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.