11 September 2007

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres, is actually a lovely book. It is highly regarded and plenty of people have recommended it. This is actually a bad thing for two reasons. The first is that when someone insists you will like a book, you half wonder what it is about yourself that causes them to say this, do they realise that they are making a rather personal comment? Do they think that because you read historical novels, for instance, that you will also like a certain bodice-ripper they have read? Unless they are someone whose taste you trust, it is difficult to take recommendations seriously. The second problem with high recommendations is that, when one approaches a book with high expectations, one is bound to be at least a little disappointed. It can't be helped. The book may be as good as someone said it was, but the fact that someone has gone to the trouble of waxing lyrical about it gives the impression that the book will somehow produce instant joy the moment the first page is revealed. The book may not, in fact, even be a joyous one.

The best thing to do, I have found, is simply leave the book alone. It's name will sit in the back of the mind until, one day, it feels right to give it a go. There is no longer the sense that someone is going to look over your shoulder and demand that you love the book whether you like it or not. That is the day you feel you can try the book, the day that something about the book appeals to your current mood, which is always the best time to read a book, and you feel free to tell yourself that if it turns out that you don't like it, you can always put it down, for the sense of pressure, of obligation to like it, is now gone.

That was how I came to read Captain Corelli's Mandolin. It is a work of fiction, a tale set on a Greek island at the time of WWII and afterwards, a love story spanning half a century. Actually, the love story is just a thread that gives the book a centre about which to move. The book is really about human nature, good and evil, survival. The characters live from one crisis to the next. Sometimes they do bad things. For instance, when one perfectly amiable giant meets another on the opposing side in the war, they share a cigarette and then go their seperate ways. One goes to tell his boss that the jeep is not working, the other finds the jeep and sabotages it in such a way that it's next driver is killed. Both these giant men wind up doing moving and heroic things. The German soldiers are portrayed as evil. One of them doesn't particularly want to do some of the things he does, but does not know how to avoid it. Other evil comes about through the brutalising nature of war. Illiteracy is given as factor in this, for the literate, presumably, could read and learn the truth of what they are being told for themselves. That is a point for discussion, because being literate does not necessarily mean being able to think critically. Hitler was able to rise to power despite the existence of the German intelligentsia.

Yes, there is a lot to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, when you are in the mood for it. Having finally read it, I now feel ready to try some of de Bernieres' other books.

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