A modern hit and myth

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The word "phenomenon" hardly begins to cover it. Captain Corelli's Mandolin was published in 1994 without any of the customary fanfare. "The publishers thought, `well, this is rather long, and about the war - will anyone want to read it?'," says Peter Bevan, the producer and director of `Captain Corelli Strikes a Chord', a film for Bookmark about the novel by Louis de Bernieres. "They didn't hype it up." Most unusual for the publishing industry.

Since then, the book has been reprinted 32 times, translated into 17 languages, and sold in excess of 500,000 copies. For the past three years, it has never been out of the bestseller list in this country. In a recent Waterstone's poll to find the top 100 novels this century, Captain Corelli's Mandolin was the most popular post-war offering. It is about to be added to the A level set-text list.

So just what is it that has made people flock to the book like away fans queuing up to boo David Beckham? Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, has given more than 100 copies of the novel to friends. "If they don't love it, then I'm incapable of loving them," he says.

"What draws me to the book is that it's like a fable. It has an air of having always existed in the way that Homer has always existed. It has a mythic quality because its themes are the preoccupations of myth: war, peace, love, hatred," he continues. "One of the reasons the book is so popular is that its values are the humane values of Christian love and that it is a book which argues that love has a redeeming quality. Good people get happy and bad people get punished."

De Bernieres himself, who gives his first television interview to Bookmark, agrees that his work manifests a perhaps untrendy faith in human nature. "I associate much of modern British and American writing with a certain misanthropic, amoral coolness. It is as though these people are writing without passion. If they want to prove anything, it is how despicable the human race is. I, on the other hand, am much more optimistic. I tend to like people wherever I go.

"It has become unfashionable to have books with heroes. We live in a cynical time where the intelligentsia are so relativist that they don't have any grip on moral or artistic standards. I'm old-fashioned in this respect. I like to hark back to the long-standing traditions in literature and theatre, where you do have heroes and people who are decent and brave and who have fine feelings. I don't believe they are to be scoffed at. They are not to be thought of as naive."

In Bevan's eyes, what distinguishes the writer is that "he is not embarrassed about tackling big themes. He's unusual because there is a naive honesty about him. He believes in right and wrong. He's prepared to set out his position, and doesn't mind if people mock him for it. Naive honesty is often quite profound."

At the time he wrote the novel, the 43-year-old de Bernieres was, in his own words, "a rather dejected schoolteacher working with difficult kids." He continues: "I was pretty near the statutory nervous breakdown that all teachers have to have."

A package tour to Cephalonia in 1992 changed all that. Walking around the buildings destroyed by an earthquake in the 1950s, he felt inspired to write a novel about the place, and set about researching it with missionary zeal at Earlsfield Public Library in south London.

The success of Captain Corelli has enabled de Bernieres to pack in teaching and concentrate on his other loves - playing and restoring mandolins, and fishing.

Bevan sees him as a "throwback to a previous generation. He doesn't have a television or read newspapers. He's an obsessive. When he pursues an interest, he gives up everything else; the rest of his life just falls by the wayside."

According to Bevan, this classic rags-to-riches tale - the sort of story that would be deemed implausible if it appeared in a novel - should act as encouragement to "all would-be writers".

So don't delay. Open the top drawer now, dust down that manuscript, and start looking up publishers in the Yellow Pages.

`Bookmark: Captain Corelli Strikes a Chord' is on BBC2 at 8.10pm tonight.