Birds Without Wings By Louis de Bernieres
Louis de Bernieres captivated us a decade ago when we read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It is still one of the best books I have ever read, and certainly one of the most memorable novels of this generation. This new book is also important. The writing is magnificent–the world is brilliantly drawn, but it is a disturbing book. This is a big, deep book, and it takes time to read it, to savour it, to think about it, to experience it, with more senses than simply your sight reading the words. You must slow down, and read each word and think about what you have read. Birds Without Wings rises above the rest and will become one of those few really great books. We enter the novel in 1900 in the tiny remote village of Eskibahce in southwest Anatolia.
It is a peaceful community. Muslims and Christians, Greeks and Turks and other less numerous ethnic populations have shared this harsh landscape for many generations. They have inter-married, they speak Turk and the few who are literate write Turkish words in Greek script.
Karatavuk and Mehmetcik, Philothei and Drosoula, and Ibrahim are childhood friends. It is their story, and the story of Rustem Bay, his adulteress wife, and his mistress, and the story of the mercenary Mustafa Kemel, with a very rich supporting cast of priests, teachers, leech gatherers, snow bringers, beggars and madmen. It is exotic–it is supremely human. As the world around them changes, as the political turmoil of the time escalates, the madness and bloodshed of the Great War forces change on this small village and its inhabitants.
There is brutality and hatred between the Christians and the Muslims, between Greeks and Turks–no one is exempt from evil-doing. The fragility of life, and of peace, is heartbreaking and overwhelming. I love the ancient streets, and the architecture, the art and culture of European cities. But after reading this book I am so relieved that I do not have this history of hatred and vengeance as my own heritage. It is not a light book, it is not pretty, but it is in fact a love story. The story of individuals set against the bloodshed and hatred between nations.