Seumus Milne writing in the Guardian 29 July 200
For countless British enthusiasts, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is an enchanting literary tour de force, an epic wartime love story with the authentic flavour of Greek island life, still the ideal beach accessory for the discerning holidaymaker. Compared by AS Byatt to the work of Charles Dickens and hailed as “absolutely brilliant” by the television presenter Jeremy Paxman, the book became a publishing phenomenon of the late 90s, the New Labour politician’s novel of the moment. Hugh Grant was even shown engrossed in the paperback in the final scene of Notting Hill, Britain’s most successful film. To date, the book has sold 1.5 million copies, clocking up 240 weeks on the bestseller list – making its author, Louis de Bernières, 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 £45 million Hollywood-backed movie in its own right, starring Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz and John Hurt, and currently being shot in Cephalonia by the same British company that made Notting Hill. When the film goes on release some time next year, the existing de Bernières tourist boom on the island seems likely to turn into full-scale Corellimania. Already, bars and restaurants are being re-named after the novel’s eponymous hero, racks of glossy guides to “Captain Corelli’s Island” have gone on sale, legends proliferate about the prices the film-makers will pay for imported donkeys, and business around the port of Sami – where the main filming is taking place – has never been brisker.
But for all the extra income, large numbers of Cephalonians are deeply ambivalent about the Corelli phenomenon, and are far from being as grateful for their new-found celebrity as the film-makers seem to think they should be. 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 Bernières’s 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 Bernières’s 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 Bernières 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 Bernières’s most controversial claims, thus breaking an undertaking not to inflame political and national sensitivities.
“We are at war with Louis de Bernières,” 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.” A teenage recruit to the resistance youth organisation during the Italian fascist and Nazi German occupations of the island – his father was imprisoned by the Germans after a collaborator’s tip-off – Eleftheratos was forced into political exile during the ensuing civil war and spent 11 years working his way around the world, from Mao’s China to Ethiopia and Australia, where he picked up the nickname Lefty Freeman. Now he is writing a book to counter de Bernières’s version of the island’s history and what he sees as its portrayal of Cephalonians as primitive and inhuman. “We are not against the film,” he says carefully, in an Australian-Greek accent. “We know what the film means for the island as a source of income. But de Bernières’s book is a libel on my country and its people. And we’re not going to place money over what we believe to be sacred to us: our philotimo, our personal and national dignity.”
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 fiancé, Mandras, traumatised by the Greek-Italian war of 1940-1941, 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 bloody days. Overwhelmed, more than 9,000 Italian soldiers on Cephalonia were either massacred on Hitler’s personal orders or drowned as they were deported by ship.
In de Bernières’s 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 Bernières 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 8,000 German soldiers in little over a year, tied down tens of thousands more and controlled 80% 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.
Greece was the only country liberated from the Nazis where British troops fought the resistance – second only in scale to Tito’s partisan movement in Yugoslavia – to impose a pro-western authoritarian regime after the German withdrawal. In a policy that was bitterly attacked across the political spectrum in Britain, Churchill ordered General Scobie, in December 1944, to behave in Athens “as if you were in a conquered city”.
While de Bernières claims in the novel that ELAS and its million-strong political umbrella group, EAM, lorded it over the population in Cephalonia and elsewhere as Greece plunged into civil war, he is silent about the white terror that followed the British occupation, or the incorporation of the Nazis’ detested Greek collaborators into the new order, or the mass internment, exile and killing of tens of thousands of left-wing activists. And nowhere is there any reflection of the flowering of self-government in the areas liberated by the resistance, of the fact that women were given the vote for the first time in Greek history – or of the part played by ELAS in rescuing Greek Jews from transportation to the Nazi death camps.
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 guerillas, 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 Bernières 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 Bernières 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.’ ”
There is a plaque marking the spot where the five hanged, as there are monuments all over the island commemorating resistance fighters killed during the occupation or the civil war. In Zervata, in the mountains above Sami, a bust of the legendary Cephalonian ELAS commander, Astrapioannos, is the centrepiece of a garden of remembrance to the fallen partisans. Further up the mountainside, surrounded by caves and now inhabited only by goats and wild dogs, lie the ruins of the village of Mouzakata, his wartime guerilla hide-out – first bombed by the Germans, later by government forces with British support during the civil war, and finally abandoned after Cephalonia’s devastating 1953 earthquake.
Another of de Bernières’s “barbarians” – Argostoli’s 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 on the road between Sami and Aghia Efimia. 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 Bernières’s 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 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.
Dimitrios Podimatas, a 78-year-old Cepha-lonian communist resistance veteran, remembers five of those who died in the Italian- German clashes of September 1943. “A party of 12 people was picked from my village, Mousata, by the resistance and sent to fight the Germans in Omala near the monastery of St Gerasimos. I didn’t go because I was sick at the time, but my brother went. The Germans intercepted the group at Dilinata on September 20 and shot five of them. One of those killed was my cousin, Gerasimos Podimatas. He lived in our house and was very popular in the village. To a small community like this, it was a disaster, a psychological trauma.” The names of the five who met their deaths that day are recorded on a memorial. Podimatas – who between 1946 and 1971 spent a total of 17 years in prison or camps without trial for his political activity – weeps as he tells the story.
Even Podimatas’s record of persecution fails to match the experience of Vangelis Neochorotis, a 91-year-old Cephalonian veteran of both the resistance and the Greek-Italian war of 1940-1941, who spent 21 years in prison and whose brother was executed during the civil war. Both he and his brother, like thousands of others, refused an offer of release if they signed a statement renouncing communism. Sitting in the garden of the house in Paliki he has lived in since the 30s with his wife Amalia – herself a former EAM member who was tortured after the war – Neochorotis gives his view of the Corelli story: “De Bernières’s book is an insult to the whole Greek people. But I believe it is also part of a global drive to rewrite history, to reverse historical facts, to convince people that political and social change is a dead end and that if you struggle for a better world, it only leads to bloodshed, suffering and failure.”
The backlash against Captain Corelli 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, with angry letters in the Athens press and delegations to Cephalonia’s political leaders. The Greek islands have traditionally been dominated by the left, and Cephalonia is no exception, with the communists still winning 12% of the vote and the combined left-of-centre parties scooping up more than 60%. One typical protest to the island’s governor, from the local League of High School Teachers, thundered that de Bernières’s book “distorts and slanders the Greek struggle during the occupation” and proceeded to list, page by page, what it regarded as factual errors.
The controversy first surfaced in Britain last year, when a mauling at the hands of the Morning Star finally aroused de Bernières from his literary lair. Accused by Andrew Murray, former spin-doctor to the transport union leader Bill Morris, of writing a book of “the most crude and brazen anti-communism” and being an “apologist for the excesses of the right in Greece”, the riled author made the mistake of lashing out. “How long are you people going to sit in the dark in an air-pocket, wanking each other off?” de Bernières demanded to know in a reader’s letter. “Your ship has sunk, brothers,” he declared, adding that he was “delighted to receive a hostile notice from your paper”.