With the character of Bunny Warren in Captain Corelli’s mandolin (1994), Louis de Bernières brilliantly echoes the experiences of the bewildered young sinologist arriving in China, who having spent many years reading classical texts with their arcane zhihuzheye 之乎者也 particles, has entirely overlooked the modern language, like van Gulik—or indeed (from the sublime to the ridiculous) me.
De Bernières hits upon an ingenious transliteration device. In the mountains of Nazi-occupied Kefalonia, Alekos the shepherd rescues a British paratrooper who has floated down from the skies beneath a silken mushroom. Taking “it” for a very red-faced angel,
The trouble was that he could not make head or tail of what it was saying. He did recognize some of the words, but the rhythm of angel-speech was quite foreign to him, the words did not seem to fit together, and it spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose. The angel was obviously very annoyed and frustrated at not being understood, and it made Alekos feel fearful and guilty even though it was not his fault. They had to resort to communicating by means of signs and facial expressions.
Alekos realizes that the only person capable of understanding angel-speech will be Dr Iannis. After a long and stealthy trek they arrive at his house at dead of night:
The angel smiled and held out its hand, “Bunnios,” he said, “I cleped am.”
The doctor shook the proffered hand through the window, and said, “Dr Iannis.”
“Sire, of youre gentilesse, by the leve of yow wol I speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng.”
The doctor knitted his brows in bewilderment, “What?”
His daughter Pelagia comes in to find
a man dressed in the tasselled cap, the white kilt and hose, the embroidered waistcoat, and the slippers with pompoms that was the festival dress of some people on the mainland. It was very grubby, but unmistakably new. She looked up at him in amazement, and put her hand over her mouth.
Wide-eyed, she demanded of her father, “Who’s this?”
“Who’s this?” repeated the doctor. “How am I supposed to know? Alekos said it was an angel and then ran off. He says he’s called Bunnios, and he speaks Greek like a Spanish cow.”
The outlandish man bowed politely and shook Pelagia’s hand. She let it go limp in his, and could not conceal her astonishment. He smiled charmingly and said, “I preise wel thy fresshe beautee and age tendre, I trow.”
“I am Pelagia,” she said, and then she asked her father, “What is he speaking? It’s not Katharevousa.”
“Of course it isn’t. And it certainly isn’t Romaic.”
“Do you think it’s Bulgarian or Turkish or something?”
“Greek of th’olde dayes,” said the man, adding, “Pericles. Demosthenes. Homer.”
“Ancient Greek?” exclaimed Pelagia disbelievingly. She stepped back for fear of being in the company of a ghost.
The doctor tapped his forefinger to his forehead, and looked up triumphantly.
“English?” he asked.
“Engelonde,” agreed the man. “Natheless, I prithee, by thy trouthe…”
“Of course we won’t tell anyone. Please may we speak English? Your pronunciation is truly terrible. It hurts my head, Pelagia, bring a glass of water and some spoon sweets.”
The Englishman smiled with what was obviously an enormous relief; it had been an awful burden to be speaking the finest public school Greek, and not be understood. He had been told that he was the nearest thing to a real Graecophone that could be found under the circumstances, and he knew perfectly well that modern Greek was not quite the same as the Greek of Eton, but he had had no idea that he would be found quite so incomprehensible. It was also very clear that someone in Intelligence had contrived a completely aberrant notion of what was worn in Cephallonia.
As the novel progresses, Bunny’s communication skills improve. As to mine in China (e.g. here and here), there’s always room for further progress… For a handy avowal of classical erudition, see here. And for the influence of the novel on life in Kefalonia, see
- M. Crang and P. Travlou (2009) “The island that was not there: producing Corelli’s island, staging Kefalonia”, in Cultures of mass tourism: doing the Mediterranean in the age of banal mobilities (Ashgate, 2009).