Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reflections: Corelli's Mandolin

I have not watched the movie adaptation of this book, so I don’t have any reference points.

Stories of War that deal with both human suffering and enduring love strike that perfect formula to churn a human heart. Love and tragedy go so well together in stories.

This is the story surrounding the wars that erupted between Greece and Italy during the time of the second world war. This is the story of Pelagia, a Greek woman who lives through the many wars amidst love and loss. The harsh realities of war teach her to value the most essential elements of life and understand the meaning and depth of love. There are several interesting and strong characters in the book. Captain Corelli is one of them. The Italian Captain takes over Pelagia’s island, but has a rare mix of personality traits - kindness and compassion coupled with wit and bravery. He hates war, but is attached to his duty. So he does his best to minimize harm and create friendship and well-being between the Italians and Greek (at least those on the island). Pelagia and the Captain fall in love and patiently hope for the war to end while nurturing ideas of their future together. And then the Germans invade, and everything is washed away.

This is a simple story. But a powerful one. It’s mostly about the ravages of war, and the coming of age of an innocent and intelligent woman. Pelagia is molded and hardened by the horrors around her, and her immense strength provides a beacon of hope to the men in her life. During times of excruciating difficulties and atrocities, the human psyche changes in one of three ways - 1) it is deeply, irrevocably wounded and scarred, withdrawing into a reclusive shell, 2) it manages to rise to a positive place of strength, compassion, and constructive action despite the scars or 3) it sinks into an abyss of self-destructive cruelty and negativity due to the festering wounds. The author explores all of these changes in the human psyche through his extremely well developed characters. He fleshes them out as sympathetic characters, each driven to their ways due to the circumstances of war and survival.

In parallel to the above themes, the story explores the nature of different types of love: the one that is dominated by lust, the one that endures after the fire of lust has burned out, the one that is born from loyalty and admiration, the one that is shared between a parent and child, the one that slowly develops between wounded souls that heal each other, the one that is at the heart of friendships etc. At the end of all the destruction and tragedy, the one essential tonic that keeps us humans going is love. It sounds corny when I write it, but the book beautifully brings this out.

There is also a lot of history in this book. It is primarily a historical document. The characters are just used to color the history more vividly. So, the story moves slow. However, the excellent writing makes the reading experience worthwhile. Despite the heavy theme on war, I appreciated the intelligent humour and wit that laces through the story and the characters. I laughed out loud at scenes, smiled through many passages, and loved Pelagia’s dad and the Captain. In many ways, Pelagia’s dad reminded me of my own, and that made it all the more endearing. I was emotionally invested in the characters and lived through their terrors and hopes. I felt Pelagia’s pain and was moved to tears.

With such great things to gush, I did find one thing unsatisfactory - it was the way the story ended. The last hundred pages seemed rushed, and the ending was inconsistent with the raw realism of the rest of the story. With so much beauty and insight that accompanied the rest of the story, I don’t understand why the author ended the story in an over-the-top romantic manner and with the Captain behaving in the most infuriating manner possible. The ending felt flat and deflated. I guess I am too old for romance of this kind.

That aside, this is a book heavy with thoughtful and intelligent commentary on war, survival, and love. The writing reminded me of a serious version of Wodehouse, which has biased me, no doubt.

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