The gentleman writer’s epic

The Globe and Mail, Canada
July 22 2004

The gentleman writer’s epic

The remarkable success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in 1994 has
allowed Louis de Bernières to write his latest exotic epic at a
leisurely pace at his English country house, he tells REBECCA

Thursday, July 22, 2004 – Page R1

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Louis de Bernières’s latest
novel, Birds Without Wings, is a grand saga encompassing the full
range of human experience in the lives of villagers in the tiny
hamlet of Eskibahce in Turkey around the time of the First World War.
Fans of the author’s 1994 sleeper bestseller Captain Corelli’s
Mandolin, an epic tale fleshing out the extent of humanity on a tiny
village on a Greek island during the Second World War, would hope for
no less. No, the real shocker of Birds Without Wings is that the book
began not in some sun-drenched Mediterranean paradise, but in

Before Cowtowners start rejoicing at their newly minted literary
importance, it should be noted that the first line of the book that
de Bernières wrote in 1996 while a writer-in-residence at the
University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers program
is shot through with insanity and tragedy: “The people who remained
in this place have often wondered why Ibrahim went mad.”

“It might have been from being in a tiny little office with no
windows at a university,” he jokes during a phone interview from his
home, a country house in Norfolk, England. “No, I’d had this going
through my mind for some time, and I think I was waiting for one of
my victims to arrive and I just had this idea about what the first
page should be.”

Although he ended up completing his manuscript on a return journey to
Calgary last year as well, the real inspiration for Birds Without
Wings was a visit to a ghost town in Turkey about a decade ago.

De Bernières was struck by how he could still see the pretty pastels
of the ruined houses of a once-harmonious multicultural community,
home to Christians and Muslims, Greeks and Turks, that was devastated
by political turmoil and a disastrous policy of expulsions and
resettlements, first of Armenians, then of Christian Greeks,
following the First World War, one of the first swellings of a new
wave of 20th-century nationalism.

“They obviously used to have a sophisticated and pleasant life. All
the houses had water systems that filled up off the gutter on the
roofs and had an outside loo on the corner,” he said. “When [the
Christians] left, the local economy collapsed. They lost everybody
who knew how to make anything, and everybody who knew how to do
anything. Some people did come to replace the Christians, but they
were never the same again.”

It was in such a town where de Bernières imagined the setting for his
sketches of young lovers, Christian Philothei and Muslim Ibrahim;
childhood friends Karatavuk and Mehmetcik; the two spiritual leaders
of the town, Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja; and the wealthy
landlord, Rustem Bey, his wife Tamara and his Circassian mistress

Interspersed between their vignettes are nearly straight segments of
the historical events of the early 20th century that would shatter
the bucolic world, notably the rise of Mustafa Kemal. Better known as
Mustafa Ataturk, he would lead the disintegrating Ottoman Empire
through the First World War and the savage Gallipoli campaign,
eventually consolidating his own power as the first chief of the new
nation of Turkey.

With 625 pages broken into 95 chapters, plus six epilogues and a
postscript, Birds Without Wings feels a bit episodic, a result not of
intended structural design but how his work evolves from short
stories, he says. De Bernières’s seemingly characteristic impulse to
write about Big Ideas such as nationalism and religious intolerance
also wasn’t a deliberate artistic aim. That he happened to write a
book about the historical failure of nationalism and religious
fanaticism at a time when issues of nationalism and religious
fanaticism are once again radically dividing the world was
coincidental, he says. If anything, the civil and religious wars that
tore through the former Yugoslavia in the nineties were more salient
when he started the book, he points out.

“What gets me interested in a story is a narrative,” said de
Bernières. “The themes, I suppose, come up almost by accident when
you’re writing a book like this. They’re there, but you don’t have to
put them in on purpose. There’s all sorts of things, you know,
there’s nationalism and religion and honour and love, war,
comradeship, all of these things. But I would never sit down and
think, ooh, I must write a book about comradeship.”

For the record, though, the abuse of nationalism and religion is
something he feels strongly about. In a way, writing about the topic
is his inheritance: De Bernières may be a French name, but he is
English, a descendent of Huguenots fleeing persecution in
18th-century France.

“I actually think religion is evil when it’s in its militant phase,”
he said. “When you’re militant, and you think you have God on your
side and you have a direct telephone line to him, then you’re going
to start all sorts of unpleasant mayhem. I actually think it is
absurd to claim to know things that are actually unknowable. And I
know that nationalism is a load of rubbish. Look at my country. There
is no such thing as a purebred Englishman.”

In the slow summer book season, newspapers in Britain have been
anxiously awaiting their turn to weigh in on what’s being touted as
the adult equivalent of a Harry Potter novel. As with Captain
Corelli’s Mandolin, the initial critical reception to Birds Without
Wings in Britain has been mixed (North American reviews will wait
until the book’s official release date on July 24). The Independent
declared it a masterpiece; while Peter Kemp of The Sunday Times
accused him of “stereotypes spray-painted with exoticism.”

The somewhat publicity-reluctant de Bernières — he’s not doing any
television interviews in Britain because, “As soon as you are on the
television, you become interesting to the tabloid newspapers, and
then you have people on the lawn with cameras” — doesn’t go out of
his way to read reviews, although people will call him up with
congratulations or commiserations.

“Sometimes you read criticism which is actually quite helpful, and
you think, hmm, yes, that’s a good point,” he said. “The Peter Kemp
one — he was annoyed with me that everyone was called Ali the
Broken-Nosed or Ali the Snowbringer, or etc, etc. The fact is that
back in those days, Turks didn’t have surnames, so that’s what they
were being called, but Peter Kemp thought that was just me trying to
be fake-exotic. That kind of criticism is just so ignorant, it just
makes you feel contemptuous rather than hurt.”

De Bernières, 49, is in the fortunate position of being able to take
the occasional bad review in stride. He’s earned his professional
cred long ago, selected as one of the Best of Young British Novelists
by Granta in 1993 and claiming a fistful of Eurasia-region
Commonwealth Writers Prizes — for a double-dose of magic realism,
1990’s The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts and 1991’s Senor Vivo
and the Coca Lord. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin won the overall
Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1995, but more important, Corelli won
him some creative breathing space.

Since being released in 1994, Corelli has sold 2.5-million copies in
the Commonwealth alone, propelled by a marketer’s impossible dream —
word-of-mouth sales. The film rights were sold for roughly £200,000
(almost $486,000 Canadian). With his money, de Bernières was able to
stop scratching out a living as a substitute teacher and buy his
country house, which he shares with his partner, an actress and
director. There, the rural-Surrey-bred, prep-school-educated author
has built his own Arcadia.

In the 10 years since Corelli, he’s leisurely produced Red Dog, a
children’s book about a legendary Australian mutt, and Sunday Morning
at the Centre of the Universe, a radio play meant as a farewell to
his old London community before he left for the country. De Bernières
has plans for two more novels as well as two books of short stories,
but he’s not racing to write them, although not because the success
of Corelli means he doesn’t have to.

“I only ever wrote when I felt like it, so that hasn’t changed,” he
said. “There was never a time when I suddenly thought, ooh, my life
has changed, everything is completely different, because it was all
happening so gradually. The best thing is that I bought myself a
house in the country where I can live with lots of space and

He spends his newly purchased spare time not writing more, but
tinkering about with cars (he has fixed up three, his oldest a 1947
Ford Pilot) and indulging in his one real obsession: playing music
and restoring instruments. He’s fond of woodwinds, and “things with
frets and strings” including guitars, banjos and, of course,

“It was the first time I’d had any money or spare time and I found
that when I quit teaching, I suddenly had that much more time for
hobbies, so I didn’t write any more than I did before,” he said. “I
also wanted time for my style and approach to change a bit, to
mature. I didn’t want to write Captain Corelli’s Mandolin twice.”