Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

This book came out about ten years ago. It's got a charming cover by Jeffrey Fisher, and was made into a film with Nick Cage. For some reason this combination of factors put me off reading it all this time. I knew it was a kind of funny tragedy, that was all.

Well, I just want to be the 11,678,102nd person to say - it's brilliant. Its' cast of diverse and passionate characters is the equal of any I have encountered, even better than Annie Proulx's books. The setting is Cephallonia, a Greek island in the Ionian sea, during World War II. The story swings wildly from idyllic village life to the horror of the short but brutal German occupation.

Captain Corelli was an Italian lover of music who found himself commanding an artillery batallion. The Italians occupied Greece first, fairly benignly. When Italy surrendered in 1944 the Allies ignored Greece and invaded Sicily. The Germans moved into Greece and betrayed the Italian troops. This part of history was unknown to me, and the big decisions and small details together were appalling to read.

At the same time this book was the funniest thing I have read for some time. When Corelli took it upon himself to blow up a rusty World War I mine, he makes a hash of it. There is a huge, spectacular and dangerous explosion.

"Aira!" cried the exhilarated Greeks, and "Figlio di puttana di stronzo d'un cane d'un culo d'un porco d'un pezzo di merda!" cried the soldiers.

Corelli has a group of soldiers of all ranks who can sing opera. In the opera club they have their own ranking system - they are semi-breves, quavers and crotchets. One day they meet a young German officer who cannot sing but impresses them enough to be admitted to their group, La Scala. He is given the rank of dotted demi-semiquaver rest.

I love this book and will have to shove something out of my all time top ten to make room for it.

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