Louis de Bernières, Birds without Wings (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

I have seen piles of this book, with its distinctive blue and yellow dust jacket, in all the new bookstores around town for the last few weeks. Someone must think this is going to be a "hot" item. I offered to read and review it for Green Man some time before I realized this -- I usually shy away from anything that seems destined for best-seller status in my lifetime. It looked like a serious, well-researched historical novel set in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire. I have been interested in learning more about the Ottomans since I read The Dukays a couple of years ago, so this provided a good opportunity.

Like a lot of British authors (yes, in spite of his name, he is British), de Bernières has given Birds without Wings a complex plot, with lots of characters, lots of subplots, and some shifts back and forth in time. He's organized the narrative into many short chapters -- over one hundred altogether. This arrangement is good for people who read in relatively short blocks of time and feel better when they can stop at the end of a chapter. The subplots weave in and out across the chapters, so that the reader is sometimes compelled to carry ideas over or turn back to see where that particular plot thread left off the last time s/he saw it.

In spite of that surface complexity, it's possible to sort the plot threads into two bundles. The most interesting story lines form the messy, tangled bundle that tells about the people who live in the fictitious village of Eskibahçe, in Anatolia on the southwest side of what is now Turkey. The reader experiences the massive social and cultural changes taking place in the eastern Mediterranean region through their unfolding lives. The least interesting bundle is the relatively straightforward biography of Mustafa Kemal, a historical person of considerable intelligence and ambition who rose through the ranks of the Sultan's army, led many successful battles and ultimately emerged as the first ruler of the modern Turkish state under the name Atatürk. Only one of the Eskibahçe villagers ever encounters Kemal up close and personal, but his world of war, political intrigue and modernization affects them all.

The book's title, by the way, refers to two of the villagers, Karatuvuk (a black bird with a yellow beak) and Mehmetçik (the fire-nightingale), boyhood friends, one Turkish and one Greek, who adopt the identities of the clay birds made for them by Iskander the potter, Karatuvuk's father. Karatuvuk learns to write from Mehmetçik, but writes Turkish using the Greek alphabet. When he is off fighting in the war, his illiterate parents have to take his letters to the Greek teacher in town to be read. No one else has the slightest idea how to make sense of them.

For my taste, the strongest and most interesting character in Birds without Wings is Rustem Bey, the village aga ("respected one"). As the sole representative of the landed aristocracy in Eskibahçe, Bey takes his position seriously. He acts as the village's civic leader, working with the Orthodox priest, Father Kristoforos, and the imam (Muslim spiritual leader), Abdulhamid Hodja, to keep peace among the residents. Interestingly, when conflict does break out in Eskibahçe, its basis is typically more personal than ethnic. The women of the village in particular form lasting friendships across the apparent barriers of their religious beliefs and practices. Like Mustafa Kemal, Bey is strongly inclined to be secular and modern. He forms a friendship with Lieutenant Gofredo Granitola, the commander of the Italian platoon sent to occupy Eskibahçe after the war.

Many of the subplots in Birds without Wings wrap around the experience of place, in terms of both physical distance and physical location. The village of Eskibahçe, for example, is relatively isolated from the rest of the world. When some of the male villagers travel together to Smyrna, and then Rustem Bey takes the train all the way to Istanbul, de Bernières makes it abundantly clear that they perceive these distances to be substantial and the hazards considerable. Other characters, particularly Mustafa Kemal, routinely travel great distances around the Mediterranean and into Europe. During the forced relocations that occur after the war ends, the Greek members of the Eskibahçe community travel on foot to Smyrna and are then shipped out; one small family unit takes a fishing boat on an arduous journey across the eastern Mediterranean to Greece. Although the publisher has included a map of the region in the inside front and back covers of the book, the map is very stylized, showing only a few place names and no roads or natural features like rivers and mountains. This oversight prevents the reader from engaging fully in the sense of place that de Bernières seems to be trying to convey.

Fortunately, de Bernières uses the sense of place in another way that is far more effective. His narrative descriptions of the general layout of Eskibahçe make it easy to see it in the mind's eye. The houses, the meydan (village square), the church and the mosque, the burial grounds (different places for the Christians and Muslims, of course), the shed where Iskander the potter works, the old plane tree where Ali the Snowbringer lives with his wife and children, are all very easy to visualize. De Bernières provides evocative images of the weather during different seasons, and truly remarkable references to the different plants, birds and other kinds of wildlife that the villagers routinely encounter.

At 500+ pages, Birds without Wings is long by contemporary standards. I found myself judiciously skipping parts, especially some of the drier sections about Mustafa Kemal and the gruesome battle scenes (trench warfare in the desert, decaying flesh, green maggots, yech). Another problem I experienced with the book could quite easily have been remedied. De Bernières makes liberal use of Greek and Turkish words for commonplace things like foods and articles of clothing. It's not difficult to figure out from context that they are foods and articles of clothing, but a decent glossary would help to give a reader not fluent in these languages a little better sense of what the foods are and what the clothing looks like. Sure, it's easy for most of us to visualize a fez, but what does a kalpak look like? I can tell what cacik is because de Bernières tells me it's made with mint, yogurt, garlic and cucumber -- but what is loukoúmi?

I have not read de Bernières most famous book to date, Corelli's Mandolin -- but a cursory glance at the copy I have here tells me that both books share the same overall theme: isolated Mediterranean village inhabited by interesting and generally sympathetic characters gets wrenched from timelessness into the modernity by external forces. Birds without Wings ends a decade or two before the action begins in Corelli's Mandolin. The Greek fishing family from Eskibahçe ends up in Cephalonia, where Corelli's Mandolin takes place. And what's this I see? An adult male named Mandras is a major character in Corelli's Mandolin. Wasn't that the name of the child in that fishing family? And doesn't his mother Drosoula speak of him dying in the sea just like his father?


[Donna Bird]