CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN
"If I am a poet, I owe it to the air of Greece," proclaimed Lord Byron in 1823, after a Cephallonian sojourn. The islands rarified air — its splendor, its agricultural and mineral riches, and its strategic position in the Mediterranean
— have made it a magnet for poets, pirates and a series of conquerors, starting in the second century
BC with the Romans.
The island's mythological roots are detailed by Homer in The Iliad. Cephallonia was part of the kingdom
of Odysseus, who built his ships from its fabled fir, sailing twelve of them to
Troy filled with 'bighearted Keffalines.'
In recent y ears the island has enjoy ed a very contemporary kind of attention, celebrity stemming from the success
of Captain Corelli's Mandolin. First published in 1994, the novel touched a nerve in the British reading public, climbing onto best seller lists where it remained for more than three
y ears. It has since been translated into 18 languages.
As a unit, the seven Ionian Islands represent a cultural and historical synthesis unique in the Mediterranean. Although geographically identified as part of the Hellenic archipelago,
their modern history is strikingly different from mainland Greece. This is due in part to their being ruled by Venice
for more than 300 years, and therefore oriented towards the West and Christianity, whereas Greece was subjugated by Turkey's Islamic Ottoman Empire.
Cephallonia is the largest of the islands and has suffered centuries of relentless seismic activity. A 1953 earthquake reduced it to rubble. The port of
Argostoli, its capital city, where much of the story takes place, was virtually destroyed, making it impossible for Captain Corelli's Mandolin to be shot there. The alternative town of Sami was chosen as surrogate because of its deep water port and wide plaza where sets could be built.
As a British protectorate during much of the 19th century, Cephallonia s economy soared with new roads, bridges and soil conservation. It and the other
Ionians were finally returned to Greece in 1864, and since then their histories and fates have intermingled. Mussolini's disastrous decision to invade Greece in October of 1940 catapulted them into modern history and the terrors of World War II.
As war in Europe became increasingly inevitable, Greece hoped above all to remain neutral. However, the twin realities
of economics and geography made neutrality difficult. To survive, the country needed to continue its long-established trade with various countries on opposite sides of the war. including Germany and Britain. Its islands' strategic position throughout the Mediterranean gave them extraordinary importance to both Allies and the Axis
Greece's internal problems an unsteady economy and a fragmented government whose key figure was
Ioannis Metaxas — exacerbated its dilemma. A Cephallonian whom the king appointed prime minister in 1936, Metaxas was an astute politician who did everything in his power to sidestep a confrontation
with either side. But he could not control the egomania of Mussolini.
Seeking to bolster his sagging prestige, Mussolini conquered Albania in 1939 and, a year later, invaded Greece. Expecting an easy victory, he suffered instead a humiliating defeat. Greek
forces not only held the border but pushed Italian forces well into Albania, causing both Great Britain and Hitler to take notice.
Some historians speculate that if the Greek forces had confined their effort to holding the Albanian front, Greece might have been left alone, as Hitler hinted. He didn't really want the distraction or expense
of a skirmish in the Balkans; he only wanted it "neutral," i.e.. clear for his troops to use en route to Russia, whose invasion he was already planning. Churchill, on the other hand. wanted to enlist Greece in the British/Allied cause and offered troops. Metaxas, convinced th
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