28.1.11

Book Quote Friday: Captain Corelli's Many Voices

Captain Corelli's MandolinOne thing that never struck me until I thought of choosing a quote from 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' for this Book Quote article was the sheer number of voices and viewpoints that Louis de Bernieres employs in its telling. 

It took me a little by surprise as I adore this book and have read it on many occasions and tend to employ a vaguely critical eye so I can learn and write articles such as this. I mean, it's clear that the story zooms in an out on various people and places, as if the reader were watching through a camera, but when you look at it properly it's mind-blowing, and, to be honest, doesn't tally with a lot of writing advice that suggests choosing one viewpoint and sticking to it throughout. I guess it goes to show that if you have enough skill, you can do anything you want... :)

Anyway, having done a quick appraisal, I can tell you (to my estimation), there are 13 first person chapters or sections of chapters, from 7 different characters: namely Mussolini, Carlo, Pelagia, Mandras, the Italian ambassador to Greece, whose exact identity eludes me, Captain Corelli and a German Officer called Colonel Barge. This gives us first-hand accounts of the threat of war in Cephallonia, the Italian occupation, the fighting and decision making of the war itself and also the aftermath of that and the earthquake in 1953. It also means that the reader gets an intimate window on the building and changing of the key relationships in the story and can form real emotional ties to the people and places before, and during, the falling apart of their worlds. Also, it's much trickier to understand a relationship when you can't see inside it, and a first person narrative allows the reader to do this too.
"And Pelagia runs down the Venetian steps and into the sun. She stops and looks back at me, her eyes welling with tears of rage and bitterness, and I know that she hates me because she loves me, because she loves me and I am a man who lacks the courage to take an evil by the throat and throttle it. I am ashamed. I play a diminished chord because I am diminished. My flirtation and my attempt at charm have exposed me. I am a disohonourable man."
Third person intimate voices also abound: 12 different chapters or sections of chapters about 8 different characters: Dr. Iannis, the Greek Prime Minister Metaxas, Pelagia, Mandras, Captain Corelli, Gunter Weber, General Gandin and General Jumbo Wilson, who, needless to say, is British. The beauty of an intimate third person narrative is that you can describe the inner workings of a person's mind whilst also, reasonably objectively, describing the events that are going immediately outside of it, which gives character insight, context and a fuller view of the surroundings, without having to elaborate as far as what is happening in Athens or how the events happening in the room relate to the wider historical context. This means that you can leave the reader to infer the larger significance of events, whilst describing things in a detail it would be unreasonable for one person to notice or repeat back to themselves.     
"Leutnant Weber dismantled and oiled his gun. He felt a little apprehensive without the panzers that had accompanied his odyssey across Europe. It was a relief that so many munitions were pouring into Lixouri, but it was worrying that so far there were not many reinforcements. It was well known that the colonel had delivered a final ultimatum to General Gandin, and had asked him some embarrassing questions about his loyalties and his intentions. There were eight hours left. He thought about Corelli and wondered what he was doing, and then he removed the silver crucifix that hung about his neck and just looked at it. General Gandin had refused complete surrender, demanded freedom of movement for his troops, and asked for written guarantees of the safety of his men. Weber smiled and shook his head. Someone was going to have to teach them a lesson."
The third type of narrator that de Bernieres employs, increasingly towards the end of the book, is the third person omniscient narrator device. This narrator knows everything about everything and can sweep from a total discussion of the war and detailed references to Greek mythology and Greek history to a full knowledge of what is happening in every corner to every person when a particular event occurs. He often uses this narrator as a type of third person intimate, but it sweeps into so many places and so many heads that it is omniscient in breadth and effect. Just over half the book is narrated in this way.
"To the south, in the island of Zante, the capital town blazed beneath a rain of incandescent cinders that fell upon the flesh so tormentingly that both men and dogs went mad. A rescue worker, one who had been a witness to Nagasaki, said afterwards that this was worse. All over the Ionian island people found themselves with nothing but whatever idiotic items they had tried to save as they disgorged from their houses: a chamber pot, a letter, a cushion, a pot of basil, or a ring. On Cephallonia the rock at Kounopetra, in Paliki, which had vibrated for centuries and which even British warships had failed to disturb, fell still and found repose amid the demolition of the land. It became just another seaside rock as the island transmogrified itself, dissolving into desolation and rehearsing Armageddon."
De Bernieres uses the omniscient narrator beautifully and prolifically towards the end of the book, when so much summary is fully needed to describe and cover all the horror and action taking place. We feel so strongly for the characters as the extended first person monologues towards the beginning allowed us to get to know them so well, thus demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of both narration styles. Captain Corelli's Mandolin really is a masterpiece of multi-voiced ventriloquism, the detail and humanity of his research and a story within which almost everyone seems to act under orders or a misapprehension, or out of folly or love.

For fullness, of the remaining two chapters, one is an epistolary chapter, containing the letters of Pelagia and Mandras on the first occasion that he is away, and the second is the complete text of a pamphlet entitled with 'the Fascist Slogan, 'Believe, Fight, and Obey,' that Dr. Iannis, Carlo and Kokolios distribute about the island in the 35th chapter of the book.

To me, the conclusion to draw from the many voices of Captain Corelli are that you must know your narrators and be aware of the strengthes and weaknesses of each one so you may tell your story at its best. You also must be mindful of reaching the skill level of Louis de Bernieres, as at that point, you have licence to throw out the rule book and do whatever the hell you want!

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