Book Review: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

61ExyCrH2zL._SL500_AA300_I am not a cynic, but I do know that history is the propaganda of the victors. I know that if we win the war there will be shocking stories of British atrocities, volumes written to show the inevitability and justice of our cause, irrefutable evidence compiled to reveal the conspiracies of Jewish plutocrats, photographs of piles of bones found in mass graves in the suburbs of London. Equally I know that the reverse will be true if the British win. I know that the Duce has made it clear that the Greek campaign was a resounding victory for Italy. But he was not there. He does not know what happened. He does not know that the ultimate truth is that history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it. He ought to know that the truth is that we were losing badly until the Germans invaded from Bulgaria. He will never acknowledge this because the ‘truth’ belongs to the victors. But I was there, and I know what was happening in my part of the war. For me that war was an experience that shaped the whole course of my thought, it was the deepest personal shock that I have ever had, the worst and most intimate tragedy of my life. It destroyed my patriotism, it changed my ideals, it made me question the whole notion of duty, and it horrified me and made me sad.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: Louis de Bernieres

I’d seen the movie version of this book by Louis de Bernieres starring Penelope Cruz, Nicholas Cage and Christian Bale, and laughed like everyone else at the horrid accents portrayed by the main characters. So when my friend Rachel suggested this book to me when we were browsing at Chapters one day, I arched my eyebrows in question, wondering if the text would betray the badly spoken script of the movie. However, as I became engrossed in this book, I found I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve long been interested in the stories from the World Wars. I can’t help being drawn to them for some strange reason. I can’t get the small and impressive stories out of my mind. So of course I welcomed the opportunity to learn a new historical fiction account of the war so few of us hear about because of the Jewish atrocities.

The novel’s storyline is different from what I remember the movie’s to be. The book itself is rich in depth. It looks to the individual stories of many colorful characters to deal with the varying ramifications of war. It is much edgier in topic, and less sexy in feel than the movie because it intertwines together layers of themes: ostracizing races and homosexuality; people banding together to fight for what’s right despite differing opinions; the way idealists would believe anything just to get through the war itself; Marxism, communism and fascism; unrequited love; childhood innocence; technology; poverty and survival; and romance. The movie itself focuses both the implications and atrocities of war, and on the romance between Pelagia and Captain Corelli, its triumphs, its trials and its implications. Its focus is on the union of two nations set at war. It does this to provide a clearer narrative to the story, giving a slightly more action-packed and romantic version to keep audiences satisfied. This is ironic since Louis de Bernieres deliberately takes his time passing through the storyline specifically to give the impression that Greece was a forgotten war-front, and that so many of the occupiers came to enjoy its space. Despite getting a little frustrated with the lengthy descriptions of spaces and times in the author’s narratives, I found this book to be truly enjoyable and very satisfying read. He gives the history a variety of points of view to show that history does truly belong to and consist of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it. It is this coloring of perspectives amidst a general sense that these atrocities should never have happened that I most thoroughly enjoyed. I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves stories about the World Wars, colorful excerpts and anecdotes, and a renewed sense of appreciation for other cultures, whether you liked the movie or not.

As a more personal side note, I have been wondering lately if there were truly anything worth fighting for in this world. It started because I was watching the extended version of the Lord of the Rings DVDs, which has a few sections devoted entirely to Tolkien, and his life. He himself fought in the first World War, and lost many of his friends. Many Tolkien scholars believe that the relationships and battles in the books were formed directly from his war experiences. In the movie, the writers gave Samwise Gamgee the line that there’s something good in this world worth fighting for, and the editors overlap war scenes with women and children hiding while being defended against orcs and the like. While I can believe in fighting in war where good battles directly against evil, I find it harder now to know what the good is that we’re actually fighting for. So many novels I’ve read with historically fictional accounts of war stress the futility of the wars themselves. They look at individual accounts who document the battle lines, losing friends, obtaining wounds, and survival. They are bleak, and the only possible way I can deal with them, especially in the Second World War, is by reconciling them with the larger problem of Nazis taking rights and then lives away from second class people, which is completely wrong. In the subsequent wars I get the feeling (without the necessary proof) that we’ve entered into battle upon battle without having a clearly definable reason to fight, and this led to nothing but embarrassment. I know in my heart that the planes that crashed on 9/11 were a direct act of war. But I don’t know that the war in Iraq, or the potential wars on Iran or Korea will be. I then wonder if people in the 1930’s ever believed that they would end up in such a state of war. I do know, however, that I will always believe that there is some good in people, and I hope and pray that despite the atrocities of war, it is worth fighting for.