Tuesday, 19 June 2001

Captain Corelli’s mandolin and Our man in Havana

Listening to:

Shostakovich, concerto no. 1 for violin and orchestra in A minor, Op. 99.

Just read:

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s mandolin.

I finished this on Saturday. It's probably not a modern classic, but it's not bad either. It's not an entirely pleasant read: the characters are caught up in WW2, and the author is explicit about how nasty this could be. Unfortunately, some of the nastiness is called in to serve as part of a general campaign slurring the behaviour of the communist partisans, or andartes, during the war. This has attracted a lot of controversy, and caused quite a storm of protest in Greece itself. (Here's an article about this from the Guardian.)

The book itself is basically a historical romance, embodying a theme I'd call "optimistic fatalism". In other words, terrible things are bound to happen, people do change for the worse and die, but there's always a chance that something positive will be around the next corner. The main characters are well-drawn, sympathetic and memorable, and the plot surges along in response to historical events (Italy's invasion of Greece, Germany's invasion of Greece, their joint occupation of the island of Cephallonia and so on).

The ending is contrived. The whole denouement is a very rushed narrative covering a period of almost 50 years, and seems set up just to rub our noses in the author's view that shit always has to happen before people can be redeemed.

Graham Greene, Our man in Havana.

This is an enjoyable, light read. It doesn't take itself too seriously until the very end, where there's a dramatic finale to contend with. (It does involve playing draughts (checkers) with whiskey and brandy miniatures though.) Another genre, and fairly unbelievable, romance is also added to the brew. Up to that point, the story is just the amusing tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited to act as a spy for the generally incompetent British Secret Service, and who fills his new role by making up his reports. This has all sorts of worrying repercussions for the salesman, particularly when the bad guys also start to think he's really a spy.

This novel was a clear inspiration for John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama, which has recently been made into a film (Mike D’Angelo’s review). There was also a film of Our man in Havana made in 1960. (The IMDB page.)

To read next:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.