Thursday, 14 June 2012

Full Moon. By P.G. Wodehouse

Full Moon

P. G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First Published in 1947

The n'th time I'm reading this book. I bought it in 1982 (as a PhD student in IISc, Bangalore, probably at Gangaram's on MG Road - I wonder if that book store is still there), though I'm sure I must have read it before that, and have certainly read it many times since. One of Wodehouse's best, it's a Blandings castle story, featuring such wonderful characters as Veronica Wedge (she 'goes on the air' saying 'EEEEEEEEEE') and Tipton Plimsoll. The climactic sequences, first in the drawing room of Blandings castle, and later in various other spots around the castle, are wonderfully described in some of his best writing over about 50 pages and should rank right up there with Gussie Fink-Nottle's speech in 'Right Ho, Jeeves'. Almost the entire book is quotable, but I'll give just one quote here.

'Freddie said that it began to look to him as though there was no such thing as justice in this world. If ever a fellow had been allowed to walk into a snare through lack of inter-office communication, that fellow was himself. Why had he not been told? Why had he not been put abreast? A simple memo would have done the trick and no memo had been forthcoming.It the verdict of posterity was not that the whole thing was the fault of his uncle and that he himself was blameless and innocent, he would be surprised and astonished - in fact, amazed and stunned.'

Lovely writing. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Captain Corelli's Mandolin. By Louis de Bernieres

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Classics. First published 1994.

A marvelous book by an author I have never heard of before - apparently it wasn't even shortlisted for the Booker - I wonder why. It's written in English and the author lives in England, though his name suggests French origins. The book has won other prizes, as have his other novels, which I plan to obtain soon. I picked this just by browsing at Odyssey (appropriately enough, since there's a fair bit about Homer's Odyssey in the book!) in Express Avenue, and I am proud of my 'discovery', like I was about 'discovering' Charles Frazier at the Chennai Book fair some years ago. 

The story is set on the Greek island of Cephallonia during (and just after) World War II. Italy under Mussolini invades Greece and occupies the island. This episode is presented as a betrayal of the Greeks whose government which was initially friendly with Italy, and supportive of the fascists. A lot of murky politics involving also Britain and Germany and their intrigues is described as finally leading to an occupation disastrous for the ordinary people of Greece. A group of Italian soldiers are sent to Cephallonia as the occupying force and some of them are billeted on the inhabitants of the island. Captain Corelli, a gentle easygoing musician soldier, who does not really consider anybody his enemy, starts to live in the house of Dr. Iannis and his daughter Pelagia. The captain and the girl fall in love, but the fortunes of war does not allow them to consummate their love. When the war is lost by the Axis forces, the Greeks are massacred elsewhere, but on the island, it is the Italians who are killed wholesale by their erstwhile allies the Germans. The captain escapes, presumably to mainland Italy. The British and the Americans have a passive role in the tragedy - the allied forces invade   Europe through Sicily, rather than Greece, and, according to the author, their cold-blooded but strategically understandable neglect seals the doom of the Greek population. After the surrender of first the Italians, and then the Germans on mainland Europe, Greece comes under the rule of the fragmented groups of resistance fighters, some of whom, the communists, are so indoctrinated that they turn out to be as bad as the Germans. A few years of these terrible events, and in 1953 a great earthquake destroys whatever was left on the island. The last portion of the book is about how the Greeks rebuild, and in particular about how Pelagia finds a family and some meaning and happiness in her old age, though she loses her lover, the captain, to the war, her erstwhile fiance, the Greek resistance fighter, to the postwar events, and her beloved father to the earthquake. 

Even as I read the book, the Greek economy is going through a bad time, with the Greeks being told to dance to the fiscal tunes of the Germans (Angela Merkel!). Of course the current events are not really as terrible as those described in the book, at least not yet.

The language of the book is superb, with lyrical descriptions of semi-rural Greek life, and sometimes coldly matter-of-fact descriptions of violence. There are several lovingly humourous passages, and all the characters are sensitively and humanely described, even some of the Germans. The really evil people are off-stage, and are represented, nominally, by Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin and Lenin, though not named, also come in for some opprobrium. The British and the Americans are the least tarnished, and in fact shown to be somehow incapable of the kind of inhuman violence perpetrated by the Germans, some of the Italians and some of the Greeks. This was the major false note the book struck, with a minor one being a sarcastic and shallow condemnation of communism. Despite this, the book is a lovely read.