Louis De Bernières

"Birds Without Wings"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie SEP 9, 2005)

"Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrow."

Louis de Bernières intertwines his beautiful narrative of a small Anatolian town and the lives of its inhabitants with that of the biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. Birds Without Wings is superb historical fiction which chronicles the rise of Turkish nationalism, following the horrific massacres of Armenians and Muslims in the 19th and early 20th century. Similar ethnic and religious mass murders occurred in the Balkans, and other such slaughters were perpetrated by the Russians in their vast territory. Refugees fled in droves into the Ottoman Empire, to life in exile, trying to escape the killing fields. The destruction of the Ottoman empire in WWI put an end to a tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance in Asia Minor, areas of the Balkans, and many Arab countries. De Bernières also takes the reader to the battlefields of various wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions, and portrays the Battle of Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view - although I don't think he captures the true extent of the horrors of Gallipoli.

De Bernières' dedicates his novel to: "....the unhappy memory of the millions of civilians on all sides during the times portrayed, who had become victims of the numerous death marches, movements of refugees, campaigns of persecution and extermination, and exchanges of population."

Karatavuk, now an old man and the town scribe, remembers his childhood when he spent almost all his time running free with his beloved friend, Mehmetcik. Of course they both had to spend time at home with family and/or working, but there was always plenty of opportunity to play and adventure. Mehmetcik is a Christian and has long since been deported, with all the other non-Muslims, from his home in the former Anatolian town of Eskibahce, a fictional coastal village carved into a hillside in southwestern Turkey. The refugees were shipped to Greece, to live as strangers amongst strange people who called them Turks, in spite of their shared Greek Orthodox religion.They were transplanted to replace the Greek Muslims, who were transported from Greece to Eskibahce, which was part of the former Ottoman Empire but now belongs to Turkey. In the old days Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jew lived together in Eskibahce, in relative harmony. Everyone spoke Turkish. Christians learned the Greek alphabet in order to read and write Turkish with Greek letters. Muslims learned to recite the first few lines of the Koran in Arabic, but otherwise remained illiterate. Mehmetcik taught his Muslim friend to read Turkish in Greek, making letters and words in the dirt with a stick, thus enabling him to become a scribe when his arm was crippled by a gun shot.

Karatavuk and Mehmetcik are not the boys' real names. Karatavuk's real name is Abdul, Mehmetcik's is Nicos. Iskander the Potter made them terra cotta whistles in the shape of birds. These whistles are extremely special and unique. When half filled with water and blown, they sound like the bird they resemble. Abdul, Iskander's son, received the karatavuk, a completely black bird with a yellow beak which makes a "vuk, vuk, vuk sound in the oleander tree and sings to praise God in the evening." Thus Abdul, who whistled and flapped his arms much of the time, fancifully trying to make them function as wings, got his nickname. Nicos received a smaller but beautiful bird whistle also - the mehmetcik, "sometimes called kizilgerdan, and sometimes the fire-nightingale." He too became more than proficient in making the bird song. Iskander warned them both, " Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrow."

Now Karatavuk remembers his old friend and happier days, so long ago. He writes his memories in a letter to Mehmetcik, which the man will never receive, even if he is still alive. No one knows where he is. Karatavak writes that he misses him, even now that his eyes have dimmed and he has grown old. He tells of people they cared for so much and who are long gone from Eskibahce, killed in wars, displaced to God knows where, murdered by ethnic cleansing: wealthy Aga Rustem Bey and his beautiful, mysterious Circassian mistress, Leyla Hanim, who was not Circassian at all; Abdulhamid Hodja, the local imam, who was friend and wise man to Muslim and Christian alike, and came to bless Philothei, a Christian, when she was born; Ayse, the imam's wife and a good woman, who once asked her Christian friend to light a candle before the icon of the Virgin - just in case; Father Kristoforos, who encouraged the Muslims to enter his church on holy days when the religious figures honored by both Christianity and Islam were celebrated. The priest also accepted "offerings from Muslims who were anxious to hedge their bets with God by backing both camels;" Veled the Fat who gave his camel cigarettes to smoke; Ali the Snowbringer and his family who lived in a hollow tree; the Dog; the Blasphemer; Ali the Broken-Nosed; Stamos the Birdman; Mohammad the Leech Gatherer; Charitos and Polyxeni, parents of Mehmetcik, and tragic Philothei the Beautiful; Drosoula the Ugly, best friend of Philothei; Sadettin who was forced to kill his sister and then ran away to be a bandit; and Ibrahim the Mad. He also remembers Firket from Pera, and other war comrades - all of them gone.

He remembers when, as boys, they fancied themselves to be birds, and were happy even when they fell. He was a robin, Mehhetcik a blackbird. But in reality they were birds without wings. "For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders and their quarrels are very small...But men are confined to earth...and because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things which do not agree with us. Because we have no wings, we are pushed into struggles and abominations we did not seek."

Unlike his other novels, especially my favorite, Corelli's Mandolin, the author introduces and sets in motion a huge cast of characters, who are restricted in their development as a consequence of their large number. They are remembered most for one or two salient characteristics, sometimes charming, occasionally comic, and, as time passes, more and more heartbreaking. Although this device works, and is effective in an epic tale of this proportion, I found something significant lacking here. I wanted to become more intimate with some of the personages - to find out more about them, their thoughts and dreams. This is impossible in Bird's Without Wings, because as in real life, these figures are as grains of sand in the scheme of world events. "History," de Bernières writes, "is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas." This book is extremely powerful and pertinent now, given global current events, especially the last few years in the Balkans, Middle East, and former USSR.

On the down side, although one cannot help but be caught up in de Bernières' lyrical prose and a storyline packed with adventure, joy and so much sorrow - this novel is too long at 554 pages, 95 chapters, a six part Epilogue and a Postscript. Although I really found it difficult to put the novel down, it is nowhere as fluid or as accessible as Corelli's Mandolin. Nor is the narrative as passionate. I do highly recommend Birds Without Wings as it still makes for excellent reading.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 164 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Birds Without Wings at RandomHouse

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

* The Latin American Trilogy


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About the Author:

Louis de BernieresLouis de Bernières was born in London, England in 1954. He joined the army at 18 but left after spending four months at Sandhurst. After graduating from the Victoria University of Manchester, he took a postgraduate certificate in Education at Leicester Polytechnic and obtained his MA at the University of London.

Before he started to write full-time, his jobs included being a landscape gardener, motorcycle messenger and car mechanic. He also taught English in Colombia, an experience which influenced the style and setting and style of his first three novels.

His first two novels each won Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region) in 1991 and 1992. Granta selected him as as one of the twenty best Young Novelists in 1993. His fourth novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, was published in the following year, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize as Overall Winner and Best Book and was adapted into a movie in 2001. Birds Without Wings shortlisted for the 2004 Whitbread Novel Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book).

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