Good Reading : August 2001
authorprofile – is like a punch in the guts. Wrenching. While he grew up in a house where war was a regular topic of discussion, he never heard the full extent of his father’s involvement until he interviewed him when researching Captain Corelli. De Bernières’ voice breaks with emotion when he describes watching the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. ‘It’s an absolute apocalypse. I was thinking of my father coming ashore in Italy and it still makes me tearful to think about what he had to go through.’ I can hear the emotion through the awful space down the line. ‘It was upsetting to come to terms with what he [de Bernières senior] had been through and never really talked about.’ And perhaps this has long been de Bernières’ quest: to discover his father’s reality. Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz play the lovers caught up in World War II on the island of Cephallonia in John Madden’s film adaptation. Maybe that’s why the The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, which is set in the North Atlantic during World War II, had such a profound influence on him. ‘What I loved is that it is a book without heroes. He had a very clear, lucid, transparent style which I admire and can’t copy. But that was a really crucial book. It really brought home to me how horrifying violence actually is. How effective it is if written about well.’ He’s still haunted by a passage in the book where stranded soldiers are rescued from the sea ablaze with burning oil. The passage describes how a young officer tries to treat the sailors’ burns with only a tube of ointment. ‘It’s an incredibly effective scene and he’s rubbing the ointment on and the flesh is just coming off, and he’s saying, “please die, please die, please die”. It’s really ghastly stuff and morally shocking.’ Now, with the release of the film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, he is watching the battle scenes of his own book played out on the big screen. And, of course, the question on everybody’s lips is: does he like what the producers have done to his beloved novel? He admits he was a bit apprehensive. ‘You think, “oh, my God, what are they going to do to it?” because it is your baby after all.’ And, of course, the question on everyone’s lips is: does he like what the producers have done to his beloved novel? He admits he was a bit apprehensive. ‘You think, “oh my God, what are they going to to to it?” because it is your baby after all.’ When he says he likes the film, many people disbelieve him. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t problems adapting the novel for the screen. At one point, the producers wanted Captain Corelli to kill his German friend Gunter Weber, and Louis threatened to withdraw his support. Director John Madden filmed the scene despite Louis’ protests, but in the end he decided for himself to keep to the original story. While Louis’ threat wasn’t tested, it’s not hard to imagine that he would have easily walked away from the project. ‘If you are a writer what you care about is the book. You don’t really care about someone else’s interpretation of it,’ he explains. Was he excited about going on location? Not really. ‘Film is incredibly boring. They just do the same thing over and over and over again...’ But he does admit he was delighted to be drinking wine with John Hurt and eating pasta with the young Italian extras. While he researches the historical facts of his work 14 CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MAN thoroughly, everything else comes from his imagination. ‘It’s like something Captain Corelli says to Gunter Weber – that he imagines that things are personal. That’s what I do when I write. I imagine what it’s like to be those people.’ And that’s what makes de Bernières such a powerful writer. It also explains why Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has such a profound effect on people. His gift is the ability to write from the inside. He makes you feel what it’s like to be there.