BOOK REVIEW / Occupied by a bitter mystery of war: Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: Secker pounds 14.99

IN THIS country we tend to remember the Second World War as a series of famous battles - Dunkirk, El Alamein, Salerno and Normandy: first the heroic retreat from the continent, then the triumphant return. Most war novels follow the same trajectory. It takes a Len Deighton in

SS-GB or perhaps a Robert Harris in Fatherland to imagine life under Nazi occupation.

And yet, as a catalyst for unpredictable behaviour, the idea of enemy occupation is a wonderful premise for a novel. The primary achievement of Captain Corelli's Mandolin is to show how the Axis occupation forced upon Europe a regime whose brutality it had inflicted on other continents, but had not expected to suffer at home.

In his earlier work, de Bernieres has exploited the lunatic contradictions of drug culture and Catholicism in various real or imagined Latin American countries. Here he takes the register of delirious megalomaniacs, paranoid dictators and other modern visitors to Greece, where occupation by, first, the Italian, and then the German armies merged almost imperceptibly with a civil war. Structurally, it's a very old-fashioned novel. It takes one of the hoariest war-story conceits - the good-chauvinist / bad-chauvinist scenario, the frame of everything from Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War to Zorba the Greek - and doubles it.

The action is set on the Ionian island of Cephallonia, where Antonio Corelli is a young captain billeted in the house of Dr Iannis and his immediate circle of poor but clean, hard-luck strivers. Although the Italians are seen as a constant source of vanity and megalomania, Corelli is a musician, not a soldier, and his courtship of Pelagia, the doctor's daughter, unfolds by dint of the eponymous instrument of the title. In the background, of course, the Axis military planners fail to subdue the klephts and brigands, goat-thieves and communists high in the hills; and the juxtaposition of the two stories not only motors the plot but also provides the more or less familiar trappings of magic realism.

The genre's chief pleasure lies in recognition, the lure of naturalism rendered suspect by modernism, and the identification of people, places and things we've maybe only glimpsed peripherally in life, but which are suddenly presented in rounded trompe l'oeil, not to mention trompe l'oreille. Unfortunately, the grafting of Latin whimsicality on to a story embodying the moody Orthodox soul, filled with its Byzantine nostalgia, proves to be something of a liability. Still, what engages the reader is not just the mechanism of the story but the way a legacy of bitterness echoes today's conflict in the Balkan peninsula.

There is, of course, more than a hint of voyeurism in our appreciation of this vantage, and de Bernieres means to counter lazy habits of mind with a scrupulous specificity, not to mention the empathy that informs his construction of characters. And yet it is hard not to feel that he is less happy writing about Greece than about South America. This book is a confection, a mystery novel full of fortuitous coincidences and extraordinary parallels and set pieces, and until the end the reader is kept from knowing the solution to a puzzle founded entirely on the character of Pelagia, the doctor's daughter - a solution that ultimately proves both surprising and not.

All this comes with the territory, which is to say the territory of the genre. But the more specific setting, the Greek location, lacks the ring of truth. There is a strange mixing of English narrative and colloquial Greek jargon, and it is hard to assess the usefulness of comparing the Bosnian nightmare to the Greek civil war. After all, while fiction may be fiction and owe no fealty to the matter it transforms, a novel that depicts an on- going disaster bears a special responsibility. De Bernieres's intentions are noble, and his skills are more than sufficient to give them force. It may be, however, that no intentions or skills can contend with the poverty of realism (magic or otherwise) in an age of round-the-clock news reports and ethnic cleansing.

It may seem unfair to cavil at de Bernieres's efforts in this way, but at least his achievement suggests a further step: that the reader, who can so easily and passively consume the experience of the novel, be made to work for it.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?