Desert Island Books 4: Captian Corelli’s Mandolin

“How like a woman is a mandolin, how gracious and how lovely.”

I think I might have to start this with a warning – things are about to get a little over the top. I absolutely love Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, from cover to cover, every single word. And who would have thought that someone could find one of their all time favourite books after being “forced” to read it while studying English Lit at school?

I was never forced to read anything, of course. And it didn’t take me long to fall in love with this book or with Captain Corelli (well, it did take a little while, as he doesn’t appear until page 157). We spent many lessons discussing whether this fact is off putting to the reader, whether the rest of the book from that point is worth the wait, and how the story develops from the arrival of the invading Italians. But this is the way de Bernieres writes; he sets up a scene and a situation and makes the reader care about a set of characters, before throwing a huge spanner in the works and saying “There. What do you make of that?”

“I know you have not thought about it. Italians always act without thinking, it’s the glory and the downfall of your civilisation. A German plans a month in advance what his bowel movements will be at Easter, and the British plan everything in retrospect, so it always looks as though everything occurred as they intended. The French plan everything whilst appearing to be having a party, and the Spanish…well, God knows. Anyway, Pelagia is Greek, that’s my point.”

As a lover of history, the historical context surrounding this book is something that particularly appeals to me – the Italian Corelli, whose army is allied with that of Nazi Germany, comes to a Greek island as part of an occupying force, and with these different cultures and the backdrop of World War II, the reader is taken on a journey to see how, and if, these people can learn to live with each other. I liked reading about the history of the war and of the island, provided by Dr. Iannis, and I even enjoyed the chapters written from the point of view of Mussolini, which not many people do. The narrative is so rich and full of life, with so many little aspects that are seemingly insignificant but that when added together make even the simplest things seem so important – from the mismatched waistcoat Pelagia is sewing, to the wildcat Psipsina mirroring Pelagia’s passionate relationship with Corelli, to the mandolin strings that help save Corelli’s life, the music literally becoming a part of him.

“Transfixed by this, she realised suddenly that there was something about music that had never been revealed to her before; it was not merely the production of sweet sound.”

There is history, there is war, there is death, and there is music, but at the heart of it all, this book is about love. Pelagia and Corelli, Corelli and music, Dr. Iannis and his island, Mandras and his honour, and in possibly the most heart wrenching story of all, Carlo and his love for Francesco.

“I knew that in the army there would be those that I could love, albeit never touch… I would dare to die for him, and if I died I would know that I was dross which some inscrutable alchemy had transmuted into gold.”

Needless to say, I very much enjoyed writing essays about this book, as much as I enjoyed reading it, and I could probably talk for hours about all the best bits and how good I think it is. If you happen to have seen the film but haven’t read the book, well… All I can do is point you to the words of de Bernieres himself:  “Compared to a novel, a film is like an economy pizza where there are no olives, no ham, no anchovies, no mushrooms, and all you’ve got is the dough.”

My dog eared copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is one of the most precious things I own, and from here to Cephalonia and even to a desert island, I wouldn’t be without it.



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