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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week