Captain Corelli's Crisis
Monday 7 August 2000
(Reprinted from The Guardian)

FOR countless enthusiasts, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is an enchanting literary tour de force, an epic wartime love story with the authentic flavor of Greek island life, still the ideal beach accessory for the discerning holidaymaker. Compared to the work of Charles Dickens and hailed as ``absolutely brilliant'', the book became a publishing phenomenon of the late '90s.

It has sold 1.5 million copies, making its author, Louis de Bernieres, a rich man and sending an electric current through the tourist industry on the island of Cephalonia, where it is set.

Now Captain Corelli is about to become a $US70 million ($A115 million) Hollywood-backed movie in its own right, starring Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz and John Hurt. When the film is released next year, the de Bernieres tourist boom on the island seems likely to turn into full-scale Corellimania.

But for all the extra income, large numbers of Cephalonians are deeply ambivalent about the Corelli phenomenon, and far from being as grateful for their new-found celebrity.

The problem is not so much the downside of the expected tourist invasion, or the occasional traumatic flashback triggered by the sound of gunfire from the film set. For many of the older generation, who lived through the events described in de Bernieres' book, his story is a slur on the record of the Greek resistance to the Nazis and a mish-mash of distortions and untruths about their island's wartime history. For the Cephalonian resistance veterans themselves, and for one uniquely placed Italian officer and survivor of the Nazi terror on the island, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is a travesty - an inexcusable attempt to rewrite the story of their lives.

Dionisis Georgatos - the elected governor of Cephalonia, who negotiated carefully framed terms for the Corelli film to be made on the island - dismisses de Bernieres' book as ``reactionary and wrong''. Nobody, he says, wants to benefit from the film ``if it distorts our history - we had many deaths, houses were burned, people hanged in the streets. It is very sensitive. De Bernieres clearly used British sources from that time and, of course, they had the role of invaders''.

Gerasimos Artelanis, mayor of Sami and, like Georgatos, a member of Greece's ruling socialist party, Pasok, has threatened to take the film-makers to the International Court of Justice if they include de Bernieres' most controversial claims, thus breaking an undertaking not to inflame political and national sensitivities.

``We are at war with Louis de Bernieres,'' explains Lefteris Eleftheratos, a 72-year-old former Cephalonian journalist and unofficial leader of the Greek campaign against the novel. ``It is a defensive war because it is a war he declared on us.''

Such reactions can come as something of a surprise to foreign readers for whom the novel's historical backdrop has little of the neuralgic resonance it has for Greeks. Set against the background of an Ionian Arcadia, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is the story of an unconsummated love affair between Pelagia, the daughter of a patriotic Cephalonian doctor, and Antonio Corelli, an amiable, mandolin-playing artillery captain in the Italian army of occupation.

The relationship flourishes when Pelagia's fiance, Mandras, traumatised by the Greek-Italian war of 1940-41, goes off to fight with the partisans on the mainland. The opera-loving Corelli befriends a ``good Nazi'' from the German garrison, but is then engulfed in the conflagrationary events of September 1943, when - after Italy declared an armistice with the Allies - Italian troops on the island refused to surrender to the Germans and fought desperately for 10 days. Overwhelmed, more than 9000 Italian soldiers on Cephalonia were either massacred on Hitler's orders or drowned as they were deported by ship.

In de Bernieres' novel, Captain Corelli, of the 33rd artillery regiment, Acqui division, is one of those who first open fire on the Germans and later miraculously survives the mass executions, his wounds successfully treated by Pelagia's father. Spurred on by the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers, he returns to Italy to do his bit for the war against Germany as a fireman. The lovers are not reunited until their old age, in modern-day Cephalonia.

But woven into this human drama is a one-sided account of the history of the period, and a crude and unremittingly hostile portrayal of the Greek communists in particular, who led the resistance against the Italian and German occupations and later fought British and American-backed forces in the civil war of the late '40s. In a series of jarring interludes, de Bernieres offers a notably sympathetic portrait of the pre-war Greek dictator Metaxas - a man responsible for the torture, imprisonment and murder of thousands of left-wing political opponents - while Mussolini's occupation army, fresh from its genocidal sweeps through Ethiopia and Libya, is presented as a collection of harmless, fun-loving rogues.

By contrast, the main Greek resistance organisation, ELAS - which, according to the German Army's own records, killed more than 8000 German soldiers in little over a year, tied down tens of thousands more and controlled four-fifths of the country when Hitler withdrew - is depicted as a gang of torturers, ignorant demagogues and cowards, who spent the war ``doing absolutely nothing'' except stealing food from peasants and murdering guerillas from smaller rival, British-backed resistance groups. Of the three communist characters in the novel, Hector is a sadistic monster, Mandras a rapist and Kokolios a penitent who swiftly abandons his political foolishness before being shot by his former comrades.

Until the '70s, it was still a crime in Greece to have fought against the Nazis in the main wartime resistance movement, while Nazi collaborators received pensions. The role of the ELAS andartes, or guerrillas, in the liberation was formally recognised by the state only under Andreas Papandreou in the "80s. But, in case any reader might have mistaken his own view, de Bernieres included an author's note in earlier editions of Captain Corelli's Mandolin to berate ``disconnected intellectuals'' for regarding the Greek communists as ``romantic heroes'', adding, ``when they were not totally useless, perfidious and parasitic, they were unspeakably barbaric''.

Makis Faraklos, now the 76-year-old president of the resistance veterans' association in the Cephalonian town of Lixouri, remembers witnessing the fate of some of those whom de Bernieres insists spent the German occupation doing nothing.

``On June 5, 1944, the Germans hanged five resistance members in the main square because the andartes had killed a collaborator. They forced everyone they found on the streets to go there and set up four machine guns around us. One of the five, Dionisis Ratsiatos, was my teacher - I loved that man. There was a father and son, Gavrilis and Vasilis Rallatos, and the father was forced to watch his son hanged twice, because the rope broke the first time they strung him up. They hanged them from two trees. The youngest to die that day was Spiros Analitis, in his early 20s. The German commander announced through an interpreter that he would be freed if he gave information about the resistance. Analitis didn't reply, but called to the crowd, `You, tyranny-fighting youth, will avenge our deaths'.''

Another of de Bernieres' ``barbarians'' - a retired theatre director, the 83-year-old opera-singing Spiros Fokas - keeps a pair of Wehrmacht jackboots by the bar in his hotel. They belonged, he explains, to a German soldier he shot in an ambush of two troop carriers. Fokas, who spent almost a year fighting with ELAS on the mainland during the war, had been sent back to Cephalonia with three other andartes as a scouting group in the last phase of the German occupation. He went on to take part in other attacks on German forces as they retreated from the island. For his pains, he was persecuted and imprisoned in the "50s and "60s, and his son, now a professor at Imperial College in London, was forced to study abroad.

But of all de Bernieres' disparaging claims about the Cephalonian resistance, perhaps the most deeply resented by the island's veterans is his insistence that the movement refused to come to the aid of the Italians when they turned on their former German allies at such terrible cost in the autumn of 1943. It is ``certain'', the British soldier-turned-author declares in the novel, that the ``communist andartes of ELAS took no part, seeing no reason to shake themselves out of their parasitic lethargy''. Later, he even has the heroine, Pelagia, hearing that the partisans have been ``killing off'' Italians who came to fight alongside them against the Germans.

From the islanders' point of view, no charge could be more wounding. The Italian-German confrontation and subsequent massacres were a defining moment of modern Cephalonian history. The only resistance force on the island was ELAS and its political wing, EAM, though neither organisation was exclusively, or even predominantly, communist. Both Greeks and Italian survivors testify that not only did the resistance give practical and armed support to the Italian troops, but also 15 andartes lost their lives in the fighting. Far from killing Italians who escaped the German slaughter, the resistance - including the parents of Dionisis Georgatos, Cephalonia's present-day governor - hid them and helped spirit them off the island.

The backlash against Captain Corelli's Mandolin was a slow-burn affair. When the novel was first translated into Greek, the communist paper, Rizospastis, accidentally gave it a glowing review, lifted in haste from a news agency. But by the time the film-makers came to recce the island two years ago, the campaign was already up and running. By the time the shooting of the Corelli movie began in earnest in Cephalonia this year, the film-makers were having to issue public assurances that they would not be re-opening the wounds of the civil war or repeating what the island's resistance veterans regard as de Bernieres' defamation of their movement.

Most critics on the island have accepted the undertakings that the film will be a straightforward love story and avoid the controversy surrounding the book. They have also been mollified by the fact that the scriptwriter is Shawn Slovo, daughter of Ruth First, the murdered anti-apartheid heroine, and Joe Slovo, former communist and African National Congress leader in South Africa.

-- Guardian

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