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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Passionate Mixture of History, Polemic and Romance : CORELLI'S MANDOLIN by Louis de Bernieres; Pantheon $24, 437 pages

September 22, 1994|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The brutal Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II had an ironic if bloody footnote.

Not to be entirely outclassed by Hitler, Mussolini had wanted a place of his own to conquer. He tried Greece, but the Greeks beat his soldiers so badly that the initially reluctant Germans had to move in to help. The occupation was partitioned for awhile; in the Italian zones, as a rule, it operated less harshly.

After Mussolini was overthrown and Marshal Pietro Badoglio surrendered to the Allies, he instructed Italian troops not only to stop fighting but to prepare to resist the Germans. The Italian command in Greece hesitated; the Germans did not. They attacked their former allies, imprisoning and executing thousands of them.

This is the background for "Corelli's Mandolin," set on the Ionian island of Cephalonia where the Italians and Germans both maintained garrisons. Louis de Bernieres has produced an exuberant jumble of a novel: a mixture of history, polemic and romance, and written with a wit that is incandescent and overheated by turns.

Its three principal characters--a redoubtable Greek doctor, his beautiful and even more redoubtable daughter, and a lyrically impulsive Italian captain who is billeted on them--are larger than life. They also display a number of authorial stretch marks.

These are particularly bothersome at the start, when De Bernieres introduces us to his small Cephalonian community just before the war. There is a forced touch of Garcia Marquez's Macondo, an effort at comic fabulousness. There is the immensely fat and sodden village priest, Father Arsenios, and Velisarios, the village strongman who lifts donkeys and carries around a small cannon, which he fires off like a pistol, to impress. Part of its discharge impresses a young fisherman, Mandras, who comes to Dr. Iannis for treatment and falls in love with Pelagia, his daughter.

The doctor, a free spirit and a humane but passionate Greek patriot, is initially portrayed with a degree of arch grandiloquence. He is at work on a history of Cephalonia but can't strike the proper heroic note; and each evening, relieving himself in the garden, "he nitrogenated the herbs in strict succession."

This incenses Pelagia; in turn, her goat chews on the doctor's manuscript. "Pelagia, your accursed ruminant has eaten everything I've written tonight," Iannis expostulates. The two are proud of each other--the unconventional Iannis wants his daughter to become a doctor--and when war comes, each becomes a hero.

War, in fact, floats "Corelli's Mandolin" off its whimsical dry dock. It provides rigors and tragedies that give the author scope to exercise his powers for horror, irony and sweet human comedy without seeming forced. The account of the Italian army's disastrous winter campaign in the northern mountains is told brilliantly through the wistful and outraged voice of Guercio, an Italian soldier whose hidden homosexuality and vocation for heroic sacrifice fuse radiantly at the end.

Lodged in Dr. Iannis' house, the Italian captain, Corelli, manages to bridge after a stormy start the gap between invader and invaded. His pacific nature, his lyrical optimism and his astounding proficiency on the mandolin state a humane alternative to the barbarism of war.

His solution to the dehumanization of a communal military latrine is to organize the users into a choir. When a fanatical Nazi officer happens by, Corelli returns the "Heil Hitler" with a "Heil Puccini." The German will eventually be confronted--tragically, it turns out--with his own humanity; but the process begins when Corelli magnanimously inducts him into the choir. Because he has no voice, he is assigned the position of "dotted demisemiquaver rest."

The comic inventiveness--the mandolin is well-chosen for its flowery ornamentation of sad songs--is inseparable from the tragedy. De Bernieres may overdo the whimsy at times, but he is terribly convincing about the awfulness, whether it is the massacre of the Italian garrison by the Germans, Dr. Iannis' fearsome improvisations as he sews up the terribly injured Corelli without medical supplies (he uses four mandolin strings), or the wretched, starving state of Greek villages during and after the war. (When an American relief officer walks through a village with his one Greek word, "Hungry?" he fails to emphasize the question mark, and the starving peasants scrounge him up a banquet.)

De Bernieres has not only written an impassioned story; he has written it from an impassioned point of view. Mandras, Pelagia's former fisherman-fiance, becomes a communist guerrilla, commits all kinds of atrocities, shirks fighting the Germans, and returns, grossly fat, to attempt to rape her. It is, to say the least, a shorthand way of taking historical sides on a civil war in which there was plenty of horror to go around.

Despite the forced beginning, and routine ending that hastily sums up 50 years of postwar Greece through Pelagia, her adopted daughter and the daughter's son, the author has mostly used his passion well.

Inflated at times; at others, "Corelli's Mandolin" is authentically outsized and alluring.

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