A review of Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

The characters age beautifully, and the reader is eager for more of the quirky and believable Eskibahce characters. de Bernieres has a wonderful sense of character and the delight in the eccentric detail which takes the reader deep into the real impact of war, and regardless of the book’s length and heavy subject matter, provides a pleasurable and lighthearted read.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Birds Without Wings
By Louis de Bernieres
Secker & Warburg, July 2004, ISBN 0436205491, Hardback, A$49.95, 625 pages

In a small but ideallic town of Eskibahce, the villagers live in a kind of sleepy conviviality of marvellous design, where “side by side, there used to live Christians who spoke only Turkish, but wrote it in the Greek script, and Muslims who also spoke only Turkish, and also wrote it in the Greek script.” (29). Although the novel jumps around in time, especially in the early chapters, and place, most of Birds Without Wings is set in this town now long gone, and in the pre-Captain Corelli’s Mandolin era of the early 20th century, about 1910 or so (just prior to and then during World War I). Like all of de Bernieres’ novels, perhaps with the exception of his last one, Red Dog, elements of postmodernism sit neatly alongside ancient forms of tragicomic epic. The book is long, but broken up into short, and easy to read passages titled with the names of specific characters. Many of these are first person recollections, and vary depending on the character doing the speaking. Of these first person narratives, we have Philothei, the young, beautiful, and simple Christian girl. Her narrative begins at age six where the writing is free of punctuation and spelled phonically, to mirror the way an unschooled six year old might write (though it is unlikely that she would have been able to actually write). Philothei’s own passages are chronological, and her character develops, within the bounds of her simplicity, as the story moves forward. In some ways she mirrors the innocence and simplicity of Eskibahce itself as it is also destroyed.

Other Eskibahce characters include Drosoula, Philothei’s friend and constant companion (she appears later in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), Iskander the Potter, who provides both prologue and epilogue to the novel and seems to act as a kind of overall narrator. Other characters include the two boys, Karatuvak, a Muslim, and Mehmetcik, a Christian, who took their nicknames from the bird whistles fastened for them by Iskander the Potter. Their friendship is touching, as is the exquisite narrative of Karatuvak as he battles his way through Gallipoli:

All the green plants turned brown, all the flowers vanished away, the birds sat on the brances with their beaks open, and the sun made the skin shrink and the eyes ache, and the lips crack, and the dizziness overwhelms. There was so much thirst that the water boys couldn‘t keep up with us. You couldn‘t touch anything made of metal and you couldn‘t touch the stones. The sweat would pour down our faces and down our chests, and pour off the backs of our necks and down our spines and between the buttocks, and our uniforms would have thick wavy lines of white where the salt had dried out of the sweat. (385)

There is also Rustem Bey, the local landlord and Aga (a kind of wealthy community leader), who begins in an unsympathetic manner, killing his wife’s lover and cousin and then arranging his wife’s stoning, and ends by growing in girth and understanding, taking on a beautiful mistress, and learning to understand the nature of love and life. Rustem Bey doesn’t actually get to speak in first person, but we learn about him through his actions: his travels to Smyrna to buy a wife, his relationship with his wife Tamara, his humorous attempts at communication and friendship with the Italian occupying commander, Granitola, and his pain and incomprehension over the loss of his mistress Leyla. The characters age beautifully, and the reader is eager for more of the quirky and believable Eskibahce characters. de Bernieres has a wonderful sense of character and the delight in the eccentric detail which takes the reader deep into the real impact of war, and regardless of the book’s length and heavy subject matter, provides a pleasurable and lighthearted read.

In between the rich characterisations of the Eskibahce villagers are the passages titled “Mustafa Kemel. “ These are deliberately written in very dry and cold prose, which resembles an academically styled, old fashioned history book:

In Mesopotamia the British begin a series of spectacular successes under Generals Maude and Allenby, and Kut and Baghdad fall. Allenby pulls off some exceptionally brilliant and elaborate deceptions. Mustafa Kemal agrees to take command of the 7th Army under Marshal Falkenhayn, but it is clear that his intention is to obstruct Falkenhayn whenever possible, because he believes that the Germans ultimately want to oust the Ottomans from the Middle East, and take control of it themselves. (433)

These passages are quite extensive and take up a large portion of the book. The are clearly designed to provide a contrast between the public and private face of the war. In these passages, Kemel is presented as a war hero, the brilliant self-titled Ataturk, who created the modern Turkey, but the real carnage which we see directly through the eyes of those on the ground, the carnage of Kemel’s exile of the Greek Christians, and the ultimate impact of Kemel’s arrogance is obvious enough to cast these passages into ironic shadow. Although full of fairly interesting facts about the war, they are nonetheless impersonal and a little tedious to read, standing out sharply against the beautiful humanism of the character pieces.

Kemel isn’t much of a character, and as such, he doesn’t really change, even though we follow him from birth through to powerful leader. He is more setting than character – the backdrop or even instigator of the actions which are only important because of the impact they have on characters that can grow and change. The most beautiful and poignant passages are those where simple and honourable characters begin to question the validity of faith, of god, and of empire. The combination of hard history and soft emotions work together to make the ugliness of war, nationalism and religious intolerance a strong theme: “The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.” (286)

In the end, big abstractions like nationhood, god or even religious zeal are dwarfed behind the simple notions of love, friendship, and loss. The stage of Birds Without Wings is huge, and the tragedy grand scale, but its beauty lies in the multi-tongued relationships between Rustem Bey and Leyla and Rustem Bey and , between Ibriham and Philothei, between Philothei, Drosoula and Leyla, between Fikret and Karatavuk, Karatavuk and Mehmetcik, and even the delicate kinship between the “Franks” and the “Turks” in their trenches. As de Bernieres says, “Such people, even those as insignificant as Leonidas, are the motor of history, which is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas.” (131)

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