Corelli's Mandolin: Read it Before You See it

Wondering what to pack in your beach bag for the next trip to Newport? Try Corelli’s Mandolin, a novel by Louis De BerniŠres and the subject of an upcoming film starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. Even if you are a die-hard fan of Cage and Cruz, you’re sure to enjoy this work better in its original literary form than on the silver screen. Members of my book club were agreed: the lyric quality of the author’s prose will prove difficult to translate intact into Hollywood imagery.
De BerniŠres’s story takes place in the years just before World War II on Cephalonia, a small Greek island. There the town doctor, Iannis and his daughter, Pelagia, enjoy an idyllic existence. Readers are treated to an interesting, if somewhat laborious, account of Cephalonia’s history and the details of its village life for the first hundred or so pages – but there is reason to persevere! De BerniŠres soon picks up the pace considerably.

The first interruption to Pelagia’s bucolic life occurs in 1940 when Italy attacks Greece. Mandras, Pelagia’s fianc‚ and the staple source of intrigue for the first part of the book, leaves Cephalonia for the battlefield. Upon Greece’s defeat, the island is occupied by the Italian army. One of the Italian officers is quartered with Dr. Iannis: Antonio Corelli, a high-spirited mandolin-player and opera aficionado.

A supposed enemy to the Cephalonians, Corelli soon charms his way into their community and, lo and behold, into Pelagia’s affections too, despite (or because of?) her feisty protests at his initial advances. The remainder of the book hinges around the couple’s relationship and the complications they face: German brutality, the pull of patriotism, an ex-fianc‚ run amok and the deprivations of a wartime economy.

In particular, incredible traumas and personal dilemmas are in store for Pelagia and Corelli as the Germans subject their onetime Italian allies to a series of atrocities. Afterwards, Greece is ravaged by a civil war between Communist and royalist forces and Pelagia and Corelli’s fate does not improve.
Throughout the novel, we are exposed to several characters’ unique perspectives. The sustaining one is Pelagia’s. Her quests for both independence and love remain the central themes of the work. On both counts, De BerniŠres weaves an intriguing and lovely story, though some readers may be troubled by the lack of realism that creeps into an otherwise grounded novel.
Particularly when it comes to Pelagia’s fierce independence, De BerniŠres had a hard time convincing this reader that a woman in a largely rural, patriarchal society in the 1940s would be indulged to the extent that Pelagia’s idiosyncrasies, strong will and dabblings in medicine are. She stands in striking contrast to another female character, Drousoula, who is treated as an outcast in the village for not conforming strictly to the standards of femininity valued at the time. Perhaps De BerniŠres wanted to create a female character to whom a modern audience could relate more easily, but he falls short of explaining Pelagia’s special license to act in ways otherwise scorned in her time.

The ending of the novel (which I will not ruin for prospective readers) creates pause for this reviewer as well in terms of its plausibility and fit with the story. The author’s resolve to please his readers with the ending they want (and one that Hollywood will pay a premium for) ends up sacrificing the integrity of the storyline and its characters by positing an all-too-neat tying up of loose ends. As much as we thank him for not leaving us depressed, I am not sure the alternative suspension of disbelief is any more palatable.

Despite its flaws, Corelli’s Mandolin is a powerful read. De BerniŠres’s gift with language and imagery enables him to span, in 438 pages, a wide range of human experience and emotion. It is not to be missed.

June 18, 2001
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