Louis De Bernieres’s novel, Corelli’s Mandolin, is a story about time and change. The story itself explores many aspects of life such as love, betrayal, chaos, tradition, history and numerous other elements that are often warped over time. De Bernieres notes that he tried to be as true to history as possible. But beneath the layers of time, change and history there is another element of Greek culture that parallels the stories within the novel. There is a continuous theme of the conflicting forces of good and evil and the changes that occur when these forces assimilate.
This is the Greek dualistic concept of both nature and humanity. Beyond the exterior war that is the central theme of the novel, there is an interior war that takes place within each character. This war, or dualism, is the Greek notion of Hellene vs. Romoi.
The notion of Hellene goes back to ancient Greece. In spite of the political turbulence and chaos of the fourth century BC, Greece was poised on its most triumphant period: the Hellenistic age.
The word, Hellenistic, is derived from the word, Hellene, which was the Greek word for the Greeks. The Hellenistic age was the “age of the Greeks; during this time, Greek culture and power extended itself across the known world. While the classical age of Greece produced great literature, poetry, philosophy, drama, and art, the Hellenistic age “hellenized” the world. Greeks (Hellenic) were isolated and their civilization was termed classic because it was not heavily influenced by outside forces.
The Romans, or Romoi, presented a chaotic element when they invaded Greek culture, an element explained in detail by Dr. Iannis.
Dr. Iannis explains the there are two Greeks within every Greek. Being a doctor, he believes that he knows this quality better than any other because no one is more truly himself or herself than when they are sick or injured. These two sides, the Hellene and the Romoi, are dualistic in nature, only coming into contact with one another when their patriotism is threatened. The characters in the novel display their dualistic faces while the war threatens their isolated island of Cephallonia.
The Hellene is the Greek that avoids excess. This Greek has a concept of limits, represses violence and seeks harmony while cultivating a sense of proportion. The Hellenic Greek is driven by reason and is the “spiritual heir of Plato and Pythagoras” (290). These Greeks love change yet assert discipline and avoid spontaneity. Hellene revels in education, disregards power and money, obeys the law, and detests dishonorable compromise. “This is from the blood of our ancient ancestors that still flows in us”, states Dr. Iannis, “but side by side with the Hellene we have to live with the Romoi” (290).
The word “Romoi” actually means Roman. Considering the conflicts between ancient Romans and Greeks, it seems fitting that the Greeks would regard the negative of the two Greek personalities as Romoi. While speaking with Corelli, Dr. Iannis states, “The Romoi are people very like your Fascists…they are improvisers, they seek power and money, they aren’t’ rational because they act on intuition and instinct, so they make a mess of everything” (290). The Romoi only obey the law when there is no other alternative. Education is only a means to get ahead in life and they are self-interested. They like getting drunk and they have no problem partaking in vicious and brutal acts. The doctor concludes, “Romoi and Hellene alike will die gladly for Greece, but the Hellene will fight wisely and humanely, and the Romoi will use every subterfuge and barbarity, and happily throw away the lives of their own men” (291).
Mandras’s character is a perfect example of the concept of “two Greeks in every Greek.” In the early stages of the novel, Mandras is like the Hellene Greek. He spends endless hours embarrassing himself in an attempt to woo Palagia. His demeanor is gentle and caring. He kisses Palagia tenderly and tells her he loves her. Other than his love for Palagia, Mandras’s only other passion is the sea, where he spends endless hours fishing and swimming with the dolphins. To Mandras, Palagia and the doctor are nothing but kind and giving individuals who possess endless amounts of knowledge that he could only dream of having. His only ambition in life is to remain faithful to Palagia and to make her proud, putting her above everything else in his life.
In the second half of the novel however, Mandras allows the Romoi to intervene. When he joins the rebel groups, Mandras discovers that he is capable of gruesome and heinous crimes. Mandras is initiated into the world of brutality when he is asked to beat an elderly man to death. He discovers that is easy to perform tasks of brutality and does so to secure his status in the Communist army. Mandras learns to read and write as a means to further his career as a Communist. He soon begins to see Palagia and Dr. Iannis as members of the bourgeoisie and realizes that they were only exploiting him because he was a simple fisherman. Mandras vows to return to Cephallonia and take revenge upon those who have mistreated him. He eventually loses all self-discipline and becomes a fat and bloated pig of man, a result of stealing food from the peasants. Mandras’s life comes to a fatalistic end when his Hellene and Romoi collide. Ashamed by his brutal attempt to rape Palagia, Mandras returns to the sea he once cherished and departs from the world of the living.
Megalo Velisarios is another character who reveals elements of the Romoi and Hellene character traits. The two Greek personalities are in constant balance in the giant Greek man. In the earliest events of the novel, Velisarios is considered the strongest man in Greece. While performing acts of endurance at a strongman show, Velisarios’s Romoi personality takes over when he lifts the plump priest, Father Arsenios, above his head, ignoring the fact that it is considered extremely poor form to humiliate a priest, especially in public. Realizing the error he has made, the Hellene in Velisarios intervenes and prompts him to pay a visit to the priest to offer a bottle of wine and an apology for his demeaning behavior.
Velisarios is again confronted with his inner Greek conflict when he discovers Captain Corelli is still alive after enduring the wrath of the German firing squad. The Hellene in him risks his life to deliver an Italian officer to the home of Dr. Iannis. Velisarios then risks his life again in order to retrieve the body of the heroic Carlos. The Hellene side of him shows his passionate nature and good moral values because he risks his own life in lack of personal benefits. However, the Romoi and Hellene collide briefly as Velisarios leaves Dr. Iannis’s home to retrieve Carlos, stating, “It’s after the curfew Iatre, but I’ll go if you want. On the way I might kill a German, who knows?” .
Father Arsenios is a Romaic character in the beginning of the novel. He suffers from over consumption in the extreme sense of the word. He indulges in food and wine to the point of gluttony. When Father Arsenios finds himself having to relieve his bladder while receiving offerings, he refuses to do so for fear of missing out on potential gifts of food and wine, and instead drinks consecutive bottles of wine in order to urinate into the empty bottles. Father Arsenios is somewhat self-interested and lacks the self-confidence that is common in the Hellenic side of the Greek.
When the Italian occupation begins on the island of Cephallonia, however, Father Arsenios is overwhelmed by the Hellenic aspect of his Greek character. He gains an incredible amount of self-confidence and becomes a prophet, wandering the island and preaching in the name of God and salvation. He warns the Italians of their impending doom:
For He shall take the Beast and the false prophet and the armies gathered together against us that wrought miracles before them, and He shall smite them, and the fowls of the air shall be filled with their flesh, and they shall be cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone, and the remnant shall be slain .
He continues his plight with only the interest of others in mind, and ends his own life while defending the Italian officers and speaking against their cremation. Wielding nothing but a stick, Father Arsenios shows how Hellenic and Romaic forces can assimilate as he attacks the Germans until the moment of his own death while defending the slain Italians.
Dr. Iannis and his daughter Palagia are perhaps the most admirable characters in the novel due to the fact that they possess all of the qualities of Hellene. They are respected among the members of their community for their immense knowledge and skill in both worldly matters and the medical field. When the members of Cephallonia have a dispute they call upon the doctor to resolve their problems diplomatically. Dr. Iannis makes a point to tell Palagia’s suitors that she does not have a dowry. He does this because he wants his daughter to marry for love and not money. Both Palagia and Dr. Iannis have an incredible interest in education. Dr. Iannis also makes it a point to teach his daughter the Italian language and stresses the fact that it should be a part of the Greek curriculum. Palagia finds an interest in the medical field and studiously examines her father’s volume of The Complete and Concise Home Doctor. But even the most respectable Greek can be influenced by their Romaic side, especially when their Greek nation is under attack.
Dr. Iannis and Palagia first reveal their Romaic sides when the Italians invade their island. When informed that Captain Corelli will be taking up residence in their home, the doctor informs his daughter that she must not show any kindness towards the Italians for they are the enemy. Palagia and Dr. Iannis make life as difficult as possible for the Captain. They cook extraordinary meals, taunting him with the smells. Palagia at first refuses to accept the Captain’s kindness and keeps her promise to her father that she will not be influenced by Corelli’s Italian charm. Before they know it, however, the Hellenic Greek reveals her head again as the doctor and Palagia fall in love with Corelli, eventually risking their lives to save him.
The physical characteristics of Greece are symbolic of the people who live on her land. The physical characteristics of the nation, her temperament and charm, are symbolic of the Greek character itself. Dr. Iannis writes:
Greece lies on both a geographical and cultural fault line that separates east from west; we are simultaneously a battleground and a site of cataclysmic earthquakes. If the islands of the Dodecanese are eastern, however, Cephallonia is undoubtedly western, whereas the mainland is simultaneously both without being entirely either .
The dualistic nature of Hellene and Romoi are neither split nor combined. The Hellene and Romoi intervene when necessary, providing a balance as well as a sense of what is essentially the Greek character.