These Birds soar, even without their wings

Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada)
August 14, 2004 Saturday Final Edition

These Birds soar, even without their wings; Author of Captain
Corelli’s Mandolin strikes poignant chord in new novel


BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS, by Louis de Bernieres (Random House of Canada,
625 pages, $36.95).

Perhaps you know Louis de Bernieres only through the movie version of
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and think that Nicholas Cage’s
cartoon-like Italian soldier is typical of the author’s work. If you
do, this book will be an illumination.

This is a work that will move you deeply.

A profound sadness and world-weariness pervade it, though at times it
moves us to anger and pity. As the First World War British poet
Wilfred Owen wrote, the poetry is in the pity.

The story is set in a small coastal town in the Ottoman Empire before
the Great War. There, Muslims and Christians (mostly of Greek
background, a few Armenians) lived peacefully together. Everyone
spoke Turkish and was loyal to the Sultan.

They herded goats, they made pots, they taught school, they
quarrelled with one another. If they were religious, they were not
noticeably more so than most people.

>From time to time they forayed into the outside world, but normally
they kept to themselves. They were birds without wings, but the
outside world would not leave them alone.

De Bernieres tells his story through a series of discrete chapters.
One powerful theme is the rise of Mustafa Kemal, later known as
Attaturk, the founder and modernizer of Turkey.

Like many other countries, Turkey gets entangled in the slaughter of
the First World War, but the political turmoil allows Kemal to
consolidate his power.

He wants to create Turkey out of the Ottoman Empire and war with
Greece gives him his excuse for ethnic cleansing, just as the Empire
had expelled the Armenians and other groups earlier. Greeks who spoke
no Greek, who had never been to Greece, were driven from their
homeland with great brutality in the name of a political ideal.

What makes the work so poignant is de Bernieres’ exquisite ability to
draw complex and fully realized characters about whom we come to

There are Karatavuk, a Turk, and Memetcik, a Greek, the title
characters, a robin and blackbird driven apart by politics they don’t

There is Philothei, who waits for Ibrahim the Goatherd, who returns
from the war driven mad by its horrors. Rustem Bey, the complex and
sophisticated landlord, is a man who lives a lonely life until a
platoon of Italian occupiers arrives and he suddenly has an equal
with whom to converse.

None of these people understand what is happening to their lives.
They don’t know why the soldiers arrive one day, force them to gather
their possessions and travel to a strange land.

There is so much brutality in this book because there is so much
brutality in the world. Some, of course, is planned.

Some massacres are ordered to prove a point or achieve a specific
end. At other times, they happen because soldiers become

They kill people because it’s too much trouble to take them prisoner,
or they rape and murder civilians, as it were, for fun.

The worst brutality seems to be the bureaucratic sort. Move 200,000
people from point A to point B, but don’t bother too much about
transport, food or any other necessities of life and shoot any
stragglers, not out of spite but just to maintain order.

Death by bureaucratic indifference. Death because no one really
cared. Death because, to those who had power, they were simply

De Bernieres will not let us forget that these things have happened
and will happen again.

William Christian teaches political science at the University of