Book Review: All life is here

Financial Times (London, England)
July 10, 2004 Saturday

All life is here

Ten years after writing a book that became a word-of-mouthsensation,
this author returns with a more ambitious novel: an epic story
displaying writing that is both lyrical and ruthlessly succinct


by Louis de Bernieres
Secker & Warburg Pounds 17.99, 640 pages

Occasionally a novel comes along that redefines the contours of
popular fiction. Perhaps the best example of recent years is Captain
Corelli’s Mandolin, in which Louis de Bernieres blended sun-drenched
romance with epic gravity. Captain Corelli was a word- of-mouth
sensation, a beneficiary and then a mainstay of the emerging
book-group phenomenon. A few years ago it was barely possible to
travel on a commuter train or flop down on a beach without seeing
someone immersed in the story of the sleepy Ionian island convulsed
by the second world war. The book has sold nearly three million
copies in English, and has multiplied the number of tourists to

But de Bernieres has been slow to follow up his success; it is now
ten years since Captain Corelli was first published.

Birds Without Wings is, very obliquely, its sequel (or rather,
prequel). Its events periodically connect with those of the earlier
novel – for instance, we are reunited with the formidable Drosoula,
mother of Mandras the handsome fisherman. But here the story takes
place in Anatolia, not Cephallonia, and in the first quarter of the
last century, amid the crumbling fabric of the Ottoman Empire.
Specifically, we are in the remote village of Eskibahce (modelled, it
appears, on the real-life “ghost town” of Kayakoy near Fethiye).

Eskibahce is a polyglot colony of Turks, Armenians, Greeks and Arabs,
where Muslim and Christian happily rub shoulders. It is, like de
Bernieres’ previous half-imaginary societies, a place that unites the
chimerical poetry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the fine-grained
domesticity of Trollope.

Eskibahce is the novel’s heart. There is no clear protagonist, nor
any presiding narrative voice. Instead this is a story about the
disintegration of a community, and de Bernieres allows a multitude of
characters to jostle for attention, at first to suggest the richness
of the community’s life, and then to register its erosion.

Among these characters are Philothei, the local beauty, and her
admirer, Ibrahim the goatherd, who wins her affection with the gift
of a dead goldfinch; apparently inseparable friends Karatavuk and
Mehmetcik, whose childhood innocence gives way to savagery as their
society is torn apart by conflict; and the prosperous, sad Rustem
Bey, whose wife Tamara is stoned for adultery, and whose Greek
mistress Leyla gamely takes her place.

The cast is enriched by the presence of minor eccentrics such as
Mohammed the Leech Gatherer and Ali the Snowbringer (so-called
because on the night of his birth it snowed for the first time in 75
years), as well as charismatic figures of authority – the holy men
Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja, and Iskander the potter, who
provides the book’s title when he reflects that “Man is a bird
without wings”, while “a bird is a man without sorrow”.

Real historical characters play their part too: Enver Pasha, the
Turkish minister who drew his country into the first world war by
attacking Odessa with the Nazis, the German general Limon von Sanders
and Mustafa Kemal, the brilliant commander known to posterity simply
as Ataturk.

It is the surge of military ambitions that explodes the sanctity of
Eskibahce and scatters its inhabitants. The strongest part of the
novel is an 80-page sequence which follows Karatavuk as he finds
himself fighting the allies at Gallipoli. “Intoxicated with the idea
of martyrdom”, he suffers in the trenches, surrounded by rotting
corpses, and frequently bent double with dysentery while flies drink
the moisture from his eyes. Troops eat their own donkeys. The bodies
of their dead comrades are used to buttress collapsing trenches. Yet,
in the depths of squalor, there blooms a generous camaraderie: de
Bernieres has a remarkable ability to evoke the tenderness of
relationships even as he depicts their brutality, and his mordant
sense of human comedy increases the pathos of what is, in effect, a
critique of militant nationalism.

Throughout the novel, the author switches deftly between minute
description – of the shape Leyla’s white cat, Pamuk, makes as she
shelters beneath her favourite orange tree, or of what maggots do to
a corpse – and wide-ranging historical synthesis. The strength of his
writing lies in that he can be both lyrical and ruthlessly succinct –
he can move seamlessly from energetic humour to poignancy, and from
easy charm to a searing anger.

These qualities run right through Birds Without Wings. It is a more
ambitious novel than Captain Corelli, and in many ways a better one.
But, with its slow beginning, complex geography, somewhat unfamiliar
historical territory, and (to British eyes) strange- looking names
and improbable orthography, it is unlikely to be as successful.