An Empire Of Stories

Newsweek, NY
Aug 29 2004

An Empire Of Stories

Turkey’s tortured history inspires two fine novels

By Malcolm Jones

Newsweek Sept. 6 issue – Turkey is a novelist’s dream, or perhaps a
land dreamed by a novelist. A border country between Europe and the
Middle East, it has for centuries been so many things to so many
people – Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and, of course,
Turks – that it has become a place where fantasies and realities
collide like tectonic plates. Everybody has a story, and, as two new
novels set in Turkey demonstrate in their radically varying tales,
every story is startlingly unique.

In “Birds Without Wings,” Louis de Bernieres tackles a piece of
Turkish history with the same vigor that he used to sketch World War
II Greece in “Corelli’s Mandolin.” But this is a darker book, with
nothing like its predecessor’s central love affair to soften its
tragedy. Near the novel’s beginning, de Bernieres introduces
Philothei, his fictional village’s most beautiful woman, about whom
one character says she “reminded you of death,” because to look upon
her was to know that “everything decays away and is lost.” Like
Eskibahce, the village she inhabits, Philothei is notable for nothing
but her beauty; both are doomed. By the end of “Birds Without Wings,”
Eskibahce has been decimated by World War I and its aftermath. What
had been a patchwork paradise of ethnicities – Greeks, Turks and
Armenians – is gone, sacrificed for modern Turkey, forged by the
ruthless, charismatic Kemal Ataturk out of the ashes of the Ottoman
Empire. The Greeks have been exiled, the Armenians slaughtered. Those
who remain are too impoverished and war-weary to know what hit them.

De Bernieres takes his cues from Tolstoy – his characters’ stories are
always played out against the scrim of history. The Turkish novelist
Orhan Pamuk is more a Kafka man. “Snow” takes place in the 1990s in
the far-eastern Turkish village of Kars. And while the story, packed
with nationalists, socialists and militant Islamists, has a
superficial currency, its reality is dreamlike. Snow falls for most
of the novel, isolating the town, where a poet, called Ka, has come
to investigate a series of suicides by teenage Muslim girls who
refuse the secular government’s order to remove their headscarves.
Artistically blocked for years, Ka, a Westernized sophisticate,
suddenly begins to write poetry again. He falls in love so deeply
that he begins to betray everything – even his own scruples – to preserve
his happiness. Because he believes in nothing beyond his own desire,
he is marked for tragedy.

De Bernieres is so inventive – celebratory but never sentimental – that
he is the more beguiling of the two novelists. But Pamuk is the more
profound. At the end of “Snow,” a young man says to the narrator,
“I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about
me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from
so far away.” By refusing to condescend to his characters – by just
showing them, not explaining them – Pamuk endows even the most
reprehensible figures with dignity. Like de Bernieres, Pamuk never
generalizes. In their indelible novels, every tragedy wears a
different face.