Imbued with a mythic weight and a delightful tragicomic lightness,
Louis de Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin bursts with tenderness
and wit. This is the story of a tiny Greek island, occupied by the
Italian army and subsequently forgotten, for a time, while the attention
of opposing powers was focused on larger theaters during World War II.
This is the story of a tightly-knit community, with the attendant cast of
quirky characters, refusing to be dominated by its "conquerors." This is
the story of love found, betrayed, lost, and at long last found again.
A country doctor without a formal degree, Dr. Iannis has tried to raise
his motherless daughter, Pelagia, as best he could. With a medical knowledge
acquired over years of far-flung sea travel, Dr. Iannis is nonetheless
respected in his small village on the tiny island of Cephallonia. A gruff
but lovable man, he has raised his daughter to become an intelligent and
beautiful young woman. The doctor and his cronies listen to British
radio reports of a world-altering conflict driven by two madmen, Hitler and Il Duce. While
the older men wait for war to wash up on their shores, Pelagia falls into
her first love with a handsome local fisherman, Mandras.
The doctor, resigning himself to the fact that he will think no one
worthy of his daughter, acquiesces when Mandras asks for Pelagia's hands.
But the young fisherman himself feels less than worthy of his prospective
bride. Mandras asks Pelagia to wait to marry him until after he has
returned from fighting in the Greek army against the encroaching Italians.
Pelagia reluctantly agrees, and over the ensuing months writes Mandras letter upon letter. Never receiving a reply, she
feels her love for him waning and begins to suspect he will never return.
The prospect brings an unwelcome sense of guilty relief.
The Italians take over the island, and Dr. Iannis and Pelagia find
themselves billeting Antonio Corelli, a mandolin player who happens to
be a captain in the Italian army. Irreverent, exuberant and handsome,
Captain Corelli wins the heart of Pelagia without her even realizing it.
The Italians on Cephallonia, abandoned to their own devices by their generals,
nearly achieve acceptance into the communities they purportedly "hold,"
but they are still the enemy. The captain and Pelagia do what they can
to keep the love everyone can see a secret.
Inevitably, the harsh realities of war rain down with brutal force upon
the island. The incompetencies and indecisions of the Italian commanders
sentence their troops in Greece to death at the hands of their former
allies, the Germans. Death and sorrow smother the brief happiness Pelagia
has known with her Italian soldier, atrocity replacing beauty on tiny
Cephallonia. Fate holds in store bitter loss for the young Greek woman
whose beauty has faded with the deprivations of war. With all of the
unlikely truth of an ancient Greek myth, Pelagia's wounds are reopened and
salted. Her pain will be rewarded, though, in the end, in
a bittersweet reunion whose intensity of renewed loss could wring tears
from the eyes of even the most stubborn cynic.
Corelli's Mandolin is not in the least a simple love story.
It is a portrait of a fiercely proud and independent little community
rebelling in what small ways it can. It is a snapshot of the horrors endured
by the men in combat during the Second World War. It is a damning
commentary on the grandiose lack of sense among the leaders who would mold
the world to fit their petty desires. It is a witty, charming, intelligent
tale that possesses the reader to finish without stopping. It is a tragic
story of star-crossed lovers given one more chance at happiness after a
lifetime of loss, and it is worth every moment you spend turning its pages.