Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is the fictional story of various Greeks and Italians during the second World War, with a focus on a Greek girl named Pelagia and the Italian army captain Antonio Corelli. I would not go so far as to call it a libertarian book; however, it is a book with a great deal which should appeal to libertarians. Louis de Bernieres, the author of CCM, has described it as a story about “what happens to the little people when the big people get busy.” While the books’ potshots are primarily aimed at the fascist governments of the Axis and at the communist militia, there are also pokes at more liberal governments. Neither the British government nor the post-war democratic Greek government is portrayed as evil, but the errors they make from lack of knowledge and thought are pointed out in multiple places.
Although the main characters in the novel are fictional, the story takes place in a firmly historical context. In the opening chapters Mussolini orders an invasion of Greece, much of which we see through the eyes of an Italian soldier named Carlo. Carlo quickly becomes aware not only that his government is run by incompetents, but that it cares not one whit for him: he and a friend are ordered to attack an Italian outpost while disguised as Greek soldiers, the assumption being that the two of them will be killed but that the “Greek attack” will provide a casus belli for the invasion.
On the opposite side of this conflict, we see the ruination of Pelagia’s first fiancé, a fisherman named Mandras. Mandras starts out as a handsome and innocent, if irresponsible, man who plays with dolphins and provides quite adequately for himself and his aging mother. By the time he returns from fighting for the Greek army he is emaciated and traumatised.
Following the German army also invading Greece, the Greek army is quickly defeated and Cephalonia, the island upon which Pelagia lives, is occupied. Despite this, there is a resistance movement which Mandras, feeling incapable of working at his former occupation, seeks to join. He unwittingly joins the communist “resistance”, however, a group aimed less at fighting the fascists than pretending to fight them in order to gather supplies for a violent communist takeover of the country at a later date. It is during this time that Mandras really becomes unlikeable and unsympathetic, turning into a fat, entitled serial rapist.
It should be stressed that there is no blanket condemnation of communists; for example, one regular drinking friend of Pelagia’s father is a devoted communist, and several characters – Pelagia included – express at least some sympathy for Marxist ideas. The trouble comes when people try to actually put these ideas into practice. Communist leader Hector justifies his actions by claiming that the peasants of the land “are full of false consciousness, and it’s just something that we have to get out of them, in their own interests.” (Chapter 28, “Liberating the Masses”)
The communists are inadvertently helped in this by the British government, which, unable to tell the difference between genuine anti-fascist rebels and communist partisans, equips the very people it will be fighting against in only a few short years. It is not difficult to see in this a precursor to the USA in the Cold War, which of course installed dictators such as Saddam Hussein only to end up fighting them later on.
Perhaps one of the most infamous historical events portrayed in the novel follows the surrender of the Italian government. The Italian army divisions, which had hitherto been fighting alongside the German army, were now their enemies. On Cephalonia the Italian army initially fought, but was forced to surrender after running out of ammunition. Thereafter came a brutal massacre in which more than 5000 Italian soldiers were killed. In the novel these include Carlo; the titular Captain Corelli is saved by Carlo, and taken, unconscious, to the house of Pelagia – the two of them having fallen in love, and her father being an experienced doctor.
Of course, eventually the Axis leave Cephalonia, but this is far from the end of Pelagia’s suffering at the hands of governments. No sooner have the Germans left than the communists emerge: “They formed Workers’ Councils and Committees, and proceeded to elect themselves unanimously to every post of authority, and to extort a tax of a quarter on everything they could think of… In Cephalonia the Communists began to deport awkward characters to concentration camps; from a safe distance they had watched the Nazis for years, and were well-versed in the arts of atrocity and oppression.” (Chapter 63, “Liberation”). One of these awkward characters is Pelagia’s father, who is dragged off one day and returns two years later in a condition similar to that of Mandras after his stint in the army.
The criticisms of the democratic government following are rather more muted, as is only appropriate, but they are still present. Pelagia takes over her father’s medical practise until “1950, when the women of the house failed to accumulate enough money to bribe a public health official into ignoring the fact that the doctor and Pelagia were unqualified.” (Chapter 64, “Antonia”). Despite both being apparently quite competent, this leads to near-destitution for the family. Later on, there is reference to a tax on completed houses, with the predictable-in-hindsight result that no-one ever completely finishes building their house.
I’m not going to suggest that the book is worth reading purely on account of its libertarian content. However, if you enjoy reading fiction then this can be an additional reason in favour of reading the book, which I highly recommend.