Victims of Circumstance

  I had a huge (and heated) debate with my girlfriend last night. I could not for the life of me remember how we got onto such a topic, but we were discussing what you would do if something horrendous happened to one of your family members or someone you love, if they were murdered etc. I said that I would try to be as removed and judge the situation as dispassionately as possible, tracking the chain of events that led up to whatever incident, for example, if someone was murdered, I would try and empathise with what led that person to murder. What drives someone to that level?

I remember writing an essay back in A2 for English Literature. Crackin’ subject. It was a piece of coursework over Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which just so happened to have scored 49/50 (that’s 98% to you maths wizzos). I thought it prudent to publish this essay as I have often a tendency to play the devil’s advocate. The example being in this essay, I sympathise with Nazi’s……

Dear God, I DO NOT SIMPATHISE WITH NAZISM! What I mean to say is that I empathise with people in strained circumstances. People are usually not just generically evil; there are usually strange influences, pressures, and social circumstances that drive people to commit atrocities. Before culprits are judged, perhaps we should investigate all the routes that led to trigger such a psychological disposition; Murder etc…I dare you to remain rational though. The problem with human rational is that we are driven to look for someone or something to blame directly. Rationality is the first casualty when someone dies. Wow – a bold statement, a definite hypothesis.

Anyway, check out this essay, I’m pretty proud of it;

“Postmodernist writing is built on ambivalence and is fundamentally paradoxical; it asserts and then subversively undermines such abstract principles such as value, order, meaning, control, certainty, morality, in the process undermining itself and any tendency to consistency or a single interpretation.” Examine de Bernieres’ novel ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ as a postmodernist text in the light of this view point.

            Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, published in 1994, but set around the Second World War, exemplifies a philosophy of broad thinking and open mindedness, showing the characters for their traits and their circumstances rather than passing judgements in black and white because of their station or by their initial actions. It portrays empathy for all sides of a coin, the two faces, and even the edges. A strongly acclaimed critic, Marion Cox said that;

“Postmodernism shares the preoccupation of modernism but goes further in that it mocks and rejects traditional linear narrative, and refuses to give the reader the comfort of closure. Central to postmodernist writing is the author’s aim of unsettling and deconstructing accepted notions about language, about identity, about writing itself.”

As the novel is composed as an epistolary of multi layered narrative, it seems to agree with this statement. It includes formats of diary entries, news articles, and historical accounts where examples can be as varied as those written by Carlo ‘L’omosessuale’, or the chapter ‘A Pamphlet distributed on the Island, Entitled with the Fascist Slogan ‘Believe, Fight, and Obey’, to Dr. Iannis’s medical notes in the chapter ‘Extreme Remedies’. This invites the readers intellectually to challenge the stereotypical styles of a written novel and convert them to a first person perspective. It creates a situation where the reader has to piece together the events and viewpoints from the thoughts and feelings of the individual characters, building empathy and sympathy on an individual level. It gifts the readers with a first person perspective; personal accounts allow readers to see the series of circumstances dispassionately yet through the thoughts of the characters. The chapters revolving around the subject of the German officer ‘Gunter Weber’ for example, demonstrates the bizarre mix of circumstances that force people to commit atrocities ignoring their morals. A quotation from the character, Dr Iannis states this exactly;

“There would be no tyranny, Captain, and no wars, if minions did not ignore their conscience.”

With this in mind, to an extent the atrocities of war can be more easily put down to ignorance, rather than malice. This concurs with Marion Cox’s comment of rejecting familiar concepts, such as the Nazi’s being generically evil. De Bernieres presents Gunter Weber as full of innocence and as someone who swallows the slogans of the Nazi’s. His innocence is portrayed in chapter “The Good Nazi,” were we learn the extent of Weber’s innocence;

“Weber was a twenty-two year old and had never seen a woman naked before… Weber was still a virgin, his father was a Lutheran pastor…”

We are invited to inspect Weber’s background, to construct a bond between the character and audience. The audience is allowed to form their own opinion based upon Weber’s background and upbringing, rather than his actions and his national allegiance to the Germans.

            Pelagia remains integral to the course of the novel, from the start to the end, different governing regimes come and go, and history repeats itself just as Dr. Iannis had recorded it over his lifetime reflecting upon centuries of cyclical conflict. Pelagia acts as rigid viewpoint where we the audience can associate themselves to her actions and responses. She is the human connection to the madness that revolves around her as reality. This humanist connection is not necessarily postmodernist; in fact, the direct depiction of Pelagia presents her classically as a comparison to the Virgin Mary in the sense she remains virginal and she is worshiped and idolised by characters like Mandras;

“I saw Pelagia walk ahead seemingly across the water like Our Lord,”

This type of classical reference, or even Biblical reference, is a trait most common in a modernist text, however, the circumstances at the end of novel imply that the course of Pelagia’s plot did not comply with the conventions of a typical modernist novel. Many critics like have argued that the ending was too depressing. Pelagia is subject to numerous disasters from the parting of Corelli onwards; the earthquake, the loss of her father, segregation from society, and general aging. De Bernieres writes the thoughts and feelings of Pelagia in first person towards the end of the novel, specifically in the chapter ‘Pelagia’s Lament’ appropriately named after musical terminology. Pelagia categorically states;

“I have been reduced, I am my own ghost, all my beauty and youth have shrivelled away, there are no illusions of happiness to impel me.”

It complies more with conventions of a thespian tragedy than the originally harmonious imagery at the start of the novel, encompassing Pelagia’s youth and virility.

            As a postmodernist text, the irony of conflict is in effect what defines the book as postmodernist in the first place. Historically, during the Second World War, the literature was heavily influenced by wartime propaganda, so patriotic and anti-patriotic views profoundly influenced the context. In comparison, De Bernieres wrote the novel in 1993, decades after the major conflict and political tensions of 1943, when the novel has most of its timeline, so his are likely to be obviously fictional, but in context to 1993, they are also less likely to be biased. It cannot be co-incidence that De Bernieres must have been influenced by the massively changing political climates. The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, just five years before he published his book. This re-enforces the point that the novel exemplifies on a smaller scale what happens to the individuals when megalomaniacs act out their part in their despotic cycles. De Bernieres has provided the medium of a small island far from the major conflicts of the Second World War to show how the ‘little people’ are affected by extravagant conflict. He writes over the canvas of a Second World War story seen as the traditional concepts of good and evil are predominant and it is easy to distinguish who the heroes and villains should be, and to this degree, De Bernieres has broken the trend of black and white and merged them into shades of brighter grey. The chapter ‘The Duce’ depicts bluntly a main theme of madness personified in Mussolini. The chapter is designed to portray at an early stage the dismal state of affairs that force the live loving Italians to conflict and invasion, off the whim of an insane fascist who throws the lives of people around on the same level, with the same consideration as his own petty domestic affairs;

“…Greece is a totalitarian state that should naturally be on our side… I CAN’T STAND CATS. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, IT SAVES ON MOUSE TRAPS? DON’T TELL ME WHEN I CAN OR CANNOT USE MY REVOLVER INDOORS.”

Mussolini’s insanity is emphasises in the tone and the rhythm of his speech. He speaks in short uncalculated outbursts, and it is important to note that we never see an exchange of discourse, as if Mussolini is as much speaking to himself as barking contradictory remarks and demands to those around him. The juxtaposition in intonation and tone here is classic to his attention span, fluttering from one topic to another with little regard to consequence or prioritisation. The concept here is that the glory seeking, empire builder is not someone who is here to unite people under one banner and seek to mould a better world, he is an egotistical sadist in a precarious position of too much power. Classic literature often presents those of high status and power as noble and courageous, whereas here, De Bernieres has shown a tyrant to be childlike and almost generates sympathy for him.

            De Bernieres presents the Italians as individuals, rather than as the archetypal invader. There is a significant build up to the invasion of the island of Cephalonia where all the islanders prepare for an expected violent attack on their homeland, prying at themes of barbarism and history repeating itself on a cyclic level. The readership is therefore perhaps shocked at the bathos when De Bernieres portrays the Italians in a whimsical and harmless light. From one extreme to the other;

“Fathers who expected to be beaten to death stroked the hair of daughters who expected to be raped…”

In comparison with;

Bella bambina at nine o’clock,” he shouted, “E-y-e-s left.

            The shift in tone, exemplified here, demonstrates an iconic feature of postmodernist text.  The tone shifts from a cold, dark and sincere mode to a comical and whimsical style over the grave seriousness of militaristic matter. Postmodernism is not about making light of the military, it allows the readership to see the humanity behind the stone, martial, establishment.

            The novel is far from a capricious reflection on military life. It shows how real warfare really is. The reality it reflects upon is that soldiers are all human, and ‘only’ human, they are organic instruments that can be reduced to biological systems and functions. De Bernier presents soldiers in war suffering atrocious and graphic scenes of mutilation and despair. The chapter ‘L’omosessuale (6)’ plays with parenthesises and empty narrative, as Carlo explains to Francesco’s mother with hollow, cliché imagery, and in parenthesises the audience is subject to the exact and graphic realities of Francesco’s death;

“…the side of his head had been blown away. The pieces of skull looked grey and were coated in membrane and thick blood. Some of the fluid was bright red, and some of it was crimson. He was still alive.”

Here the reader is subject to a horrific and mortifying portrayal of the end of a human life. It conveys a very sobering aspect that simplifies characters down to their chemical construction, despite the readership having followed the stories and built a history with, in this example, Francesco. We have seen Francesco’s personality, as someone with humour and courage, and we have grown to like him, so to see him here in pieces with ‘pieces of skull’ and ‘still alive’ is a shock factor for the audience. What adds to the surrealism is a massive juxtaposition in tone, where Carlo attempts to explain to Francesco’s mother what happened, the tone is strongly simplified and the language made much more simple;

He died very quickly of a bullet through the heart. He can have felt nothing.

The use of cliché terms like ‘a bullet through the heart’ is used to apparently spare the mother of the distress and to try and make her son’s death less horrific yet the readers know the full extent of Francesco’s gruesome demise. Here the realities of war are shown in their true colours, blighting the cliché propaganda that was so expected and readily accepted, and providing a rich and disturbingly colourful viewpoint on what really happened.

            Broad mainstream philosophies are often presented in different lights. Characters like Corelli maintain an eclectic mix of conceptual beliefs that are never addressed or labelled to specific religions or political ideologies. This generates the sense that Corelli is unique and original in his being and carries a wholesome humanist sentiment. The political icons of the 19th and 20th century like Marx or Nietzsche are directly attached to the more easily marred characters like Weber and Mandras. A modernist text often makes classical references to previous literature or political texts, which are used to add weight to the driving forces and sentiments of individual characters. Here, Corelli is depicted as more of a hero because he has attained his mental wellbeing through his own devices and experiences, rather than swallowing the slogans like Mandras being indoctrinated by Hector’s jargon filled, overly complicated speeches, or Weber subjected to the destructive propaganda of the German High Command. Here is a postmodernist depiction as the hero is not the archetypal nobleman, comparable to ancient Greek heroes with noble routes, following aspirations set on age old causes. Captain Corelli is a hero by mistake, a soldier by accident as he wanted to become a musician;

“It was a plan that went wrong; the Duce got some big ideas.”

This idea of accidental heroism allows the hero to retain humility, without arrogance or military ambition, just the will to live and let live. It allows the readers to follow the insane juxtaposition of events that allow someone as docile and humanitarian as the Captain, to be sucked into a world dominated by megalomaniac political leaders, reflecting again on how the little people are affected and how their dreams are shattered or distorted by the onset of war. The novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, widely regarded as a postmodernist text by critics, portrays a similar aspect to anti-patriotism. To an extent, the character Yossarian wants desperately to survive the war and states;

“It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead… the enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on,”

This relates closely to Corelli’s dismay over the war where he confesses to Pelagia that cares little for the outcome of the conflict

and declares that ‘it’s shit, it’s all shit’. Both main characters display a sense of helplessness and resentment for being in the positions they are in. They have to be there, as Yossarian adequately put it, as a matter of survival, they would be shot if they did not fight, and they are likely to be killed if they do. It is interesting to note that in both these scenes, both the main characters are drunk, and they are in a state of mind where grim realities are unlocked from taboo and they speak their minds freely without guilt or hesitation. They demonstrate the anger and frustration as they see themselves as victims of their own circumstances including dramatic tones evoking ultimatums and exaggerated doom. The idea of higher powers morbidly stamping their fateful control over people as they are pointlessly sent to war to suffer from their own people and the opposing forces generates a sense of communal, international bravado where men must accept their fates and even face their deaths. David Horspool from the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ wrote;

“ De Bernieres sees that war can either degrade or elevate human beings, but it is humanity itself rather than war’s effects which interests him.”

To this extent, all the tragedies that beheld Carlo and Francesco, and all the circumstances that envelope Corelli or Weber, show how grim and gruesome conflict afflicts itself onto people, but the ways in which people conduct themselves with integrity and humanity are emphasised in war, and the real heroism is not in valiant acts of military bravery, but how people relate to each other and how relationships are built in the face of dutiful boundaries.

            In conclusion, the novel is composed of parodies expressed through a fantastic range of rich multi-layered narrative that creates a colourful depiction of humanity. With the fantastic diversity of people presented within the novel, it touches upon contemporary topics of racism and patriotism following an almost psycho-analytical study of individual characters that allow us to generate our own opinions based on their traits and their histories rather than their stereotypes. This eradication of typecasts is both refreshing and necessary in today’s society, even though the novel was set during the Second World War, the perceptions of people can be transferred onto our present society.


Louis de Bernieres, The Essential Guide – Margaret Reynolds and Jonathan Noaks

Roz Kaveney, 22nd April 1994 ‘The New Statesman and Society’ – Article on the mix of styles in the Latin American trilogy and in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

`A. S. Byatt, 25th April 1994 ‘The Evening Standard’ – Article on form, tone and style.

David Horspool, 8th April 1994 ‘Times Literary Supplement’ – Article on style and tone.

The Modern British Novel 1878-2001 – Malcolm Bradbury

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller



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