Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2008)
I have already made comment regarding one thing that annoyed me about this book, and that was the feeling that the author had fallen into the Oxford Not-So-Concise Dictionary printing press. This annoying feature lasted roughly for the first third to half of the book. After that point Mr de Bernières seems to have calmed down somewhat.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like to have my vocabulary stretched – I do. It’s just a case of feeling that it was written in a manner that almost suggested the literary equivalent of name-dropping. You know the sort of thing – “See who I know and just how smart I am?” When in fact a more judicious use of unusual words would have indeed suggested the author was very smart, but not attempting to rub our noses in his erudite language skills. Okay, that’s my first gripe over with.
The basic storyline follows Carlo Guercio, Antonio Corelli, Doctor Iannis and his daughter, Pelagia. There is also a wonderful set of supporting characters to back up and give the texture to the story. The setting is predominantly Greece, but moves through the war in Albania briefly before settling back into Cephallonia . The majority of the book is devoted to the complicated relationship that builds between Pelagia and Corelli whilst the Italians occupy Greece during the war.
The novel moves from cynical to dark to gory to funny to heartwarming to horror to disbelief very easily. You are not always sure what the next chapter will be bringing. The tone and language also changes throughout. Some chapters are crammed full of a variety of uncommon words, while others are full of easy, smoothly readable descriptions of places, people and their personalities. There is no shortage of commentary on the nature of man during wars, and the infliction of pain on soldiers and civilians alike. There is also a good dose of some absolutely hilarious, acid and brutal political commentary. To illustrate this, I have taken two extracts from near the end of the book. The first extract is in the context of Greek liberation from the German occupation, only to be overrun by the communist andartes.
In all this there was both an irony and a tragedy. The irony was that if the Communists had continued their wartime policy of doing absolutely nothing, they would undoubtedly have become the first freely elected Communist government in the world. Whereas in France the Communists had earned themselves a rightful and respected place in political life, the Greek Communists made themselves permanently unelectable because even Communists could not bring themselves to vote for them. The tragedy was that this was yet another step along the fated path by which Communism was growing into the Greatest and Most Humane Ideology Never to Have Been Implemented Even When it Was in Power, or perhaps The Most Noble Cause Ever to Attract the Highest Proportion of Hooligans and Opportunists.
The second extract is a commentary on Britain and it’s position in the world.
In those days Great Britain was less wealthy than it is now, but it was also less complacent, and considerably less useless. It had a sense of humanitarian responsibility and a myth of its own importance that was quixotically true and universally accepted merely because it believed in it, and said so in a voice loud enough for foreigners to understand. It had not yet acquired the schoolboy habit of waiting for months for permission from Washington before it clambered out of its post-imperial bed, put on its boots, made a sugary cup of tea, and ventured through the door.
There are more moments like this. If you particularly would like to poke fun at Mussolini, then you will love reading the chapters entitled The Duce and A Pamphlet Distributed on the Island, Entitled with the Fascist Slogan ‘Believe, Fight and Obey’.
My only other major complaint, without giving the ending away, is that there is a pitifully weak break in the story with regards to how the author arranges the main characters’ lives after the war is over. The reason given for the actions of at least one character is nothing short of improbable and impossible, in the circumstances. For me the ending itself isn’t unsatisfactory, but I can see for others it would be. And I would completely agree with anyone who finds the manner in which it is arrived at as implausible and irritating.
Saying all that, though, I can still happily recommend the book. Just keep a dictionary beside you for the first little while.
I would give it a rating of 3 out of 5.