Considering the habitual British distaste for foreigners and learning musical instruments, Captain Corelli's Mandolin was a brave title for a novel. But Louis de Bernieres clearly knew what he was doing: four years after its original publication, his story of love and war on the island of Cephalonia remains so firmly cemented in the best-seller list that it must rank as the publishing phenomenon of the decade. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone you meet is telling you to read it.
And telling you in the most extravagant terms. The friend who first slipped me Captain Corelli warned me to clear my diary, not to read it in public because I would end up both laughing and crying, and to relish every sentence because the first time was always the best. For all that he made it sound like some class A drug, I found that he had scarcely been exaggerating and, sure enough, as soon as I had finished it I was pushing it on others myself - even on people I knew would normally never touch a book. Almost invariably, they reported a similar effect: a desperate craving to finish the novel and an equally strong desire to spin it out for as long as they could. Anyone who loves books will recognise this as the Holy Grail of reading experiences.
So what accounts for the book's improbable success? De Bernieres' own South American trilogy, for instance, is at least the equal of the later novel, but I haven't seen Cardinal Guzman on the best-seller list. Maybe South America just doesn't appeal to the British literary palate. It is certainly suggestive that Captain Corelli's sales in this country have not been replicated to anything like the same extent abroad. A French friend of mine - who, incidentally, claimed to have found the novel kitsch and overblown - claimed that its popularity was entirely down to the British being sentimental about Greece. She may have had a point. British philo-Hellenism may be more Shirley Valentine than Lord Byron these days, but the isles of Greece evidently retain their aura of romance - as the Cephalonian tourist board would no doubt gratefully concur. Greece, in the British mind, is a place where the sun is forever warmer, the colours brighter, the emotions more vivid and iridescent. De Bernieres' prose is adeptly suited to realising these preconceptions: every scene is evoked with a radiant intensity, so that returning to the humdrum world after reading it is indeed a bit like flying back from holiday into a grey and rainy Gatwick.
Yet Captain Corelli is never grandiloquent; it never strains for effect. Just the opposite, in fact: de Bernieres has an ability to evoke extremes of pathos and comedy, often simultaneously, from mundane experiences. A doctor removes a pea from a patient's ear; a priest falls down drunk; a pine marten is rescued from a barbed wire fence. There is a fierceness about de Bernieres' relish for such episodes, and it renders them as memorable as any of the novel's later scenes of war.
By the story's end, it is actually quite clear why de Bernieres chose the title that he did. The central theme is not really war at all, but everything good which is threatened by war, and the captain's music is a fitting enough symbol for this. For Corelli himself, rather like Psipsina the rescued pine marten, is the representative of a species that no self-respecting Greek would ever normally think to love. But Pelagia, the heroine, comes to love them both and, in doing so, provides a perfect illustration of those virtues of tolerance and generosity which run like thin steel through the book. It is precisely because these virtues have been so grounded in the everyday that, when the war comes to Cephalonia, the testing of them so churns the gut. "Psipsina, for the crime of being tame, was torn from Pelagia's arms and frivolously clubbed to death with the butt of a rifle." That one sentence, angry and cruel, seems to me to sum up the horrors of the century more piercingly than any number of novels about the first world war.
Is that a sentimental response? I don't think so, even though there are moments where the novel does, as my French friend charges, lapse into sentimentality. One such is the self-sacrifice of Carlo "l'Omosessuale" - it seems the preordained role of homosexuals in war novels to die a noble death. Yet, in essence, Captain Corelli embodies a bleak honesty which is the very antithesis of sentimentality, and which makes de Bernieres' ultimate affirmation of humanity all the more powerful for being so evidently hard-won. Oddly enough, his readers seem to recognise this more clearly than he does himself: if there's one thing that annoys everyone about the book, it's the ending - by delaying the ultimate reunion of Pelagia and the captain for 50 years, de Bernieres seems to betray an uncertainty as to whether his resolution has been truly deserved. Still, it comes in the end.
Indeed, it is strange to read a novel so full of pain which nevertheless leaves one with such a strong sense of joy. Maybe its success, for that very reason, should itself be considered a life-affirming one.