my ignorance of the atrocities that were committed on that tiny island in living memory. These harrowing accounts make the more everyday, tender aspects of the book all the more touching and I particularly enjoyed the way in which each and every character was given the chance to tell his/her story apart from the main narrative. As in Don Emmanuel, the style of writing is quirky and has something decidedly ‘foreign’ about it. Whereas his earlier novel betrayed a solid understanding and immersion in the world of magical realism and showed us an author who is clearly well-versed in Latin-American literature and the styles and techniques of the great masters such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Captain Corelli is so utterly evocative of the Mediterranean landscape and peoples that is very hard to believe that it is the creation of a Sandhurst-educated philosophy graduate.
My only complaint about this novel would be the unsatisfying ending (not to be discussed and thus spoilt here) and the handful of chapters that seemed to clash somewhat with the rest of the novel. Although the reader becomes accustomed to making great leaps in space and time, moving from one character’s experience of the war to the next, every few chapters or so we are presented with five or six pages of quirky, yet somewhat tiresome tirades against the likes of el DUCE (i.e. Mussolini) that although relevant and lending colour and context to the novel, simply went on for too long and left me looking at the words on the page but simply not reading them. I have no time for chapters like that whilst reading on the commute to work when it is difficult enough to concentrate as it is.
That said, this is a beautiful, often harrowing story that is full of colour and a joie de vivre that is second to none. That said, it simply doesn’t quite beat Don Emmanuel and I can’t wait to now crack on with his novel Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord and enjoy shenanigans from continents further afield.