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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
The style and compositions seems to echo Orhan Pamuk's in "My name is Red", but he does it ever so much better.
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.
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.
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.
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....