Reviewed by NC Weil
This is a greater work than de Bernieres' previous novels, the best known being Captain Corelli's Mandolin which was made into a movie. Birds Without Wings is an epic – historical, tragic, stirring. Graphic.
The nineteenth century is a time of relative peace for the Anatolian village of Eskibahe, but all joy is undone by the horrors inflicted by the wider world. One of the characters through whom the author weaves the story of the creation of Turkey is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state. We see his rise, his philosophy developed in different places and his liberal outlook: the education of women, adoption of Western dress and customs, the separation of religion from statehood. And we watch as the machinations of politics and accidents of history overtake his noble mission, perverting his dream into a blood-stained facsimile he could never have wished for and yet must carry forward, having no alternative.
Wonder what the war in Gallipoli was like?
"I will tell you about the dead. There had been fighting for one month, and the dead had never been collected. The bodies were of different ages, and so they were all in different stages of decomposition. Some bodies were swollen up, and some were black, and they were seething with maggots, and others were turning to green slime, and others were fully rotted and shrivelling up so that the bones stuck out through the skin. A lot of them were built into the parapets and fortifications, so that you might say they were being employed as sandbags. Most of the dead at that time were ours."
"One day there was a tempest of rain so violent... The air was solid with water, the rain fell in huge lumps, and it would have been possible for fish to swim in it... and I saw the drowned bodies of my comrades floating past below me, and a dead mule, and old corpses that had floated up out of the floor of the trench, and old bones, and packages of supplies, and knapsacks... and we were as miserable as the damned, and the winds picked up ground sheets and blankets and whirled them about in the air like giant birds afflicted by madness."
The novel opens in Eskibahe, inhabited by a mix of religions and ethnicities peacefully unaware of the greater allegiance the world will come to expect of them. The villagers speak Turkish but write it using the Greek alphabet. The Muslim men are drafted to fight the Franks, and the Christian men who would join them are rebuffed because "this is jihad," even though Arab Muslims are deserters and Indian Muslims fight with the Frankish enemy. After the war the Greeks (meaning Christians) are expelled to Greece, even though they can speak no Greek and have never ventured beyond Anatolia.
Everywhere gendarmes and soldiers follow orders in the performance of atrocities, while their personal humanity is assaulted by their obedience to ghastly demands. But we also see a man with nobility of heart, the aga of the town. He travels to Istanbul to find a Circassian concubine, who is really a Greek, and they come to love one another despite the contempt of the townspeople for "the whore". During and after the war he looks after his villagers, hunting to provide meat, buying anything they can sell so they will have money, protecting the town from roving brigands.
Early in the story a mother addresses a group of children convinced they can fly. "I can fly," insisted Karatavuk, "I can." "Arms aren't wings," said Polyxeni, trying to quieten and cajole him with the softness of her voice. "If we had wings, do you think we would suffer so much in one place? Don't you think we would fly away to paradise?" And in the Epilogue, this same Karatavuk, now an old man addressing his thoughts to a childhood friend he will never see again, writes, "You and I once fancied ourselves as birds, and we were very happy even when we flapped our wings and fell down and bruised ourselves, but the truth is that we 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 we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb up to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into abominations that we did not seek."
Absurdity, beauty, atrocity and community inhabit the pages of this fine novel. Read it and weep.