A Book Review by Christos and Mary Papoutsy
Ariel during meeting with President Moshe Katzav
Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis De Bernières, has drawn admiring comments from a wide array of professional critics and lay-people alike. Adjectives and descriptive phrases like "stunning" and "remarkable" and "emotionally sweeping" appear repeatedly in quotes from the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. With few dissenting voices, the majority of readers judge the work to be a "classic."

What do readers find so compelling about this book? It's quite simple. Set against a backdrop of war and brutality, de Bernières masterfully develops a central love story. His characters are realistic, at times painfully so, but infused with a full range of human emotions and feelings enhanced by the tragedy of a tiny, beautiful Greek island overcome by a series of occupying forces. First, the Italians invade, bringing one of the novel's principal characters, mandolin-playing Captain Corelli. Later, Germans land on the island. And finally, the political coup de grace: Greek civil war is thrust upon this wartorn, earthquake-devastated Cephallonia, pitting friend against friend, and brother against brother.

Pelagia, the local doctor's comely daughter, grows up with a gentle fisherman, Mandras, expecting to marry him. But the advent of war changes all that: Mandras goes off to fight, and a reluctant officer of the enemy Italian forces, Corelli, billets at her house. In a display of authorial brilliancy, de Bernières painstakingly reveals the near complete reversal of attitude by several of these pivotal characters during the course of the work. The war is the ultimate villain, causing dramatic changes in fortune for so many people and correspondingly altering their perceptions. In consonance with the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides who decried the effects of war on conqueror and vanquished alike, de Bernières pins the blame on war, its impersonal and democratic devastation.

The Greek Character

Amidst such tragedy and scenes of love, however, readers can clearly glimpse Greek character. Here is where de Bernières really shines, for he has managed to capture the Greek perception of the quintessential nature of a Greek. In one passage, the local doctor, Iannis, describes the inner nature of his countrymen to Corelli:

The Hellene has a quality that we call "sophrosyne." This Greek avoids excess, he knows his limits, he represses the violence within himself, he seeks harmony and cultivates a sense of proportion. He believes in reason, he is the spiritual heir of Plato and Pythagoras. These Greeks are suspicious of their own natural impulsiveness and love of change for the sake of change, and they assert discipline over themselves in order to avoid spontaneously going out of control. They love education for its own sake, do not take power and money into consideration when assessing someone's worth, scrupulously obey the law, suspect that Athens is the only important place in the world, detest dishonorable compromise, and consider themselves to be quintessentially European.

In a second scene, the doctor very candidly discusses the essence of love with his daughter. Here again, the author has expertly grasped a Greek view:

Love is a temporary madness. . . . Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. . . Love is when each lover's roots grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom. . .has fallen from. the branches. . . resulting in one tree, not two. . . . as opposed to when the petals fall away and the roots have not entwined and the trees often fall over, casting a dark cloud of imprisonment and desolation.

With a cinematographer's skill for visual detail and for directing the reader's attention, de Bernières describes each scene and character with fullness and realism. The potent and brutal polemical setting at times almost seems to overwhelm the individuality of the characters, but this is the reality, the truth of the situation as it existed then, not artful verisimilitude. After occupation by Mussolini's men, and Hitler's Nazis, the ravaged island witnessed the heinous massacre of the Italians by the Germans.

Islanders today recall that the Italian forces were made up primarily of opera lovers, not the disciplined soldiers of the Nazi war machine.  "The Italians were like us, and they enjoyed music," one islander said.

An Army Of Opera-Lovers

Some islanders alive today recall that the Italian forces were made up primarily of musicians and opera-lovers, not the disciplined soldiers of the Nazi war machine. One expatriot remembers playing mandolin with the Italians in the local square and
singing large repertoires of songs with none other than Captain Corelli himself. "The Italians were like us, and they enjoyed music," he told us. But of the brutality of the Germans and the civil war that followed, he would not, could not speak.

Another reader who claimed to have lived through this actual period on Cephallonia wrote: "I can vouch that de Bernières account is alarmingly accurate and harrowingly realistic. . . [my] uncle was taken on one of ELAS' forced marches. . . [and my] grandmother's home taken over as a command post to now down passers-by indisciminately. . . .If anything, De Bernières' portrayal of the Communist insurgents [during the Civil War] is perhaps insufficiently damning. . . . Mr. de Bernières has hit the mark with deadly accuracy."

But the novel is, after all, principally about love and de Bernières receives high marks from every single reader who has penned a comment. Love appears in many forms, but its handling is consistently delicate and subtle, although juxtaposing one Greek against one Italian suitor. Mandras the fisherman vies against mandolin-playing and charming Captain Corelli for beautiful and willful Pelagia. Love unfolds like an opening flower bud, blossoming even in arid and difficult climatic conditions, but nonetheless very Greek and very tragic in its enduring hope.

A Work Steeped In Greek History

For Greek-Americans this novel will hold special appeal. Apart from the fine writing of de Bernières, the work is accurately steeped in Greek
history, the events of World War II and particularly of the Greek Civil War--a period

The pains of political upheavals during the Greek Civil War, as well as the ravages of earthquakes that have struck nearly every location in Greece at one time or another, are experiences that Greek-Americans can learn about through DeBernieres' book.

overlooked in most Greek school books of the diaspora. Most experts will agree that it was a horrendous period, a time that rent Greece in two, leaving lasting political and emotional scars whose effects are still felt. And nearly every location in Greece has suffered from the ravages of catastrophic earthquakes at one time or another, with subsequent shock over death, property loss, and disease and starvation. But these fatal upheavals have rarely been felt in America or in many other lands to which Greeks have emigrated. The pains of these experiences are ones that Greek-Americans can learn about vicariously through Corelli's Mandolin to illuminate the anguish and suffering felt by relatives and ancestors who actually lived through them.

Finally, this superb novel masterfully captures the Greek spirit, its spiritual and philosophical views, its passionate anger and love. De Bernières sculpts in high relief and puts on display widely varying emotions for all to observe and appreciate, like the fine metopes of a Classical temple, reflecting the true Greek nature which has characterized the Hellene since ancient times. To read about these Greek protagonists is, for a Greek-American, to read about one's own collectively inherited nature, one's "Greekness." In summary, Corelli's Mandolin resonates loudly with Greek chords, striking the hearts of all, especially readers of Greek descent, sounding out all of the grand topics of literature -- love and death, heroism, humor and pathos, and art and religion -- all through the deft fingers of a twentieth-century master.

Film Features Celebrity Cast

Readers will be interested in viewing the Universal Pictures film about Corelli's Mandolin. Such a fine love story deserves a celebrity cast, and viewers will not likely be disappointed with Nicholas Cage, Penelope Cruz, and William Hurt, among others.

A contingent of Greek actors will round out the cast, including the famous Greek beauty Irene Pappas, as well as Gerasimos Akiadaresis, Aspasia Krali, Mihalis Giannatos, Dimitri Kamperidis, Viki Maragaki and George Kotanidis. Greek crew members worked alongside award-winning director John Madden and cinematographer John Toll: associate producer Susie Tasios, assistant director Takis Yiannopoulos, production manager Nikos Nikolettos, location manager Elena Restaki, casting director Makis Gazis, and crowd casting Stavros Kaplanides. Filming took place on Cephallonia itself, using the seaside village, Sami, for many of its island shots. Stores and buildings temporarily bore mock pre-World-War-II fronts since so few buildings on the island remained standing after the crushing earthquake.

Military extras and heavy equipment were provided by the Hellenic Defense Ministry, helping to secure a Cephallonian site for the film production. Nearly 250 men from the Army, Navy, and Air Force were fitted for original Italian military costumes and for drill and arms training of the period by a military advisory team. According to a press release by Universal Studios, the officer staff of the Greek soldiers unstintingly gave their time and practical expertise in the planning of this Corelli exercise, down to organization of medical staff, tents and sleeping bags. And with the help of the Hellenic Navy, the designers of the film went to view operational vessels closest to the period of World War II. . . Two ships were dressed by the film's Art Department to depict both Italian and German war craft for different scenes.

With such excitement and support given for a movie, the film may have scored a hit with Greek-Americans even before reaching the movie houses. . . .