on 29 November 2004
This is a wonderful book. Hard going at times, but ultimately rewarding. If you loved Captain Corelli, this has many of the same ingredients: engrossing characters, minutely-observed village life, and a war that shatters everything. As ever with Louis de Bernieres, you have the sense that the entire book is painstakingly researched. Which makes it fascinating at times and treacle-ish at others. But, give it time. After 100 pages you won't be able to put it down.
on 23 February 2006
This is a truly great novel. It is set in Western Turkey in the early 20th century and concerns the events surrounding the first world war, the break-up and eventual dissolution of the Ottoman empire, and the effect that this has on the everyday inhabitants of a small town.
The story opens in Eskibahce and we are drawn into daily life through a series of anecdotes and tales told through the eyes of its various inhabitants. As the book progresses, the scene is cut more frequently to the historical events that are taking place, and as the book reaches its climax, we find ourselves totally engrossed in the war: the geopolitical struggles, the nationalist politics, the struggle between Greeks and Turks, and life in the trenches at Gallipoli.
The book achieves a superb balance between its gripping description of the history and politics of the time, and its equally gripping personal dramas being played out in this context. It explains the great tragedy that results ultimately in the deportation of the Turkish Greeks, with its attendant destruction of whole communities, the terrible consequences to individuals, and even the break-up of individual families.
To call this an "historical novel" is to understate the quality of the story-telling. There is some wonderful narrative here: the book creates its own folklore, marvellous tales, funny stories, sad stories, shocking stories, all embedded in this steam-rollering march of historical inevitability. We also meet some marvelous characters, who become like old friends as they come back time and again to contribute their little piece of the story. And here is another beautifully-executed technique - the stories overlap, as told by different people and seen from different points of view. In the mind of the reader is built a much richer experience of events when seen from so many different angles.
It's one of those books that is satisfying and interesting right from the outset. You know you are not going to be disappointed. It's just as well because it is 625 pages long! However, it's original, it's intelligent, it's informative, and it's one of those books that you must not miss.
Appropriately enough, I've just finished Louis de Bernières' Birds Without Wings while here in Turkey. And I have to say that it is quite simply one of the most breathtaking and moving novels I've ever read.
It's crafted on an epic scale (600+ pages), and has a fascinating dual focus:
- at the MICRO level, we get to know and love the many and varied inhabitants of Eskibahçe, a small fictitious town near the Aegean coast (placed not far from Telmessos, now called Fethiye)
- at the MACRO level, we follow the determined but bumpy path of Mustafa Kemal, as he forges the modern Turkey out of the embers of the defunct Ottoman Empire, becoming the father of the new nation, Atatürk.
The reasons for this parallel tale quickly become clear. The geopolitical machinations of the many nation states in the run up, course of and then aftermath of the 1st World War had a profound and tragic impact on the ordinary citizens of towns all over Turkey. Without this big picture, an understanding and sympathy for these individuals would be impossible. And the realities were brutal. For throughout first quarter of the 20th Century, this region faced appalling atrocities, ethnic hatreds and population dislocation. And the consequences are still being felt across the region.
De Bernières has sought to personalise all this - to depict the tragedies with human faces, something that fiction and/or social history can do far better than dull and lifeless statistics. Eskibahçe is a beguiling creation in which Greeks, Armenians and Turks live side by side as fellow Ottomans, almost despite their religious differences. The Christians and Muslims in the town would almost jokingly refer to one another as infidels - and there was mutual interdependence - even though of course the Ottoman Empire was explicitly a Muslim entity and non-Muslims were 2nd class citizens. But when Atatürk agreed with Greece on a massive population exchange in 1923, the impact was devastating. 1000s of Turkish speaking ethnic Greeks ended up being marched out, while 1000s of Greek speaking Turks were pushed back to Turkey. This was the final stage after years of terrible atrocities.
No one came out smelling of roses. Christians and Muslims equally behaved appallingly, thus fuelling the hatred and lust for revenge. But having chatted with Turkish friends who've read the book, they seem to agree that de Bernières is scrupulously fair. There are sympathetic characters on all sides, as well as the inevitable venal and hateful individuals. De Bernières has a great gift of describing military realities - he did it powerfully in Captain Corelli's Mandolin (a book linked to this one by a handful of overlapping characters). And in my view, he does it even more poignantly in this book. The descriptions of the horrors of Gallipoli are unforgettable without being gratuitous.
So as one or two reviews have stated, this really is a masterpiece. For not only has he managed to condense and articulate a huge swathe of historical research and details (I learned loads), but he has done so in the course of a brilliantly told narrative. It was a book that I never wanted to end - which to my mind is the best praise you can give to any book.
on 2 November 2008
Eskibahce is a town in which for centuries Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together for hundreds of years. Their peaceful life in a beautiful but wild and isolated region is shattered when Greeks and Turks declare war against each others nations. Philothei and Ibrahim a Christian and a Muslim, devoted to each other since childhood, are the main protagonists amongst a cast of many, which link the novel together. This is not just the story of their relationship but that of the rest of the community of Eskibahce as well, where Christians and Muslims had lived together quite happily until the so called Holy War disturbs the peace.
The characters and the setting were interesting and the story flowed well, with the various inhabitants of the town telling us stories through their eyes. Rustem Bey, Iskander the Potter and Karatavuk were my favourites, with some heart-wrenching tales to tell.
I think I would have enjoyed it even more with a little less history. I got a bit bogged down at times, especially with the chapters concerning Mustafa Kemal, over twenty of them. Some of the war scenes are horrific and this book has certainly taught me about the history of that part of the world. I also understand I think a little more about the racial problems that still linger there in the 21st century.
on 27 April 2007
Louis de Bernieres can write marvellously, of that there is no doubt. He can touch the heart and bring tears to the eyes; he can conjure up the deepest of emotions with the lightest of touches. I hugely enjoyed the Latin American trilogy that preceded "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", and Corelli itself deserved all the critical acclaim it received. Yet despite my anticipation (I have visited Fethiye and walked around the sad ruins of the deserted village close by) I found this latest Turkish offering a little less than a delight. Yes, there are individual chapters that have the de Bernieres magic; yes, there are passages that live up to the best in his previous work; and yes, it is in places erudite, witty, and touching. But put together as a whole there is one overriding flaw, and that is that "Birds Without Wings" is quite simply far too diffuse. While the historical diversions may be edifying, the endless asides make for a tale that can all too easily just become becalmed.
The central character is not a single individual - rather, it is the village of Eskibahce, and with it the assortment of all too human characters who find their lives transformed forever by tragedy on a global scale, innocents caught up in a maelstrom. De Bernieres' description of the lives of Rustem Bey, Iskander the Potter, Philothei and Mehmetcik (to name but four) is affectionate and detailed. The problem, though, is how to present the enormity of all that is happening to and beyond this crowd of engaging individuals whilst at the same time keeping the story coherent and focused. For me, it is not a problem that is satisfactorily solved.
I did admittedly learn more than I ever expected to learn about Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, but while all this may be very educational there are no fewer than 22 chapters on him. Likewise, by chapter 81 the last thing I wanted was a ten page treatise on the death of King Alexander of Greece: there is a time and place for didactic chapters like this, and p481 of a 625 page novel is not one of them. Time and time again the pace is interrupted and held up like this: just when things are building up a head of steam, the story goes off the boil. By chapter 85, to give another example, I really only wanted to finish the book in order to say that I got to the end of it, and then out of nowhere I was embroiled in a superfluous chapter about a drowning Greek - beautifully written, don't get me wrong: but please, not there, not at this point. If it had not been for the fact that the end was in sight, this would have had me chucking the book at the wall.
Given how much I have enjoyed his other works, it pains me to say - and I feel disloyal in doing so - that the long breath I sighed at the end of "Birds Without Wings" was one of relief at finishing it than regret at leaving it. Sometimes less is more, and rather less here would have had me enjoying it a lot more.
on 10 August 2005
I read this book on holiday, it was fantastic. It made me laugh and cry all at the same time. Louis De Bernieres describes everything in detail making you feel like you are actually there and that the characters are your friends. The only thing that possibly was lacking was the story of Ibrahim, you don't really get to know him as well as you could have done. If you've read Captain Correlli's Mandolin and enjoyed it, then read this 'cos it's better!
on 25 September 2005
Birds without wings - having read this book i am aware that i have enjoyed it a great deal, but as with Captain Correli's Mandolin i also find myself feeling slightly disapointed.
Let me start by saying that this is a better book than CCM and also works as a sly prequel to it - a thing that most readers won't get until they near the end (I didn't). BWW is historical fiction about a small town in the south of Turkey before, during, and after the Great War. If you are interested in the history of the region or have ever visited Turkey, then you will enjoy the book all the more. The book also covers the Balkan Wars and the Turkish war of independance (from Greeks and christians).
The people of Eskhibace (the aforementioned town) are peacefull and fun with what seems to be an equal mixture of various races and religions. Somehow all of this variation causes each of the various cultures to take on aspects of the others - for example, the christians practice muslim rituals, and teh muslims practise christian ones. Everybody gets along perfectly until war looms and people far away begin teaching christians to hate muslims and muslims to do likewise.
Parts of this book are devoted to pure history and whilst these provide a brief respite from the fictional narrative, i did find them exceptionally hard to read as they are mostly just a list of historic occurences. Parts of this book are devoted to the characters at certain famous occurences (The Gallipoli campaign and the massacre of Smyrna), but most of the book is about Eskhibace as it waits patiently for its sons, husbands or betrothed to return. Needless to say, after such attrocities , none of those that return will ever be the same.
The characters are excellent, as is the way that de Bernieres leads the reader into the dramatic moments of the story, and there are some moments that will affect you so much that you cannot continue reading. You'll put the book down on your knee until the urge to continue and find out what happens next will conquer your revulsion - and be aware: this book is at times sickeningly graphic in its descriptions of the attrocities.
A very good book - one that i will not read again, because some of it is very hard work, but one that has taught me agreat deal and made me think. This is a topical book and will cause you to consider or revise your opinions on certain issues.
The reason, i think, for my disapointment is that there are so many characters that i never wholly engaged with most of them. Nevertheless, this is a book i would recommend.
on 27 July 2004
If you've ever wondered why the Turks and Greeks hate each other so much, read this book. It's not an "easy" read, flipping between novel and short historical sections, but it reveals an awful lot about the historic hatreds between these apparently friendly peoples, and also casts light on current difficulties with the Kurds, anmong others in the region. There are a number of indirect links with "Captain Corelli", but it is a very different book. The newspaper critics were not enthusiastic, but what do they know? Having finished the book, I am immediately starting it again, to see what I missed first time.
on 20 June 2008
I don't say this lightly, but I think truthfully this is the best book I've ever read. Louis De Bernieres writes with such compassion, and so skilfully evokes the characters, setting and cultural mores of the period he's writing about that the story is compelling from page one. The characters are very likeable and human, and they become real as the novel progresses, so that it is almost painful to finish the last page and have to say goodbye to them. Having recently visited south west Turkey for the first time earlier this year I was stunned by the accuracy of de Bernieres' descriptions of the landscape and its ancient reminders of earlier civilisations. To my shame I was mostly ignorant of the history of this part of the world, so am extremely grateful to this book and its author for presenting its story in such realistic, sympathetic and human terms. The "history lessons" included in the book about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are rather dry, especially if you hated history at school, but appear as short intervals in the whole, and reveal a charismatic and visionary character in the father of Modern Turkey.
Highlights of the book for me are in Karatavuk's memoirs from Gallipoli, the last reflections of the Greek philanthropist Georgio P. Theodorou, and the charming and convivial exchanges of the Christian and Muslim villagers living comfortably and respectfully side by side in the small Anatolian community in the early 20th century.
The imagery is stunning, both enchantingly beautiful- such as the marvellous description of Leyla Hanim's rooms, magically decorated for the romantic seduction of Rustem Bey complete with "roving" candlesticks - and graphically violent in equal measure, such as the disturbing memory which keeps a weary sergeant awake at night. Violence is positioned directly alongside small acts of kindness, and the descriptions of relations between the "Franks" and the Turks in trenches yards apart are particularly touching. The writing is full of love, humour and pathos, which make this a book to revisit over and over.
My advice on picking up this book, as surely you must, is to arm youself with a good map of Turkey and its neighbouring Greek islands, as the one inside the front cover isn't desperately clear, and it would be a crying shame to give up on this book because of geographical confusion! Read it and be transported!
"Birds Without Wings" is an excellent read in several aspects - it is both epic and intensely personal and achieves this masterfully. The two friends and their adventures - Karatavuk and Mehmetcik, the love story of Philothei and Ibrahim, the story of Rustem Bey and his mistress Leyla Hanim and of the confident general Mustapha Kemal and the sad story of Tamara Hanim - Rustem's wife. The characters are varied and colourful in the novel but it isn't the case that it's lots of characters drawn badly - De Berniere is so faithful in his rendition of the characters they stick in the mind so you don't lose track of who's who.
There is one word to sum up this novel of a turbulent time in Turkish and Greek history and that is haunting. The descriptions of the horrors of war that are so vivid and real, the sensual details of the relationships between lovers, the hot Turkish night and the background of the Nightingales singing. This all ties together with the beautiful motif of birds without wings that runs through the novel when we realise that all the characters by the end have lost the freedom to fly - and one character literally attempts to fly - but I won't spoil it for you!! Buy it if you're interested in 20th Century history, or even if you simply like fiction that is both detailed but wide-sweeping, massive in scope yet intensely personal.
The stories of the main protagonists lives - which is basically everyone in the village of Eskibahce is told in a beautiful way -but I would agree with the other reviewer and this is why I've given it four stars that some of the historical and political content isn't everyone's cup of tea, also some of the descriptions of the front are horrific.
Although De Berniere is famous for "Captain Correlli's Mandolin" this book doesn't really bare much similarity to it and this is to the book's credit as in a way we've been there and done that. An excellent read and one of my favourites this year. I can heartily recommend it and at the great price you can get it for in paperback on Amazon what are you waiting for???