Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
By Louis de Bernieres
Vintage – £8.99
It’s a well-known fact that the book is always, always, far better than the film; and I’m really hard pressed to find a better, if not perfect and more poignant depiction of this, than in Louis de Bernieres’ rather wry and wonderful Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Having seen the film while on holiday in Cephallonia itself – where most, if not all of the film takes place – I can honestly say it’s not a patch on what I’ve read herein. Apart from some really colourful cinematography that I should imagine more than accurately depicts the tranquil way of what life must have been like on the Island (prior to the Italian invasion in 1941), said film is pitifully lacklustre in the extreme. I use the word lacklustre, because in relation to this book, that’s exactly what the film is.
As always, Nicolas Cage is, well, Nicolas Cage, about as predictable as bread; while much of the interpretation of dialogue is exceedingly wooden to say the least. This book on the other hand, is as tough as it is temperamental, as humorous as it is on many an occasion, utterly harrowing.
I’m still somewhat taken aback at the degree to which the suffering and total futility of war is so openly and honestly depicted.
In chapter 19 (‘L’Omosessuale’), de Bernieres stunningly writes: ‘’In the trench Francesco took two hours to die. His gore soaked into the sleeves and flanks of my tunic. His shattered head was cradled in my arms like a little child and his mouth formed the words that only he could hear. Tears began to follow each other down his cheeks. I gathered his tears on my fingers and drank them. I bent down and whispered into his ear, ‘Francesco, I have always loved you.’ His eyes rolled up and met mine. He fixed his gaze. He cleared his throat with difficulty and said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘I never told you until now.’ He smiled that slow laconic smile and said, ‘Life’s a bitch, Carlo. I felt good with you.’ I saw the light grow dim in his eyes and he began the long slow journey down into death. There was no morphia. His agony must have been indescribable. He did not ask me to shoot him; perhaps at the very end he loved his vanishing life.’’
To say there’s a lot going on throughout the above is a colossal understatement. It’s so powerful it’s almost poetic, especially the line: ‘’and he began the slow journey down into death’’ (my italics). Surely using the word ‘down’ to describe impending death is as fundamentally iconic, as it more often than not, horribly true. Was I reading Anthony Beevor’s brilliant Stalingrad or Karl Marlentes’ equally powerful Matterhorn, the above quotation wouldn’t have struck me in quite the way it did.
And there’s more – so much more.
Three chapters along (‘Mandras Behind The Veil’), the author bequeaths yet more of the same: ‘’I think I lived because our commanders were too clever, I think I lived because death loved the Italians. Death told them to advance in line abreast against our strongest points, and we mowed them down like corn. But our general made us outflank, out manoeuvre, ambush, disappear and reappear. Our generals made it difficult for Death, and so, instead of striking me with bullets, he made my body rot as much in a few months as with others he causes in sixty years. It was the cold, mud, parasites, starvation, grief, fear, blizzards of crystals sharper than glass, rain so dense that fish could have swum in it, all the things that there is no point in explaining because a civilian cannot even imagine it.’’
Amid these 533 pages, the reader is taken on a truly intense and immense, political, romantic journey. The book is all about struggle. Love. Although more importantly, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is all about the sort of humanity one can only long to read about.
But very rarely does.