Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Big Mis...Spoilers ahoy!

I recently finished teaching Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a book I first read when it came out and loved. It's only recently that I've become anal enough to keep a spreadsheet of the books I've finished reading, so I don't know what else I was into around 1993/94, but I remember telling the then boyfriend (yes, reader, I married him) "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!!" and feeling that for the first time in months - nay, years - I'd come across a book with a story and wonderful characters instead of post-modern tricksiness that left me feeling weary and toyed with like yesterday's reheated leftovers.

Reading it this time, and trying to convey its possibilities to a gang of sixteen/seventeen year olds, was very different. For some, it was the longest book they'd ever read for starters. And we ran out of time, so instead of going for detailed student-centred analysis, I did quite a lot of the thinking and note-making and speaking for them. Which made me think a good deal.

When I first read the book, I was so entranced by the first 350 pages that I forgave the author for the last 50 or so pages. This time, I was frank and open with my students. De Bernières played a cheap and stupid trick in the book, a trick that those of us who read and write romances spot and deride and do our best to avoid in our own books. And the trick is The Big Mis - or Misunderstanding, in which two people who are clearly bananas about each other and right for other are wilfully kept apart by the writer using a fake conflict.

Just a quick plot run down to explain the Big Mis: our heroine, Pelagia, is a Greek girl living on the island of Cephallonia. Our hero, Antonio Corelli, is a captain in the occupying Italian army, billeted in Pelagia's home, the house of Dr Iannis. Over the months of the Italian occupation, Pelagia and Corelli fall in love - it is a tender and chaste love. With the collapse of Mussolini's regime, the Italians are left at the mercy of the German occupying forces on the island and most are massacred or imprisoned. Corelli is miraculously saved, although grievously wounded, and Pelagia and her father save his life, shelter him and then arrange for him to travel back to Italy.

Corelli is meant to return to the island and reclaim his lost love. But when he fails to do so, Pelagia believes that he is dead, and imagines that she sees his ghost. At the very end of the book, Corelli does return - he reveals that he did come back in 1946, but he saw Pelagia holding and caressing a baby, so imagining that she was happily married, he decided not to make contact. He continues returning to the island for an annual pilgrimage to the grave of the man who saved his life, but until he is in his 70s, he never makes contact with the woman who was supposed to be the love of his life. The reader knows that the baby was actually an orphan dumped on Pelagia's doorstep, and that she has remained faithful to Corelli - unmarried and childless apart from her adopted daughter, Antonia.

What's my problem with all this?

The first major problem is that De Bernières establishes not only Corelli's relationship with Pelagia, but perhaps even more critically, with her father and the islanders and the island itself as life-altering and passionate. He sympathises fully enough with the Cephallonians before the massacre: after the massacre (which is one of the most heart-rending passages I've ever read in any book ever, and the reason that I still think CCM is a magnificent book), he is utterly dependent on them. They save his life in so many ways, and it is not simply a debt, but an absorption into their lives that makes him one with the islanders. When Iannis uses the strings from Corelli's mandolin to make him whole again, Corelli is bound to the island itself. The character he seems to be could never have come back to Cephallonia without making contact with the people who saved his life - not just Pelagia, but Iannis and Velisarios, the strong man
whose massiveness and undefatigable nature are a continuous motif through the book.

Besides which, his most treasured possession is his mandolin. Along with Pelagia, he deserts his mandolin.

So the Corelli who turns his back on Pelagia and Cephallonia and does not just walk down the hill and chuck the baby under the chin before saying, "And whose baby are you looking after, my beloved Pelagia?" is just not the same Corelli that not only Pelagia, but Carlo, Iannis, and the reader fell in love with.

This is why we readers hate the Big Mis, and it is why all writers should do their best to avoid it. However marvellously a writer has done his or her work in creating character and theme, once the Big Mis is deployed, one or more key characters will lose their internal consistency. This is the reason that the Big Mis is not just a misunderstanding, but a grievous mistake on the part of a writer, because the one mega-crime a writer can commit is to create a character with whom we ourselves can fall in love and then make them behave inconsistently or out of character.

I'm not asking for Pelagia and Corelli to run into one another's arms and head off into the sunset - I'd accept one or both being killed. A love so pure need not survive. But De Bernières uses the Big Mis to go rambling over a mish-mash of events and minor developments that imbalance the book and mean that instead of fireworking, the ending just fizzles...

So, while I'd urge you to read CCM, because the main 5/6ths of it are magnificent, I'd give up either when Pelagia says farewell to Corelli on the beach, or after Drosoula's magnficent cursing of her own son, Mandras (it's a long story, you have to read the book), both of which are much more fitting, although perhaps inconclusive endings to the novel.

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