I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres when I was 23 years old. It changed an idea I had about life. This scared me.
The book tells the story of an lieutenant that is stationed on a Greek Island as part of the Italian occupation during the second world war. He gets to know the locals and falls in love with the daughter of a villager. They enjoy happy times together. The Allied forces take back control of Greece, and the Italian army beats a hasty retreat. Our lieutenant has to depart but he and the Greek girl promise that he will return after the war. Three years later, the war ends, peace arrives and our lieutenant, after years in camps and on the run, finally can make his way back to the Greek island. He travels to Greece, catches the ferry to island and walks towards the village. He reaches the village in the late afternoon and is walking up the final stretch of hill up towards the centre of the village. He sees a woman in the square, his Greek girl. She is holding a baby in her arms. The lieutenant turns and walks away, never returning. He travels the world. Each Christmas the girl receives a postcard from some spot in the world – always anonymous and with no return address.
After many, many years, the man decides that he cannot live without seeing the girl at least one more time. He is now in his 60s. He makes his way to Greece, catches the ferry and repeats his journey of 35 years before. He walks to the village. He is walking up the hill towards the square and meets a young local boy. He asks “does Pelagia still live here?”. The boy says “I don’t know any Pelagia”. The man reflects and thinks. “She will be old now, 60. She was the daughter of Iannis”. The boy responds “that bitter old woman? She lives slightly outside the village” and indicates the house. Our lieutenant gets to the door and knocks. When the door opens, the girl who is now an old woman stands for a few seconds in shock and then hits him with all of her force and slams the door shut. He knocks and knocks and finally she opens. “Why did you do this to me? Why did you abandon me?”. “I saw you with a baby, I thought you had a baby, thought you had married, had found someone else… I didn’t want to stir up…” “Why? Why didn’t you ask? It was my sister’s baby. I was babysitting”.
Before I read this book I had the idea that life was like a 10 pin bowling alley when it is set up for a kid’s party. They put foam into the gutters so that all of the balls will reach the end and take down at least a pin or two. After reading the story, I realised that life does not have this foam protection. Life has big gutters, and it is quite possible to put my life into the gutter and not hit a single pin.
Steven Covey says “Begin with the End in Mind”. Alfred Nobel had a unique view of his obituary while alive. He was one of three brothers. When Alfred was 55, one of his brothers died. A french newspaper confused the brothers and the next day’s edition came out with an obituary of Alfred. He had the unique opportunity of reading his own obituary and he really did not like it. He was the inventor and mass producer of dynamite. Reading his obituary (the creator of death and destruction) was the inspiration to change his life and leave a different legacy. Today we have the Nobel peace prize – because Alfred was so gutted to see that his legacy was going to be death and destruction that he spent the rest of his life creating the greatest current symbol of peace.