An Ottoman epic

The Globe and Mail, Canada
July 24 2004

An Ottoman epic


Birds Without Wings
By Louis de Bernières
Knopf Canada, 625 pages, $36.95

It’s been 10 years since Louis de Bernières’s much-loved Captain
Corelli’s Mandolin was published, nine since it was honoured with the
Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and three since Hollywood
stripped it of all its charm and fervour — the very things that made
the book so glorious — and offered it up as a politically castrated
piece of wooden sentimentality. Trust Hollywood to take Kobe beef —
beer- and music-fed and massaged by loving hands — and grind it into
meat loaf.

For this, Corelli’s author and architect cannot in any way be blamed
(he neither wrote the screenplay nor cast its grossly miscast crew).
“It would be impossible for a parent to be happy about its baby’s
ears being put on backwards,” is the extent of de Bernières’s public
comment on the subject of film adaptation.

The movie, and sales of the book (on the order of 2.5 million),
parachuted him into the international spotlight, from which he
quickly averted his gaze. He bought a large Georgian rectory in
Norfolk, where he indulges his hobby of restoring and puttering about
the countryside in antique cars, has developed proficiency on several
musical instruments, and enjoys the leisure of being able to write
only if and when he feels like it.

There’s been much of the “most anticipated novel” promotional
preamble that accompanies the subsequent work of any hugely
successful author, along with a predictable tension nurtured by
critics posing the question of whether his new work can possibly
measure up. The fact is, de Bernières was already a highly successful
author by the time the world caught up with him, having written,
among other things, a much celebrated and wildly passionate trilogy
before Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. He is to be understood not as a
one-hit wonder who arrived from nowhere one year and then
disappeared, generating whispers of writer’s block for the next 10,
but as a prolific and ambitious writer with a rather astonishing body
of work, notable for its dense lyricism, fierce wisdom, soaring
passion and remarkable wit. In this tradition, Birds Without Wings is
pure de Bernières.

It may well be the case that Birds will have less mass-market appeal
than its predecessor — any novel of more than 600 pages requires the
attention and surrender of its reader, and the setting, Anatolia
rather than Greece, in the First rather than Second World War, is
less known and less familiar — but this is again a rich and
passionate story of love and war, and in many ways a much more
ambitious and important one.

Set in the small and out-of-the-way town of Eskibahce in southwestern
Anatolia, de Bernières’s novel paints an idyllic portrait of an
Ottoman town at the beginning of the 20th century. As in many other
places in the empire, Muslims and Christians have lived here together
for centuries, calling each other infidels in the same breath as they
call each other best friends and betroth their sons and daughters to
one another. Muslims pay homage to the image of the Virgin in the
church; Christians are always to be found among the Muslims stoning
to death some criminal of their faith in the public square; and the
imam and the priest engage in debate throughout the night.

De Bernières may well “do character” better than any writer alive
today: Even cats and horses and birds in his world are bestowed with
full and endearing personalities. There are the children we come to
know — the innocents who will grow up to be soldiers and war brides
and exiles and madmen — and their parents, including an imam, a
drunkard, a potter and a goatherd. Everyone has his place in this
town, as well as a voice in this book, from an Armenian apothecary to
a poor snow-bringer, an Orthodox priest, a resentful Greek
schoolteacher fighting the futile fight against the barbarism of the
Turkish tongue, a leech-gatherer, a couple of idle gendarmes, a
bird-seller and, most powerful of all, in both economic terms and in
terms of this narrative, a distinguished gentleman and wealthy
landowner named Rustem Bey.

Rustem Bey might be singled out as the closest thing to a protagonist
here. He’s a formal man, his emotional expression trapped by the
demands of his station, and one whose wife has never loved him. When
Rustem Bey discovers his wife with a lover, he promptly kills him,
then escorts her to the public square where she is stoned to
near-death by those who, in any other context, are called friends and
neighbours. Later, and with much humiliation, he buys himself a
mistress from a house of ill-repute in Istanbul. The love that
develops between them is genuine and touching, though tainted both by
Rustem Bey’s guilt about his wife, now resident and syphilitic in the
local whorehouse, and his mistress’s secret that she is actually a

Stories of grand passions move the novel: conjugal, fraternal,
interspecies. Many are delivered in an episodic, fragmentary and
provocative manner, interspersing voices in first and third person to
create a rich, mottled chorus, an amalgam of subplots that weave and
complement each other in such a way that the town itself might be
better called the central character. One principal thread runs like a
taut current throughout: that documenting the evolution of Mustafa
Kemal, who will one day be known as Ataturk, Turkey’s great liberator
and modernizer, the founder and first president of the Republic of

Long before Kemal’s vision can be realized, however, Balkan wars will
be fought, during which the Russians will exterminate millions of
Muslims and drive millions more as refugees into Ottoman lands, and a
world war will occur, in which the Ottomans will naturally side with
the Germans against the Russians, but in so doing will drive out the
Armenians, who have lived among them for centuries. Ultimately, the
Ottomans and their allies will lose, the war will end, and the empire
will erupt in civil war now that the rhetoric of nationhood and
self-determination has become an intractable part of the vernacular.

The town’s people are already torn apart both by the loss of their
Muslim sons to the war effort, and the realization that their
Armenian friends and neighbours have been driven out and massacred
only several miles from home. But with Mustafa Kemal’s ascendance, a
whole new world order is about to shape their destinies. Much to
everyone’s amazement, then horror, half the town — the Christians
who have lived here for centuries — are rounded up to be relocated
to Greece, a country they have never known.

“When the committee came to value our property, none of us was very
concerned. We didn’t think we would be deported, anyway, because we
didn’t speak Greek,” says the beautiful and broken-hearted Philotei,
whose lover Ibrahim, to whom she has been betrothed since childhood,
has lost his mind to the effects of war.

“And we said, ‘We aren’t Greek, we are Ottomans,’ and the committee
said, ‘There’s no such thing as Ottoman any more. If you’re a Muslim
you’re a Turk. If you’re Christian and you’re not Armenian, and
you’re from around here, you’re Greek.’ ”

This is the story of individual fates determined by the bigger
political forces of a succession of wars, the combined effect of
which set in motion the determination and shape of borders, the
constitution of populations and the consequent civil wars and
xenophobic campaigns waged throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle
East into the present day.

Where de Bernières is critical of all sides in equal measure, his
stance on nationalism is unequivocal. It’s a “miserable stupidity”;
combine nationalism with religion, and you’ve got “unholy spouses
from whose fetid conjugal bed nothing but evil can crawl forth.” To
read de Bernières’s portrait of the town before it becomes a pawn in
this bigger play is to feel the acute devastation wrought by agendas
that lead to young men “shitting out” their entrails in trenches and
women and children being forced from their homes, only to be robbed,
raped and bludgeoned to death with rifle butts. A miserable
stupidity, indeed.

For those who do not devour it immediately, Birds Without Wings will
sit as great epics sit, on one’s shelf demanding to be read, making
one feel irresponsible and guilty, provoking resolutions of “must
read this before death.” Do read it before you die. It would be a
terrible thing to have missed a work of such importance, beauty and

Camilla Gibb’s third novel, Sweetness in the Belly, largely set in
revolutionary Ethiopia, is forthcoming in March, 2005.