Assos, Cephalonia. Image: Igor Tichonow for Getty.

In the footsteps of Captain Corelli: A pilgrimage for the book that transfixed 15-year-old me

Lily Richards takes an epic trip to the setting of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – the book that saved her from herself. 

It takes 23 hours to journey from Auckland to Cephalonia, Greece, island home of the fictional Captain Corelli, Dr Iannis, and his daughter Pelagia. For those 23 hours I was filled with a deep sense of fear and claustrophobia.

Two days before I flew I had to book in to see my psychotherapist because I’d come out in a terrible rash that seemed to migrate from my neck to my hands every few seconds. It had to be addressed before it reached my face. Turns out I was triggered by an old thread of trauma.

When I was 15 years old I flew to Fiji with my heartbroken mother, who was permanently sick with two autoimmune diseases, and my generationally racist grandmother, who couldn’t stop mentioning how brown everyone was.

We were there to avoid my father. He was in Auckland trying to figure out if he wanted to stay with my mother or make a proper go of it with another woman.

Without going into details, I met his other woman, by chance, the day before we flew to Fiji. Net outcome was my body drastically shut down by the time we landed and my entire stay was fever-ridden.

All I could manage was to eat watermelon and crawl to the beach at midday. This because, during the worst of the heat, they turned off the air-conditioning to conserve power. 

Feebly I would prawn my way towards the smallest onshore breeze, clasping my copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and climb into a hammock, reading till night fell.

The book, by Louis de Bernières, is long and poetic and stitched together by a collection of eccentric first-person accounts of the second world war. The Greek prime minister Metaxas who was maligned by his allies and stressed to death. A Greek doctor who never went to medical school. And Pelagia, his intelligent beautiful goat-loving daughter. A gay Italian soldier who only wanted to be near other men. And of course, the titular Captain Corelli.

The book contained so much romance at a time when my life was devoid of a positive relationship to romantic love. But also, it was about war and death and suffering, which too seemed appropriate. The story pulled me to its time and place, to its love story, so effectively that teenaged me became weak-kneed. I desperately wanted to be wanted, like that. I wanted someone to swoop into my war zone and become transfixed, not by the bombs falling all around me, but by the way I was dealing deftly with the resulting losses and wounds. 

The book is a treatise on love…

Fifteen is a rough age to have your parents separate, even temporarily, and my friends didn’t understand the weird alternate world I found myself in. I became a parent to my parents, a confidant, one of their few safe places – and much of that was too much for me, in hindsight. Everything I knew about love had come from them, and here they were.

The book is a treatise on love and I took instruction from it as my paperback mentor. You’ll have heard this line read out at weddings but there’s a reason for its popularity: it’s true.

“Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away.”

Swapping my reality for Pelagia’s was an act of desperate self-care. I became obsessive about reading so I could return to this other life. I still have the same sandy edition I took to Fiji, like a talisman on my shelves. I pick it up sometimes and marvel at how some stories can save you from yourself. 

Afterwards we would call this period in my parents’ relationship The Troubles. It sits somewhere between “ethnic cleansing” and “re-homed” in the table of euphemisms.

When we returned from Fiji my parents chose to reunite and they had 19 more years together. She died in his arms from her long-term illnesses last October.

Nearing the first anniversary of her death, and nearly 20 years since she and I fled to Fiji, I somehow found myself invited on a walking tour of Cephalonia. It was as though the universe wanted to point out: wherever you go, there you are. 

And so, I pulled myself together, took Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Physics of the Quest” to heart (in short: if you seek truth the trick is to leave behind the familiar and comforting, and face and forgive yourself) gratefully handed over sole charge of parenting to my partner, and took off. 

In the book it’s the light that stands out as extraordinary. In fact I marked this passage in black biro when I first read it 20 years ago: 

“Strangers who land here are blinded for two days. It is a light that seems unmediated either by the air or by the stratosphere … it exposes colours in their prelapsarian state, as though straight from the imagination of God in His youngest days, when he still believed that all was good.”

I was so ready to be arrested by that light as I walked onto the tarmac. And it was beautiful – but I suspect the light in Greece is more impressive to people who live in smog.

We stayed at Sami, the town where Pelagia bids her lover Mandras farewell as he leaves to fight the Italian front. (It’s also apparently where Nicholas Cage stayed during filming of the dusty 2001 John Madden blockbuster). My room looked out over a pool and was bordered by a field of goats. The “leader” goats all wore handmade bells that generated erratic peals which, initially irritating, swiftly became a sound I wasn’t sure how to live without. I never got to the bottom of what characterises a leader goat or how a shepherd recognises such talent, but sometimes mysteries are more satisfying than facts.

We were in Sami for the beginning of our guided walking tour, one that would take us up the mountains and inside the monasteries of Ithaca, up the ridge of Lefkada and around the outskirts of Skorpios, the Onassis-owned island where journos famously papped Jackie Kennedy naked. But the tour started on Cephalonia. I was desperately waiting to be overcome with feeling – overwhelmed by some personal recognition that this place was truly special.

Cephalonia itself is large, made of piles of sharp rock risen from the sea, endless shrubbery that resembles flora from the Desert Road, and goats.

Our walking guide was a sprightly 56-year-old of mixed Greek and Scottish descent. He had a tan that would make a Ken doll jealous; the very polite scuttlebutt on the tour often related to his abdominal muscles or ability and willingness to swim great distances. He also took on the role of spiritual guide, one that made most of the men even more uncomfortable than did his handsomeness.

On our first walk he encouraged slowness, then read to us Greek poetry about death. He’d  brought with him his verbose and gentle friend Philip who was in charge of meal planning and who refused to walk basically anywhere. Philip reminded me of my favourite essayist.

Which brings me to David Sedaris. I met him in my early 20s when I was the brand manager for Unity Books Auckland and reviewing books on Charlotte Ryan’s cult classic 95bFM radio show, Morning Glory. His publisher brought him over for a reading event and lunch with bookstore reps and journalists. If you were sat anywhere but next to him you were left to talk among yourselves. He did utter a few words to me when he entered, regarding my glasses – asking how much they cost, then concluding he was correct in only investing in inexpensive frames.

This is generally the way meeting your heroes goes; it ends with them climbing off the pedestal you put them on and looking you squarely in the eye where you catch the bloodshot traces of regular human fatigue.

The author during the day trip; supplied.

In my head, I had lived on the Cephalonia of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for months. I had gone there to seek refuge from my own kind of war and yet when I went there in person it seemed, well, impersonable. As though we hadn’t actually met. Which is of course a kind of truth – it can be easy to conflate the stories you read with the feelings they trigger and the scraps of reality that inspired them. The worlds created in fiction and prose are intentionally special, they’re set apart from reality so that, in the space between, the author can create specific meaning.

Those parts in between turned out to be most meaningful to me. 

Over three days we ate beautiful food, walked over hills to hidden beaches, swam at Assos, ogled Amancio Ortega’s $80m yacht which was anchored at Sami, and I learned how to make filo pastry from the chef at our local taverna. It was idyllic, but it all felt new.

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I think I expected, foolishly, to feel it, like how people anticipate goose pimples when they set foot in Dachau. To feel the same deep sense of magic and possibility I had when reading the book. But it was just regular people with different accents making astounding use of limited arable land, and grappling with rising tourism and house prices.

 I suppose we all grow out of the things that used to comfort us; blankets beget soft toys beget cell phones beget drugs beget nostalgia.

After searching for something recognisable to hold onto about Cephalonia I came to realise there’s a definite power in letting go – even of things that were good for you, but no longer serve.

And, too, that the worlds we create in our heads from the books we read are the most exclusive of all holiday destinations and don’t require any long-haul flights to get there.


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