Books: An accidental hero returns

The Independent
June 25, 2004


by Boyd Tonkin

Painted in a strident maroon, with running-boards worthy of a
gangster flick, the 1947 Ford Pilot buzzes down the quiet midsummer
roads of south Norfolk like a hummingbird across a cowslip meadow.
Somehow, Louis de Bernieres’ choice of vehicle fits his persona, and
his fiction. It’s colourful, idiosyncratic, out-of-time, but sturdy
and resilient. We’re on the way back to the rail station nearest to
the slowly renovated former rectory where he lives with his partner,
Cathy, an actress and director, when he mentions an emotional storm
that struck in his late twenties. This turning-point made the young
teacher – heartbroken by a failed affair, stressed-out by his job –
think again about the prospect of a literary career.

Or, rather, he says that in that crucible of crisis, he “remembered
that I wanted to be a writer”. So a novelist’s progress that has
thrilled and delighted armies of readers around the globe comes to
sound like a minor errand recollected on a whim. In the de Bernieres
universe, chance and design, the big picture and the foreground
detail, always intersect, always interact.

At the close of his sixth novel, Birds Without Wings (Secker &
Warburg, pounds 17.99), the Muslim potter Iskander reflects on the
tragic expulsion of his Christian neighbours from the home that they
shared on the south-western coast of Turkey until the early 1920s. He
decides that “everything that happened was made to do so by the great

De Bernieres, you feel, partakes of that suspicion of the “great
world”. Take next week, which contains a momentous day for him. He’s
due to take a Grade Five flute exam. He already plays the clarinet
and oboe, as well as the classical guitar and (yes, of course) the
mandolin, and gigs with an Oxford-based ensemble: “I only have one
track on which I star, which is five minutes of variations on
Greensleeves’.” In his living room, looking out on secluded lawns, a
piano stands ready for musical visitors to accompany him. “To play
with proper musicians, you’ve got be be good enough,” he says.

Something else of note happens next week. This is, of course, the
release of the most eagerly-awaited novel of the year, a full decade
after Captain Corelli’s Mandolin started to pluck the heartstrings of
millions. And so the “great world” beats a path to his tucked-away
door in Norfolk, while its stocky, laid-back target improves his
flute technique and frets about “the publicity machine”. He laments
that, “The funny thing about being a writer is that people find
hundreds of ways of interrupting you, continuously.”

Such as – turning up for interviews and asking questions that focus
on notions of well-planned structure, rather than the serendipity de
Bernieres prefers. Set between 1900 and 1923, Birds Without Wings
traces through its small-town microcosm the dismemberment of the
decadent but tolerant Ottoman Empire, after “the hell’s broth of
religious and nationalist hatred had been stirred up by a multitude
of village Hitlers”. In contrast, says the author, “the thing about
the Ottomans is that they weren’t prodigiously effective oppressors.
As long as you paid your taxes, you were really quite all right.” The
novel celebrates the day-to-day deals of a mongrel Mediterranean
backwater, in which Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Armenians all
rub along.

To trace the demise of this lazy, multi-cultural idyll, it switches
between voices and tones that embody the ramshackle, easy-going world
that new divisions will destroy. We follow the growing-up of
too-beautiful Philothei and the tragic outcome of her betrothal to
the goatherd Ibrahim; the curious menage of the proud landowner,
Rustem Bey, and his concubine, Leyla; the fate of the saintly imam,
Abdulhamid Hodja; and the friends Abdul and Nicos, aka “Blackbird”
and “Robin”, whose answering bird-whistles lend the book an auditory
sign of the ties that bind these vulnerable “birds without wings”. In
Turkey, children still blow these uncannily convincing whistles, one
of which the author fetches to demonstrate – piercingly – for me.

Yet, when I ask de Bernieres about the novel’s cunning architecture,
with its sly shifts of register and mood, he replies that, “Your
question implies a greater degree of self-consciousness than I have.
I just write whatever occurs to me.” He does reveal that he wrote the
opening of the novel long ago, then the end, then filled the middle:
“The book just grew up organically in a rather strange way.”

In his fiction, as in his craft-filled leisure-time of antique motor-
parts and broken instruments, de Bernieres loves what the French call
bricolage: running repairs, on-the-spot fixes, DIY make-do-and-mend.
The hubris of the grand plan repels him, in politics and art.
Suitably enough, the Greek ethnic expansionism of the early 20th
century went by the name of the “Big Idea” – just the kind of thing
that de Bernieres loathes. “I really hate and despise nationalism,”
he affirms. “What other people regard as liberation movements I
regard as really stupid and unnecessary interruptions of a peaceful
life.” Those thuggish interruptors, again.

It was alien nationalism that cursed the Turkish “ghost town” de
Bernieres discovered on holiday in the mid-1990s: a “beautiful,
melancholy place”, whose desolation planted the seed of his novel.
Birds Without Wings paints this remote paradise of mingled blood and
mutual respect, and shows how the nationalist serpent slid into it.
And, in the background, the career of the greatest nationalist of all
unfolds in snappy, newsreel-like scenes: Mustafa Kemal, victor at
Gallipoli, supplanter of the Sultan and, as “Ataturk”, the father of
modern Turkey. “He has a quality of myth about him I didn’t want to
disrupt,” says de Bernieres.

Before the calamity, make-do-and-mend suits the people of the town
down to their harsh but herb-rich ground. That goes for passion as
well as politics. If the doomed devotion of Ibrahim and Philothei
punctuates the book, its unexpected emotional – and erotic – heart
emerges in the blooming tenderness between the stiff squire Rustem
Bey and Leyla: his Greek mistress, bought from a house of ill repute
in Istanbul. De Bernieres has been thinking “about the variety of
human love – the enormous number of ways one can love, or learn to
love. It struck me as possible that a woman who was bought could
learn to love and respect her buyer, and vice versa.”

In counterpoint to the varieties of love, Birds Without Wings
delivers the hideous violence of mechanised warfare. Its 100-page
centrepiece, in which Karatavuk (“Blackbird”) recounts the terror,
squalor and fitful heroism of the Gallipoli campaign, will have
critics reaching for their War and Peace. In truth, de Bernieres (who
learned his craft from the works of Marquez) is too centrifugal and
carnivalesque a novelist for the Tolstoy comparison. However, he
makes of the carnage a mesmerising patchwork of horror, humour and
humanity. “If I can tell it in someone else’s voice,” says the army
officer’s son, and Sandhurst drop-out, of the savagery that haunts
both this novel and Captain Corelli, “it somehow makes it less like
me being obsessed by it.”

Visiting the battle sites, he found their past darkness made all too
visible. “The bones of the corpses come to the surface,” he recalls.
“I found quantities of bones when I was there. You look on the war
memorials and it says, Their name liveth for evermore.’ And you have
this totally anonymous bone in your hand.”

None of the peoples of that fractured region has ever quite buried
the bones of this grim era. So he did “from time to time have the
sense of playing with fire”, even though the novel depicts harmony as
a social norm. “I’m sure there will be Armenians, Greeks and Turks
who are upset by this book,” he says, merrily. “The aim is to upset
them all equally… I think it’s quite possible I’ll be assassinated
at a reading one day. I don’t think it’ll be by a fanatic, but by a

He guffaws, as he often does. For de Bernieres, heaven can wait.
Indeed, it transpires that this plan-averse improviser has his next
three or four books mapped out, not to mention the flute, the guitars
(and mandolins), the unrestored rooms – and the 1947 Ford Pilot. You
sense that this cheerful busyness brings its own reward. And this is
just the tranquil Eden that, in his novel, the townspeople lose when
the murderous “great world” arrives on their doorstop. May he (and
we) never live in such interesting times.



Louis de Bernieres was born in 1954 to a family of Huguenot descent.
He went to Bradfield School on an army scholarship. Briefly a
Sandhurst cadet, he dropped out to work in Colombia before studying
philosophy at Manchester University. He later became a teacher. The
War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990) was followed by Senor Vivo
and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman.
In 1993, he was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British
novelists. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) won the Commonwealth
Writers Prize. In the UK , it has sold more than 2.5 million copies.
In 2002, he published Red Dog, a novel for children set in Australia.
Next week, Birds Without Wings appears from Secker & Warburg. He
lives in south Norfolk with his partner.