When sailing around the Levkas area, anchoring in deep blue bays, hopping around the mountainous islands and mingling with the locals, you don’t think immediately of war and the cruelty people can do to each other in such times. When reading “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin” by Louis de Bernières you will be confronted with life during war and associated crimes in this area based on true facts.
In the Second World War the Ionean island Cephalonia (Nisos Kefallínia) in Greece (close to Levkas & Ithaca) was occupied by 9,000 Alpine Acqui soldiers of the Italian Fascists army in 1943. Greece, although a totalarian state at that time and more a partner of “The Dark Forces”, was betrayed by Mussolini who was desperate in need for some success after several fiasco’s in Africa. He didn’t succeed in Greece alone by the way and the occupation of Greece by Italian and German troops was the result.
After Italy was defeated by the English around 1943, the Italian troops in Cephalonia refused to hand the island over to the Nazi’s. For seven days the Italians fought the Germans until eventually the remaining soldiers of the Acqui division, around 6,000 men, surrendered and were betrayed by the Nazi’s and executed, it is said on Hitler’s personal order.
The killing of 5,500 Italian soldiers and nearly 500 officers is thought to have been the second-largest murder of prisoners of war during the Second World War, ranking alongside the infamous 1940 Katyn Forest massacre of Polish army officers by Soviet military police.
One of the last survivors of the massacre is Salvatore Di Rado, now 94, who lives in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. He told in the newspaper Il Messagero that he was lined up in a firing squad but the bullets missed him. “I was saved by the body of a comrade which shielded me. I stayed still under all the bodies, pretending to be dead, and then when darkness fell, and the Germans went away, I hid in the scrub, suffering the agonies of hunger and thirst. But I was alive, and farmers on Cephaloni later gave me help.”
The novel by Louis de Bernières deals with the above mentioned occupation and historic events of Cephalonia and adds the love affair between the Italian captain Corelli and the young Greek girl Pelagia during the second World War and the arrival of the Germans and the Communist resistance. This book has been laureated and at the end made a movie of it. Although the movie does not have the depth of the book (again the book is so much better), is hard to watch completely after having read the book, the movie does show you some good shots of the beauty of the Greek islands as a book never could do (but a visit would).
Personally I found the book one of the best novels I have read for quite some time. Besides love as a main theme in the book, as a romantic always good to read (and visualizing Penelope Cruz as Pelagia, well casted I would say), it also clearly provides an image of the horrors of war and what it does with people, weak people becoming in power because of the gun and the bestialities in them that open up and what they are then capable of when suppressing civilians. The book also gives you insights in the occupation of Greece in the second world war and the Civil War after WWII had ended of which I was unaware.
Some links for further reading:
History of Greece: two relevant articles, the first on Greece in the Second World War and secondly on the Civil War in Greece after WWII. The role of the Communist partisans in Greece presented in these page are certainly not in line with the view of de Bernières by the way.
The Telegraph – Investigation into massacre which inspired ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ reopened: In the article some actual news is given on the prosecution of the ones held responsible for the slaughter of the Italians on
The Random House – Captain Corellis Mandolin: The publisher The Random House provides a summary, short analysis of the themes of book of de Bernières and an interview with the author
IMDB – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: The movie with Penelope Cruz and Nicholas Cage has been rated a 5.8 on the IMDB