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.
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.
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 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.
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 fictionalised 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]
The first thing that strikes you is the wonderful prose, which, while completely natural and unforced, is poetic and descriptive.
The story, mostly told at a leisurely pace, is about a mixed Muslim-Christian community in Eskibaçe, a small hill-side town in western Turkey during the period from about 1881 to 1922, that is from the last years of the Ottoman Empire to the period after the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and modern Turkey was ethnically cleansed of its Greek-Christian population. We learn a great deal about the history of the region, (for instance about the little-known origin of the Turkish hatred for the Armenians), and the chapters about the villagers are interspersed with 22 chapters describing the rise of the nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal, somewhat irritatingly and unnecessarily written in the historic present, with the narrative (compressed where the narrative about the villagers is expansive) sometimes being far from clear. I think, in fact, that the novel would have been even better if the account of manoeuverings and intrigues of Turkish and international politics, overlong in the last third of the book, had been left out.
The early chapters describe the two communities living peaceably together, occasionally intermarrying, their children playing together, the imam and the priest being colleagues. It is a society with superstitious beliefs in each community, but with a large cast of characters who are painted with affection and humour - quite especially so the local Aga or village leader, Rustem Bey. There is, however, a darker side, too: an adulterous wife is stoned nearly to death; there is an honour killing of a Muslim girl who has become pregnant by a Christian; in one scene a crowd is excited when a usually respected Armenian member of the community is kicked nearly to death by a drunken Christian; in another, a group of drunken Alevis (Shi'ites) maltreat a Greek schoolmaster in a similar fashion. Even so, there is much more love than there is hate in this village, and much grief in the course of the story because of it.
Half-way through this long book, Turkey enters the First World war. Sketching the historical background to this, De Bernières shows a picture for which few western readers, brought up on the story of the Bulgarian Atrocities wrought in 1875 by the savage Turks, will be prepared. He presents the tolerant Ottoman Empire as having been the victim of a prolonged and little-reported `holocaust' (his word) going back to 1822, in which Turks had been sadistically massacred or driven out of their homes by generations of Balkan nationalists.
And now that the war has started, the horrors multiply: the Armenian inhabitants of Eskibaçe are cruelly deported, the local governor arranging for their fiercest enemies, Kurdish tribesmen, to escort them. The deportees included the doctors and pharmacists of the area, and there is noone left to help the villagers in their sicknesses and diseases. One of the simple young men from the village fights in the Gallipoli campaign, and his memories of this killing field, vivid and even poetic, are among the highlights of the book.
The end of the First World War ends with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, and parts of Turkey proper being occupied by the victorious powers. In Eskibaçe it all begins quite pleasantly. The Italians are occupying the region, to forestall the ambition of the Greeks to create a Greater Greece, and a platoon of Italian soldiers arrives in the village and establishes good relations with the Muslim villagers. (The author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin is as fond of the Italians as he is of the Turks.) The Italians would have done so with the Greek villagers as well, had not the local Orthodox priest furiously ordered his perplexed but obedient flock to have nothing to do with Catholic heretics.
But the Italians do not stay long. They are recalled by their government in 1919, soon after the Greeks have landed in Smyrna higher up the coast, and a new war had broken out between Greece and Turkey. The atrocities committed by both sides in this war are horrific and culminate in the revenge of the Turks on the Greeks and the Armenians when they recapture Smyrna.
The war was brought to an end with the treaty of Lausanne in 1922 by which Greece and Turkey `exchanged' their Christian and Muslim populations. The Christian villagers of Eskibaçe knew nothing about this treaty until the day before they had to leave their ancestral homes in one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the book, with the Muslim population wailing to see their Christian friends depart, and some of them even escorting them to their embarkation point at Telmessos and helping them to carry their loads.
I have two very minor criticisms of this quite magnificent, humane and moving book. We could have done with a glossary of Turkish words at the end; and the map on the inside cover is grossly inadequate, though it is understandable that it does not show Eskibaçe, for the name of this village is fictitious, perhaps to protect the beautiful real place, near Telmessos (now Fethiyeh), from a flood of tourists who have read the book. In vain: for the place has been identified as Kayaköy, and tourists are pouring in to see what had become a ghost-village after the Greeks had been driven out: in actual fact Kayaköe (or Karmylassos, to give it its Greek name) had been predominantly Greek.
on 22 July 2004
Birds Without Wings explores further many of the themes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin: the many interwinding lives of a small town in peace and war; the frustration of love; the meshing and conflict of different races and cultures. These de Bernieres draws out with the same fluid empathy that characterised CCM, but chooses here to speak through many of the inhabitants - both Christian and Muslim - of the town of Eskibahce, rather than focussing on the destiny of a single family.
Intimate portrayal of the villagers is intermeshed with the events of the wider world - events that the birds without wings cannot fly away and escape. If anything, these are the parts that could have been sacrified to (yet) more character examination, since they're essentially a retelling of history.
De Bernieres is masterfully skillful at both drawing characters and telling their stories with endless variety. Each character is unforgetably detailed and multi-faceted, from the Dog, who lives in tombs on the outskirts of the town and terrifies children by smiling, to the 'Circassian' mistress of the local landowner, who yearns to speak her native Greek, to Abdulhamid Hodja, the wise local imam, and his horse. De Bernieres' mosaic of life is constantly sparkling and enthralling.
If you liked Captain Corelli, this is the extra large helping with chocolate sprinkles.
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 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!
"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???