14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
"All wars are fratricide . . . ",
This review is from: Birds Without Wings (Paperback)
This quote from Birds Without Wings sets the book's tone. "All men are brothers" is a theme weary from overuse. Yet de Bernieres manages to portray it in a novel fashion within an unexpected environment. In school most of us learned of "the Sick Man of Europe" - the Ottoman Empire that once wrapped the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. "Corrupt" was the word usually applied. Throughout the 19th Century the Empire was chipped away by rising nationalist forces. Within the Empire's core, however, de Bernieres portrays a land of ethnic mix, kept stable by a tolerance for neighbours. The dominant Muslims appeal to the Orthodox Christians' Mary for aid. The Christians, in turn, recite prayers while prostrating in the Muslim fashion. A Greek teacher writes letters - in Turkish, but written in Greek script. All these elements are skillfully woven in this masterpiece of fictional history.
Yet, as de Bernieres chronicles, this tightly integrated society, typified by a village on Turkey's southwest coast - Eskibahce, was shattered. Riven by hostilities, broken up and rendered a pitiful remnant - why did this idyllic situation fail? Not Ottoman "corruption" but the forces of "European Civilization" intruded on these people's lives in devastating ways. To the people of Eskibahce, all Europeans are the mysterious "Franks". There are German Franks, French Franks, British Franks, even Australian Franks - all Christian, but as Eskibahce will learn, not the Christians they are familiar with. Whatever else these Franks are, they intrude on the Ottoman society and politics. The Empires built in Europe during the 19th Century, chipping at the Ottoman hegemony have now erupted into a Great War. Eskibahce's sons go off to fight, but the demands of war prove greater than simply acquiring cannon fodder. "It was an age when everybody wanted an empire", de Bernieres writes, undertaken with no thought to the cost.
De Bernieres uses a full stage of characters to weave his story of two decades of tumult and change. Few are admirable, but all intensely human - birds without wings. Rustem Bey, a Muslim landlord, travels in search of a replacement "wife" to portray the ways of Ottoman cities. A Muslim boy - inevitably - is stationed in Gallipoli. Through his eyes we are given an uncompromising picture of war's horrors. And its lighter moments. Philothei, a beautiful baby, becomes lovelier with maturity. It's symptomatic of the author's sense of irony that her beauty brings demands to veil her face - even though she's Christian. All the women then adopt the veil to pretend beauty. A potter saves needed money to buy a gun - for what purpose? One figure, however, pervades this story - Mustapha Kamal. He will change the Ottoman Empire into the nation of Turkey. In so doing, everything Eskibahce represents is swept away with devastating results.
With a string of excellent writings to his credit, de Bernieres has here produced a masterpiece. It takes immense skill to create a continuum from so many and varied parts, yet he achieves it admirably. "Where does it all begin?", he asks. The book is a response to the query, but not an answer. War, the great destroyer, has many causes and unexpected results. The Ottoman Empire is transformed into Turkey, a more easily identified entity - a whole derived from parts. In Eskibahce, the effect is schism, disaffection and dispersal, leavened by compassion and generosity. Are there winners, or merely survivors? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]