Captain Corelli's Mandolin begins with Dr. Iannis working on "The New History of Cephalonia," his sweeping account of the island from ancient to modern times, focusing primarily on the various powers that occupied the island and the ensuing effects on the island's culture. As Dr. Iannis develops his account, however, he's frustrated that he cannot write like "a writer of histories"--in other words, without writing emotionally about what the island has suffered over the years. To make up for this, he amends his title to read "A Personal History of Cephalonia." In doing so, Dr. Iannis makes an important discovery that goes on to guide the novel: history is innately personal, and there's power to be had in telling one's version of events--a power that, in turn, can be dangerous.
"A Personal History of Cephalonia" is concerned with what exactly it means to be Greek, exploring in particular how Greece's history of being conquered by a number of European and eastern powers has shaped specifically the Cephalonian outlook on life. Dr. Iannis goes into great detail about the powers that have occupied Greece over the centuries: Philip of Macedon in ancient times, followed by the Normans, the Turks, and the British more recently. By recording these occupations and considering Greece as a nation shaped primarily by its past of near-constant conquest, Dr. Iannis seeks to portray the Greeks as a strong people who have spent thousands of years standing up to outside forces. This portrayal does two things. First, Dr. Iannis's insistence on thinking of the Greeks as strong and independent despite the numerous foreign powers that attempted to control them goes against how the novel says the rest of Europe thinks of Greece: that is, as weak, provincial, and strategically meaningless in the grand scheme of World War Two. In challenging these widely held narratives about Greece's role in the modern world, Dr. Iannis subtly insists that the victors aren't the only ones capable of recording what happened. In other words, while the history books might gloss over Greece, Dr. Iannis's personal account is still a valuable document, as it gives voice to oppressed people who otherwise had no power to tell their stories.
Though Carlo would at first appear to disagree with this--he says outright that the winners of a given conflict are the ones who get to decide what exactly happened--his actions ultimately reinforce Dr. Iannis's insistence that personal stories nevertheless have power. While in Cephalonia, Carlo records his experience of joining the military and participating in the attempt to invade Greece in the winter, as a closeted gay man secretly in love with one of his fellow soldiers, Francisco. In his story, Carlo draws attention to the inconsistencies between the official story of the war and his lived experience of it: while the Italian generals were enthusiastic about their "successes" and their plans for invading Albania and Greece, in reality, commands often contradicted each other and Italian soldiers died by the thousands of cold, hunger, and poorly planned marches that turned them into easy targets for Greek rebels. Carlo demonstrates a keen understanding of the fact that what he wrote is extremely dangerous for him as an individual and possibly for the public perception of the war as righteous and an easy win, especially since he leaves his writings to Corelli and instructs him to read them only after Carlo himself is dead. Carlo thus ensures that nobody will be able to punish him for the numerous offenses he confesses to, which include contradicting the official version of events, questioning the Italians' goals, and ultimately, being a gay soldier for a nation that aligned itself with Hitler and the Nazis, people who would've killed Carlo or sent him to a concentration camp had they known of his sexuality.
While the novel concerns itself primarily with these personal records of the war and the sense of fulfillment that Dr. Iannis and Carlo gain by telling their stories, it also shines a light on the way in which powerful individuals can shape public opinion by formulating "official" versions of events. Many of these "official" narratives, such as Mussolini's insistence that the war is going splendidly, or Italian generals' attempts to cast the Greeks as aggressors, create the illusion that the Italians are winning the war when, in reality, things are far more complicated. The existence of Carlo's narrative in particular pushes back on the truth of those "official" stories and exposes them to the reader for what they are: outright lies. With this, the novel ultimately suggests that while those in power may have the privilege of telling the official version of events, these stories are hardly akin to truth. Personal narratives, meanwhile, for all their biases and intimacy, may better capture the lived experience of war--and, perhaps, of all history--than allegedly objective accounts ever could.
History and Storytelling ThemeTracker
History and Storytelling Quotes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
This would never do; why could he not write like a writer of histories? Why could he not write without passion? Without anger? Without the sense of betrayal and oppression? He picked up the sheet...It was the title page: "The New History of Cephalonia." He crossed out the first two words and substituted "A Personal."
Do you think I don't understand economics? How many times do I have to explain, you dolt, that Fascist economics are immune from the cyclic disturbances of capitalism? How dare you contradict me and say it appears the opposite is true?
I know that the Duce has made it clear that the Greek campaign was a resounding victory for Italy. But he was not there. He does not know what happened. He does not know that the ultimate truth is that history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it.
It occurred to Pelagia that perhaps the same scene had been enacted generation after generation since Mycenean times; perhaps in the time of Odysseus there had been young girls like herself who had gone to the sea in order to spy on the nakedness of those they loved. She shivered at the thought of such a melting into history.
(We lost the war and were saved only when the Germans invaded from Bulgaria and opened a second front that the Greeks had no resources to defend. We fought and froze and died for the sake of an empire that has no purpose...)
"It had 'To The Glory Of The British People' inscribed on the obelisk. I have heard that some of your soldiers have chipped away the letters. Do you think you can so easily erase our history? Are you so stupid that you think that we will forget what it said?"
Weber was still a virgin, his father was a Lutheran pastor, and he had grown up in the Austrian mountains, capable of hating Jews and gypsies only because he had never met one.
We have lost one-third of our merchant marine because He forgot to order them home before declaring war, we have been persuaded that halving the size of a division means that we have double the number of divisions, we have been made to invade Greece from the north in the rainy season, without winter clothing...All of our Albanian soldiers immediately deserted, and we only know what is happening to us by listening to the BBC.
But on that evening, one of the Venizelists who was about to risk his life by defecting to EDES came up to him later in the darkness, sympathetically offering him a cigarette, and explaining, "Look, you don't have to understand all that jargon from our sesquipedalian friend, because all it boils down to is that you've got to do just as he says, or he'll cut your throat."