Birds without wings

by Louis De Bernières

Hardcover, 2004





New York : Knopf, 2004.


Birds Without Wingstraces the fortunes of one small community in southwest Turkey (Anatolia) in the early part of the last century — a quirky community in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully over the centuries and where friendship, even love, has transcended religious differences. But with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of the Great War, the sweep of history has a cataclysmic effect on this peaceful place: The great love of Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim, a Muslim shepherd who courts her from near infancy, culminates in tragedy and madness; Two inseparable childhood friends who grow up playing in the hills above the town suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of the bloody struggle; and Rustem Bey, a wealthy landlord, who has an enchanting mistress who is not what she seems. Far away from these small lives, a man of destiny who will come to be known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is emerging to create a country from the ruins of an empire. Victory at Gallipoli fails to save the Ottomans from ultimate defeat and, as a new conflict arises, Muslims and Christians struggle to survive, let alone understand, their part in the great tragedy that will reshape the whole region forever.… (more)

Media reviews

"De Bernières has always been adept at juxtaposing brutality with episodes of high comedy or romance, and that's certainly the case here."
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"Though some readers may balk at the novel's sheer heft, the reward is an effective and moving portrayal of a way of life—and lives—that might, if not for Bernières's careful exposition and imagination, be lost to memory forever."

User reviews

LibraryThing member writestuff
This is not a novel which can be read quickly. It must be read slowly and contemplatively to fully enjoy its message. There were several times I almost stopped reading - but, because this was a challenge read, I kept plugging along. And I am glad I did. Louis De Bernieres' thoughtful novel - Birds Without Wings - is one that deserves to be read and considered in light of the history it is based on.

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, a small village in southwestern Anatolia is home to a fascinating cast of characters: Philothei, a beautiful Christian girl in love with Ibrahim - a Muslim; Drosoula, Philothei's homely best friend; Karatavak and Mehmetcik who play their bird whistles and pretend to fly; Rustem Bey and his beautiful mistress Leyla Hanim; The Dog - who lives among the dead and flashes his ghastly smile; Iskander the Potter; Velad the Fat; Ali the Snowbringer; and a real person from Turkish history, Mustafa Kemal, who is known for his famous statement: "I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die. By the time that we are dead, other units and other commanders will arrive to take our place." -From Birds Without Wings, page 314-

Told in alternating points of view over a span of more than twenty years, the novel is a series of glimpses into village life, the horrors of trench warfare, and the political and historical events which define the story. De Bernieres gives the reader insight into the villagers, using humor to soften the sometimes brutal reality. When war comes to Turkey, no one in the village is not spared the consequences.

I was most touched by the boyhood friendship between Karatavak (the blackbird) and Mehmetcik (the robin). One Muslim, the other Christian, they maintain their friendship despite being separated by war and geography. Karatavak's recollections of the battles in Gallipoli are shocking, brutal and filled with sorrow - and yet, he also shows the survival of humanity amid the tragedy.

The novel also explores the conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Turks and Greeks and Armenians, the working classes and those with education and money. De Bernieres seems to be making a statement about the pointless and arbitrary nature of war and conflict between countries and races.

De Bernieres brings a strong sense of place to his novel - from the idyllic setting of the village of Eskibahce to the impoverished streets of Galata.

This is not a novel which was easy to read - although I enjoyed the occasional humor and insights. At over 550 pages in length with very small print, it took me more than a week to get through. In the end, I was left with a good sense of the history of Turkey in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. I'm glad I took the time to read this fascinating novel.

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LibraryThing member DannyMorris
A novel with that tenderly deals with how the break up of the Ottoman empire effects a village in Turkey.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It’s an epic novel in the best tradition of the genre. The whole novel is crowded with beautifully drawn characters and observations of humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, and heroism and duplicity. There are some amazing descriptions and observations there, and memorable thoughts.
It was at the same time funny, poignant, sentimental, factual, and written in such a way that one cares about the characters.
Bernieres supposedly spent ten years researching the background for it, and it indeed contains an amazing amount of information and details on historical background, cultural background including Nassredin stories, and flora and fauna.
I found the narration about Mustafa Kemal a bit awkward, and had to consult Wikipedia on a few occasions, because I wasn’t sure about the details of the historical background being given. Otherwise, it was a sheer pleasure to read.
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LibraryThing member Griff
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. Throughout 800 pages, this book proved an excellent read. I highly recommend it. The book is grand and sweeping while simultaneously unadorned and intimate. The back drop: the fall of the Ottomans combined with the tumultuous birth of Turkey as a nation. Through various characters - male, female, young, old, Muslim, and Christian - the author provides powerful views of friendship, love, war, religion, nationalism (among other things) in the midst of turbulent, violent, horrific times. It is beautifully written - absorbing to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member LheaJLove
Some writers fly with eagles, while some are destined to be sparrows without wings. De Bernieres has captured his destiny with Birds Without Wings. An elegantly written novel, moving history through a story of love and war, human emotion, human psychology, and ultimately, human nature.

Not only do readers have the opportunity to witness various lives, we can hear multiple voices and find ourselves in each parable, each line. De Bernieres mixes faith with relentless pessimism, and creates a picture of reality so believable that one's emotions will not fail them at the end of the novel. Each reader wonders if it is true, "Perhaps it is only possible to be happy, if one forgets not only the evil things, but also the very perfect ones." Is it true, "A neat lie satisfies more than a sloppy truth"?

We continue through the long and sustaining novel to find the answers to these professed truths, we read to find ourselves and our parallel history on every page. How has religion shaped our family, how has migration structured our roots? How has love bound us together and torn us apart?

Birds Without Wings is an excellent piece of literature, readers will be moved by the story and the prose, alike. Birds Without Wings will remind us how to look at others and find ourselves.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Louis de Bernieres is probably best known for his popular novel, Corelli's Mandolin, which I read and enjoyed several years ago. It was with this experience in mind that I anticipated reading this, his next novel, published in 2004. I was not disappointed. Birds Without Wings is more than a novel, it is several novels, a work of history and a biography of one of the leaders who remade the map of the twentieth century. It is this that makes it both an interesting book to read and a less successful book than it could have been. The stories are centered in a small village and resonate with today as lives are disrupted with displacement of both ethnic and religious groups as the society is forced into the future; our own present. I found the most dissatisfying aspect of Birds Without Wings was its massive size and the attempt of the author to do too much. The result is characters and events that are not always described with the depth necessary and deserving for the story. However, the book is excellent in its depiction of the time of the end of the Ottoman Empire, combining the beauty and nostalgia of the lives of people from small town Anatolia with the brutal sweep of the history of political movements and war encompassing the end of empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal. The author tells each of these stories with a readable style that makes this book, while not without flaws, one that is easy to recommend.… (more)
LibraryThing member LizzySiddal
am not unreserved in my praise of this book which I thought far too repetitive and slow at times. Yet other parts of the book were brilliant, particularly the depiction of the Battle of Gallipoli and the complex and brutal emnities between the Turks, Armenians and the Greeks. This novel may well inspire me to read a historical work of the period.… (more)
LibraryThing member sara11
22 October 2007
Part 3 of my review
Last night I finished "Birds without wings". I feel bereft that I will now leave behind this brilliant essay on life. That is how I see the unfolding tale of the horrors and hideousness of war, fought because of spurious nationalism, patriotism and overweening ego; but more sadly, because of accidents that have extreme consequences.
It may seem odd to talk about being bereft because I have finished reading this book. I saw somewhere that Loius De Bernieres only expected the deeply interested people to persevere with his tale to the end. I know most of my reading friends would be horrified by the endless slaughters which are the backdrop to the story. For me, the essence of being a human is the theme of the book. If we can get this distilled for us we are rewarded beyond any regular measure of reward.
I learnt about the world and life reading the book more than I could have in a thousand tutorials: because Louis De Bernieres is a genius.

Part 1 of my review
11 0ctober 2007
Just started this book by one of my favourite story-telling authors. I was at first slightly puzzled by the style which is jumpy and nervy, unlike the smooth and lyrical quality of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin".
I know I shall relish reading about this piece of history. I shall get out my atlas to place the action as I begin to relish the characters drawn for me. I admire this world of literature which gives me insights into my own world while telling me about another world in another time and place, the latter which is very foreign to me. We are all the same. I shall come back to rate the book when I have finished.

posted by sara11 at 1:01 am (EST) on Oct 11,2007
Part 2 of my review
I am commenting on a book as I read it and this is a first for me, intellectually and practically.

I have now reached the stage of planning parts of the day to give me a chance to read more of this wonderful, wonderful book. I started a bit hesitantly, unsure if I appreciated Louis Be Bernieres' style. Well now, I am used to the cutting backwards and forwards and enjoy my time with each character and event. The history of the period is unfolding before me: it is so painful, so poignant, so pitiful and oh so revealing. I want everyone to read this book or the parts of it which expose the awfulness we are all capable of and the joy we are also all capable of. We can also witness how a person's visions for nation - "like all who have such beautiful visions, ...are predicated on the absolute belief that ... One's own people, ...own religion and ...way of life were superior to others and should therefore have their own way. Such people ....are the motor of history, which is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed of hacked flesh in the name of great ideas." (Extract B W W page 131) How this resonates in 2007, one hundred and more years since the events depicted in the book.
There is a description of the stoning of a wife who has been "found" to be unfaithful. The christians and muslims join in the orgy of stoning. It is the Muslim leader who stops this carnage. Whether or not he condones the act, he is insistent the order of the law pertaining, be scrupulously followed. The law had not been followed and after the event the "crowd, whose members were by now shifting from foot to foot, anxious to escape the wrath of their prayer leader, their access of viciousness having subsided altogether." (Extract B W W page 105) There is another mob scene which reminded me of how people can display this viciousness when they can turn as a mob on a person whose race is not to their liking! In this case, the victim of race hatred is an Armenian. All the crowd of different faiths watch as this man is kicked by a drunk. All recognise that they would have assisted him if they came across him injured in another place and would have practised their particular religion's charity. (B W W page 127)

Why is this creating wonderful reading for me? Because it helps me to see life as it is. I am witnessing the vilification of race right now. I can blame this one and that one and realize, not cynically, that there is such a thin veneer of civilisation about us all. If I recognise this I can try harder to search for real truth and sometimes this is not easy. Louis De Bernieres gives me the sign posts in his book. I love it for that.
posted by sara11 at 1:01 am (EST) on Oct 11,
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LibraryThing member marywhisner
Set mostly in a village in what is now Turkey, 1900-1920 (or so), this tells the sad -- tragic -- story of community torn by world events. Interspersed with the tale of village life are chapters tracing the life of Mustafa Kemal, who became Ataturk. The chapters showing one of the young men from the village in the trenches at Gallipoli are powerful. At the beginning of the book, the village is diverse and tolerant -- the Muslims and Christians intermarry and everyone relies on the Armenian apothecary. But Armenian atrocities hundreds of miles away lead to the exile of the Armenians, most of whom die or are killed on their march. And at the end of the war, the powerful decide that all the Greeks in Turkey should be sent to Greece (even though they only speak Turkish) and all the Muslims in Greece should be sent to Turkey (even though they only speak Greek).

Beautifully written, but there's a lot that's disturbing.

For instance, even during the time before the ethnic violence, there is a horrible tale of young woman forced to marry despite being in love with another man. Later, when her husband catches the man in her room, he kills the man and drags the woman into the village square to be stoned. She's saved from death but lives out her days in a brothel, eventually crippled from syphilis.

The book has a connection to Corelli's Mandolin, another powerful book about village life and the horrors of war.

Book group.
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LibraryThing member aliciamalia
The writing in this book is gorgeous. I frequently found myself stunned by the imagery contained in a single sentence. Seriously. The plot is just okay, and wanders a bit, but to see some really fine examples of someone who knows how to craft a sentence, read this book.
LibraryThing member mummimamma
Not particularly impressed, but an all right read until the end which falls flat.

The style and compositions seems to echo Orhan Pamuk's in "My name is Red", but he does it ever so much better.
LibraryThing member missizicks
For me, this had a slow build up. It's well crafted and researched, but I found the first half of the book a little slow as de Bernières developed the plot and characters. Once that had happened, though, it was a much better book. I could truly believe in the characters and I enjoyed the way they were written into the facts of history, bringing the things I had learnt at school about the Gallipoli campaign and the creation of modern Turkey to life. It was also interesting to gain a Turkish perspective on this part of history. I read the book straight after Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well, so now I feel like I've had a crash course in early 20th century Turkish/Greek history! Overall, the story is a human one, full of sorrow, laughter and farce, and explores the contradictions of what it is to be human.… (more)
LibraryThing member jayne_charles
If you have ever wanted to know the difference between a Turkish Greek and a Greek Turk, this book will supply the answer. Though it sails rather close to textbookery in places, an exuberant style just about rescues it. Those who enjoyed Captain Corelli should enjoy this too, and might even recognise some of the characters.
LibraryThing member shushokan
Wow, what a book. Who cares about the story line, just allow yourself to revel in the carefully crafted words. Let them spill out on to the floor and roll around in them in glorious abandon. de Bernieres is like that bloke in the pub who can enthral you with tales of derring-do until the umpteenth pint and keep you coming back for more.… (more)
LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Sometimes novelists give readers no clue at all about what the book's title means. Often the title may not even be chosen until after the novel is written and then by the publisher or editor, not the author. An author once told me that even she didn't know what the title of her book meant because it was picked by somebody else.

Usually, however, one finds some clue in the text about what the title means. Early in "To Kill a Mockingbird," for example, we read that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because it sings and does no one any harm. Later in the novel the title takes on more meaning when we see that it refers also to helpless human beings, both the child and the childlike.

A bird/human metaphor is also found in "Birds Without Wings" by Louis de Bernieres. I found this novel unusual in that the author sprinkles references to his title throughout the book, making it rather hard to miss.

A potter in the village makes bird whistles in the shape of wingless birds that little boys love to play with. The boys learn to imitate birds, but they, of course, lack wings, too.

One little boy loves the prettiest girl in the village and, to show his love, gives her a dead goldfinch. She rejects the gift because she objects to the smell of the dead bird, but when he cuts off the bird's beautiful wings, she accepts them and keeps them as a treasure.

A man called Stamos the Birdman makes a modest living by selling decorative birds after first clipping their wings so they will not fly away from their owners.

And so it goes through the novel. The real birds without wings, one eventually realizes, are the mostly contented people of this village at the end of the Ottoman Empire, both Christians and Muslims who share their lives together in peace. When trouble comes, first with the Great War and then with the formation of the nation of Turkey under Muslim rule, these good people become as helpless as birds without wings. The Muslims and Christians are separated from each other against their will, and both groups suffer because of it.

"Birds Without Wings" is as much a history of the beginning of Turkey as it is a story about the villagers, these birds without wings. This is very readable history that enhances, rather than gets in the way of, the story.
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LibraryThing member TadsList
Partially read. Overly long and slow. Interesting characters and relationships.
LibraryThing member leica
Just loved this book. So beautifully written, humorous in parts, use of language engaging, Can't recommend it enough.
LibraryThing member kren250
This novel of epic proportions is set in a small village in the Ottoman empire, on the brink of civil war. For generations, the peoples of the village have intermingled and intermarried. Even their religions have somewhat blended, with Muslims praying to the Christian saints, and Christians upholding some of the Muslims beliefs. It's a peaceful and quaint town that time has forgotten.

Soon great changes come to the region, in the way of war and destruction. The village and it's occupants realize that life, unfortunately, often changes even when you don't want it to.

I thought this book was extremely well written, and that the story very moving and sad. It's one of those books that really make you ponder just how unfair and random life can be.
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LibraryThing member Dettingmeijer
After Captain Corelli's Mandoline (1994) this is a new story about the absurdities of warfare, nationalism and love. In introducing one village in Anatolia, one (or maybe two) lovestory and one friendship overcoming ethnic differences between Greeks and Moslim Ottomans declared Turcs, the author succeeds in making you believe in the characters and their stories. Almost a brave story on its own account is the framework that sketches the career of Kemal Atatürk.
The communication between the Turkish and the Greek Boy is maintained by the use of terracotta birdwhistles. These whistles, like the friends, have no wings so they cannot fly back and forth like birds.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
An epic novel set in Turkey depicting the history of that country in the early part of the 20th century when a peaceful life was changed by politics and war. It's a long book, in parts more like an historical document written as a novel. I needed to check Wikipedia on occasion to get more details. It was, however, beautifully-written, compassionate and understanding.… (more)
LibraryThing member kirstiecat
Although I think this book deserves 4 stars objectively because of all of the research done for it, I would on a personal level give it 3 stars...mainly because I didn't enjoy any of the overly long and tedious descriptions of war from the 1915 era of the Ottoman Empire. It is somewhat interesting that I've now read this book and The Bastard of Istanbul and they give completely different perspectives (I seem to recall Jeffrey Eugenides talking about Turks persecuting Greeks at around this time as well when the book opens.) Basically, here we hear about the Greek Christians persecuting the Turkish Muslims though for the most part it gets incredibly confusing about whose side anyone is on. What is pretty clear is how war is not benefitting anyone involved, least of all the women in various small towns that are being tortured to death in all manner of horrifying fashion.

I don't like reading about war and overall I thought the character development was rich and it told a powerful story but I would have liked more of that and less scenes of war. It's always pretty despicable to me to think of what tragedies against eachother humans are capable of committing....
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