I am not sure what Louis de Bernieres has been doing lately. I don’t think he has published a new book for the past five years or so. Too bad, because I think he is a masterful writer. And I hope he is working on something that will be worth the wait.
I have read three of his books — “Birds Without Wings”, “The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” and, most recently, “Corelli’s Mandolin”. “Don Emmanuel” is one of de Bernieres’ earlier books, one of a trilogy of books set in Latin America and written in the style, say, of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wrote a short post about that book some time ago.
The other two books, “Corelli’s Mandolin” and “Birds Without Wings” are closely related, although “Corelli” was published in 1994 and “Birds” in 2004. “Corelli”, the older book, was set in a time period which was later than “Birds Without Wings”, which was set during the First World War. “Corelli’s Mandolin” takes place during the Second. This creates a somewhat strange situation in that “Birds Without Wings” does contain something of a prequel. Some of the characters who appear in “Birds” also appeared, as their older selves, in “Corelli” ten years earlier.
“Birds Without Wings” was set in Turkey, before and during World War I. It’s the now all too familiar situation of a stable and cosmopolitan society – Muslim Turks, Circassians, Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Jews — living together, working together, and sometimes creating families together. But an area torn apart by war and rising nationalism. Armenians are marched away and never heard from again (presumably slaughtered), Greeks are hunted down and kicked out of their ancestral homes (if not killed) and sent to Greece in a trade for Turks living there. The place will never be the same, nor will the lives of the various characters caught in a situation beyond their control. There are no truly central characters in “Birds”, but rather it is a montage of the ups and mainly downs of various people from all levels and sectors of society. And through it all, interspersed with these individual stories, is the history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Republic of Turkey.
“Corelli’s Mandolin” (remember, it was written earlier) takes place about 20 or 30 years later, this time not in Turkey but in Greece, or rather on the Ionian island of Cephallonia. Cephallonia is inhabited by Greeks, to be sure, but some of those Greeks are in exile from what is now Turkey, having been forced to leave as part of the population transfer discussed in “Birds Without Wings”. Indeed, some of the characters in “Birds” are also characters in “Corelli”.
The Greeks of Cephallonia were innocent victims of Hitler’s Germany and, to a lesser but more direct extent, by Italy’s Mussolini. Italy, allied with Germany, looked to expand its own empire, looking to the east, to Albania, the Croatian coast, and Greece. The Greeks were determined to defend against any Italian aggression, and defend they did, proving (in this book, at least) to be much better fighters than the Italians, beating them at various locations during the earlier years of the war. But Greece could not defend against Germany and Germany occupied the country, ceding to its ally Italy the occupation of an island of such little importance as Cephallonia.
Imagine the rage of the islanders. They not only find themselves under enemy occupation, but they find themselves occupied by an enemy that they defeated in every battle in which the two sides met. “Corelli’s Mandolin” is the story of Cephallonia under Italian occupation.
In most books, you have good guys and bad guys. Here, your bad guys are almost all the nameless characters that compose the Axis armies. The main characters are almost all wonderful people. There is Dr. Iannis, the island physician and would-be historian, and his teenage daughter Pelagia. There is here first love, Mandras (who starts out as a good guy, but is corrupted by his wartime service and winds up a Communists partisan, with a much changed personality) and his mother Drosoula, who also figured in “Birds Without Wings” and was transferred to Greece after World War I, although she always considered herself Turkish. And there is Corelli himself, the Italian captain, who is stationed on Cephallonia as part of the occupying power, and billeted with Dr. Iannis and his daughter. There is also the village strongman, and the Italian army aide, equally strong and a closeted homosexual, both of whom use their strength and courage only for the good.
Iannis is the perfect father, the perfect physician and the perfect community member. Pelagia starts out as an attractive, appealing teenager, and winds up a woman of intelligence and very high moral caliber. Drosoula, Pelagia’s boyfriend’s mother, turns out to be a stabilizing rock, closely connected with Pelagia, even after Mandras drops from the picture. And Corelli is a delight, very unmilitary, a musician, and generally someone very nice to have around the house. Naturally, he and Pelagia fall in love.
Well, this is war time and certainly the elements and the time work against all of the characters, no matter how good, hard working, peaceable and well intentioned they are. This is what makes the story.
Some say that de Bernieres language is too flowery – I like it. I think it is extraordinarily well crafted, and shows what must be the remarkable intelligence and research standards of the author. He must write with a thesaurus near at hand – for some of the words cannot be ones that he knows, and his work is filled with historical and technical allusions. Some say that he has too many characters, and that it is too hard to follow all the lines of his story. But he is painting a picture, a picture with a lot of details, each of which is important, and all of which are required to complete the work.
I recommend these books highly. You might want to start with “Birds Without Wings”, even though it is the newer book, because it helps set the stage for the storyline in “Corelli’s Mandolin”. Enjoy.