Captain Corelli's Mandolin tells the story of the Greek Dr. Iannis, his daughter Pelagia, and the Italian Captain Corelli. It begins several years before the start of World War Two and closely follows the Italian occupation of the Greek island Cephalonia, though it also spans decades after the end of the war. In telling such a sweeping tale from a variety of both first- and third-person perspectives, de Bernières paints a rich picture of what war is and what it can mean for different people. Though de Bernières is careful to make it clear that war is shocking and dehumanizing for all involved, he also makes the case that awe-inspiring beauty can be borne even from the horror of war.
One of the novel's most tragic yet optimistic characters is Carlo Piero Guercio, a closeted gay man in the Italian army. Carlo initially finds life in the army a perfect venue for admiring the sculpted bodies of his brothers in arms and experiencing a sense of love and camaraderie that was unavailable to him as a civilian attempting to pass as straight. Carlo also falls in love with one of his fellow soldiers, a married man named Francisco. Carlo never gives voice to his love for Francisco, yet the time they spend together in Albania is one that Carlo characterizes as being wonderful in terms of his romantic life. However, this seeming idyll is tainted by the fact that the soldiers have no idea what they're supposed to be doing, and it turns into a nightmare when they're ordered to invade Greece on foot in the winter. Because the soldiers don't have proper winter clothing, many develop lethal cases of gangrene and frostbite; their maps don't match what they find on the ground, making it impossible to carry out their orders; their guns freeze, making them useless; and the Greek forces, despite being a significantly smaller group, are easily able to pick off Italian soldiers at their leisure. As the situation worsens, Francisco goes mad from the cold and hunger and finally commits suicide by jumping out of a trench and into the line of Greek fire. While dying in Carlo's arms, he professes his love for Carlo, turning his death and the lead-up to it into an intensely bittersweet time for Carlo. Though Carlo is well aware of the human cost of the invasion, it's also a time during which he is unashamedly able to be in love--something he characterizes as beautiful.
On Cephalonia, de Bernières takes a different tack in illustrating the ways in which people are able to find happiness and beauty, even in light of appalling and horrendous circumstances. The Italian occupation of Cephalonia is surprisingly peaceful; it only feels like war because of the food shortages and the curfew. Over the course of the occupation, Corelli and Pelagia fall madly in love, and Carlo falls in love with Corelli. Corelli is also able to dedicate a great deal of his time to artistic pursuits, such as playing his mandolin and leading his military choir La Scala in daily performances. All of this paints a portrait of the Italian occupation as something mundane and only tangentially connected to the war itself--which, in turn, allows it to be viewed in a positive light, as something that actually improves the relationship between the Italians and the Greeks. To that end, when Italy finally does admit defeat and surrender to the Allies in 1943, many of the Italian troops join the Greeks in mounting a defense against the few German troops also occupying Cephalonia--with disastrous results. Because of Italian indecision at the upper levels in the military, the Italians in Cephalonia are unable to properly prepare and are eventually brutally massacred by the German soldiers. Carlo dies to save Corelli, who barely survives the ordeal and isn't able to return to Pelagia and the love they shared for almost forty years after the end of the war. The juxtaposition of these stretches of friendship, love, and artistic production with instances of death and destruction suggests that, even in war, there is beauty be found. However, that that beauty is fundamentally precarious and will inevitably be destroyed, stolen, or overpowered by the tragic realities of war.
War: Horror, Beauty, and Humanity ThemeTracker
War: Horror, Beauty, and Humanity Quotes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
We were new and beautiful, we loved each other more than brothers, that's for sure. What spoiled it always was that none of us knew why we were in Albania, none of us had an easy conscience about this rebuilding of the Roman Empire.
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.
(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...)
"I just don't understand why an artist like you would descend to being a soldier."
He frowned, "Don't have any silly ideas about soldiers. Soldiers have mothers, you know, and most of us end up as farmers and fishermen like everyone else."
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.
It came to her that she could actually shoot him when he came through the door, and then run away to join the andartes with it. The trouble was that he was no longer just an Italian, he was Captain Antonio Corelli, who played the mandolin and was very charming and respectful.
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.
"I don't have your advantages, Günter."
"Yes. I don't have the advantage of thinking that other races are inferior to mine. I don't feel entitled, that's all."
"If he had an impulse that quickened the seeds of his inactivity, it was foolish hope and the desperate need to spare the blood of the hapless men he loved. He took a sightless road and shortly condemned them to a grisly doom, failing to see in the Nazi promises so thick a mask of falsehood that by trusting them he condemned his beautiful youngsters to abandon their bones..."
The general had an obsession with Stukas. The thought of those crook-winged howling birds of destruction made his stomach turn with dread. Perhaps he did not know that from a military point of view they were one of the most ineffective weapons of war ever devised...