It’s so much easier and quicker to watch the movie than read the book I land up watching the film version of many books I have wanted to read. I enjoyed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the movie. I knew nothing of the German massacre of the Italian troops, or the Italian occupation of Greece (It’s been decades since A level history!) so I spent an enjoyable half hour on the net afterwards filling in my historical gaps.
The novel sounds really interesting. I love polyphonic novels, likeSound and Fury and piecing together a complete picture from the fragments of things people say, a bit like listening to gossip. I look forward to reading it. Here’s a tantalizing review.
The different sounds of the mandolin
John Mullan on the ironies imbued in the polyphonic voices of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
On the feast day of St Gerasimos, patron saint of the Greek island of Cephalonia, the mummified remains of the holy man are paraded and the islanders become “outlandishly drunk”. (The first detail from Louis de Bernières’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is confirmed by the Greek tourist board; the latter is the novelist’s embellishment.) In the novel, troupes from different towns loudly strike up rival songs, some fishermen from Panago-poula miraculously managing, over the chatter of the crowd and the crashing of a cannon, to weave “a harmony intricate and polyphonic”. “The brotherhood of the sea,” declares the narrator, in imitation of the fishermen’s bibulous self-congratulation, has produced “conclusive proof of their metaphysical unity”.
It is also comically analogous to the novel’s narrative method. Its 73 short chapters move rapidly between different characters, historical as well as invented. Dr Iannis, his daughter Pelagia, and Captain Corelli, the Italian soldier billeted in their house during the wartime occupation, may be the central characters, but we hear many different narrative voices, some first-person and some third-person. The former include a chapter of dramatic monologue given to Mussolini, posing in front of a mirror; the interior monologues of Pelagia; and Mandras, the fisherman who is courting her; and chapters headed “L’Omosessuale”, narrated by the secretly homosexual Italian soldier, Carloi Guercio. “Thank God no one reads my mind,” says Pelagia silently, as she reviews her own “sluttish thoughts”. But we do.
Different voices find many forms. There are letters; there are political diatribes; there are speeches and sermons. Equally, the chapters of third-person narrative reflect many different viewpoints. Most often we see events through the eyes of Iannis, or Pelagia, or Corelli, but free indirect style gives us the thoughts of many others, from Mina, the mad girl who is to be “cured” by Saint Gerasimos, to Lieutenant Weber, the “good Nazi”, confused by the habits of his Italian allies. The collection of narratives is made to enact an understanding of human variety.
It is a novel not just of different narrative voices and points of view, but also of different languages. It uses fragments of Italian, French, German (and transliterated Greek), but mostly it has to represent the different languages, and the mutual misunderstandings, of the characters in a language that none of them are using: English. (Though if Iannis and his daughter were not fluent in Italian, a language for which the doctor has always had an inflated regard, and therefore able to have all their disputes with Corelli, the novel would not have been possible.) Incomprehension is invariably comical. An Eton-educated British agent is introduced to Iannis and made to speak a Chaucerian English that is the novel’s equivalent of the classical Greek he employs. “Sire, of youre gentillesse, by the leve of yow wol I speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng,” is his opening gambit. “What?” replies the bewildered doctor, speaking in a fluent, colloquial English which is the novel’s equivalent of modern Greek. When he and the Englishman agree to converse in English, Iannis’s speech becomes broken and ungrammatical: “You accent terrible-terrible. Not to talk, understand?”
The book’s ebullient varieties of speech and narrative make it tempting to call it a “polyphonic novel”. The term was invented by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin in the 1920s to describe Dostoevsky’s fiction. Bakhtin praised Dostoevsky for rendering “a plurality of unmerged voices and consciousnesses”. He had in mind the novelist’s willingness to allow his characters’ words and attitudes to predominate over any authorial insights. (Would Captain Corelli’s Mandolin always qualify by this test? De Bernières’s novel includes passages where a narrator tells us things -such as future events – that none of his characters can know.) Bakhtin initially claimed that Dostoevsky had originated “a fundamentally new novelistic genre”, before later deciding that he had instead perfected what had always been a subversive inclination of most interesting fiction.
Bakhtin valued “polyphony” because it seemed a rebellion against the narrative habits of 19th-century fiction (and implicitly the strictures of the socialist realism being recommended in the Soviet Union). Now it hardly seems revolutionary. Indeed, the opening of a single novel to multiple narrators and viewpoints has become relatively common in recent fiction, and “polyphonic” has become a frequent description. The literary novel that narrates in the singular, reliable “voice” of its author (which Bakhtin would have called “monologic”) is nowadays a much rarer thing. Some, like David Lodge, have argued that this reflects the contemporary novel’s lack of trust in its ability to understand the world. Yet the success of De Bernières’s novel is to find in narrative variety not confusion, but comedy and consolation.