Yes I know I’ve read it before but well, after a visit to Kefalonia I couldn’t resist indulging again in this stonker of a novel. Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, the love story is actually only a fraction of this epic work, and it is rather more concerned with the fragility of humanity in the face of war, and the insensible things that people are driven to in times of strife. It is at one and the same time about despair, in the way that his carefully crafted and beautifully real characters become mere statistics of lives stricken by war, but also hope, when the human spirit will become stoical after experiencing mindless atrocities, to show compassion, love and fortitude.
The ‘dashing captain’ doesn’t actually appear until half way through the book, further solidifying the idea that DeBernieres is doing something far more subtle than throwing the backdrop of a war behind a love story. This narrative can seem a little jarring at first, as we swoop to extremes from the voice of a main character, to the voice of Mussolini, or simply follow the text of an anti-war propaganda leaflet. However, once you become familiar with these multiple voices and the charming chapter titles (‘A Funny Kind of Cat’) you become enmeshed in his world. We encounter a range of characters, expertly crafted, through whose eyes we see the rise of war in Italy and the growing threat looming over Greece. Through a clever mix of first person narrator and omniscient narrator, we form more personal relationships with the characters, while he retains the ability to swoop overhead and look at the bigger picture. We follow Pelagia and her father Dr. Iannis who show us the stunning island of Kefalonia (which it really is, definitely a place to visit before you pop your clogs), while revealing the nuances of Greek language and tradition. In tandem, we see Carlo Piero Guercio, a tragic soldier in the Italian army who will eventually come to the island. Throughout the first half of the novel, there are subtle references to the arrival of Captain Corelli, and his significance is therefore solidified and his character elevated without actually encountering him. Once he arrives, the tone of the book really lifts, and we see the writer using the same linguistic eloquence previously used to explore the horror of war, to delve into affairs of the heart and the simple pleasures to be found in music, food and beauty.
One of the things I love about DeBernieres’ books is that he often takes you to a forgotten little corner of history that you didn’t even know existed (Birds Without Wings and the South American trilogy – also fantastic). The less publicised atrocities and massacres (as opposed to the nice popular ones) allow him to show a more original side to a well known narrative. This is also my favourite method of learning history – I found I knew a ridiculous amount about Kefalonia’s traditions and the Second World War after reading this book; using a memorable storyline to engage your readers with historical events is always a good idea in my book. And yes, I am aware that the book has been criticised extensively by the Greeks, particularly for his portrayal of the Greek resistance forces of EDES and ELAS. He has also been criticised for simplifying and stereotyping national identity. While I don’t know enough about the Greek resistance, I am certainly aware that they are not all the brutes that populate the book. Having said that, novels never claim to be historically accurate, and I believe he was simply trying to illustrate the irony of civil war and how it can often take a very similar form to international conflicts, all the more tragic because they are acted out on their own people. The truth of this rings out from Kossovo to Cambodia, so I don’t think the geographical location should be overstated in this case. As for national stereotyping, the charge laid against a British writer is possibly true, but the same caricature is applied to British forces, leaving the case for national bigotry a little deflated. In any book that attempts to span the scope of this one, certain brush strokes to emulate national identity may well be necessary, but the nuances of the more central characters reveal no such stereotyping. Writing a book about events in living memory will always be controversial, but the merits of discovering these hidden corners of war far outweigh the possibility of emphasis for artistic effect.
His narrative voice is exquisite. As a bit of a language boffin myself, I appreciate the odd occasion where I need to turn to an online thesaurus to check an exact meaning of a word (although not sure admixture is entirely necessary). The verbose and well travelled Doctor Iannis allows him free reign, smattering his speech with exotic language. He also manages to explore the nuances of Greek and Italian culture and language in a book written in English; a bold feat. Not to seem like a fawning admirer, there is one area in the plot of the book (which I won’t reveal for spoiler purposes) that I just don’t feel fits with the character he has created. Having said that, it is a necessary tool to ensure the narrative concludes as it does, so I can understand his reasoning, I just don’t find that it fully resonates with the rest of the book. Considering my enjoyment of the rest of the book, I think we can let him off. From an overall narrative perspective, the structure is interesting in that the climax happens in the middle of the book, thereby avoiding the trap that many novels fall into by having a saggy middle. This delaying of key points and events in the book (and effectively using the first half or even two-thirds as the build up) makes it an unusual read in that it is suddenly over before you realised the ending was coming. This jarring of narrative brought about a highly emotional response for me and I think should be considered by more novelists as a method of overall structure. The only other book that made me cry as much as this was The Book Thief, always a true indicator of just how adeptly the writer is able to draw you into the world of the novel through their web of words. This book may well have started me on my way to writing (brought for me for my 18th birthday) and to this day still influences me (certainly my choice of holiday destination). It will remain one of my perennial favourites, something I can always return to, or just gaze at the cover and experience the jolt of remembered emotions it evoked.
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