From tolerance to hatred in a crumbling empire

The Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, Va.)
December 5, 2004 Sunday The Virginian-Pilot Edition

>From tolerance to hatred in a crumbling empire

Knopf. 554 Pages. $25.95.


THE FIRST SIGN that life in the village of Eskibahce wasn’t as
tranquil as it seemed came when its residents dragged the wife of its
leading citizen into the town square and tried to stone her to death
for adultery.

A few weeks later, they stood by when the local drunk assaulted the
town’s Armenian shopkeeper, all the while shouting ethnic slurs at

In “Birds Without Wings,” author Louis de Bernieres, whose previous
novel was the best seller “Corelli’s Mandolin,” has used this town on
the coast of the Mediterranean Sea as the setting for his account of
the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the upheaval that
accompanied the creation of modern Turkey. He shows how easily people
can cross the delicate line between diversity and tolerance to casual
cruelty and rabid hatred when prodded by the twin evils of
nationalism and religious intolerance.

Here, de Bernieres is working familiar territory, often too familiar.
His books deal with ordinary people pushed by currents unleashed by
crackpots and misguided visionaries, be they communist
revolutionaries, fascist dictators or fanatic nationalists.

His first three novels, a trilogy about the Andean village of
Cochadebajo, channeled the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
while “Corelli’s Mandolin” bared the soul of the Greek island of
Cephalonia during its occupation by German and Italian invaders in
World War II. All showed people trying to keep their lives together
while the zealots around them exploited human differences for their
own gain.

A sort of prequel to “Corelli’s Mandolin” – the books share some
common characters – “Birds Without Wings” is set in the crumbling,
polyglot Ottoman Empire. The Muslims, Greek Christians and Armenians
of Eskibahce live in peace, aware of their differences but content to
either gloss over or accommodate them without outside agitation.

But, as it always does in de Bernieres’ novels, war stirs the
village’s inner demons. Young Muslim men are drafted, while their
Christian neighbors are shunted aside. The town’s Armenians are
forced from their homes and driven east on a genocidal death march.
The empire’s Muslim rulers peddle a shallow jihad to keep their
power, stripping away what had been a shared sense of nationhood and
community and stirring what de Bernieres calls “the hell’s broth of
religious and nationalist hatred.”

As a result, thousands of Ottoman soldiers, as well as those from
Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand, died in the trenches at
Gallipoli, one of the war’s most violent and senseless battles. Here,
de Bernieres writes powerfully of the savagery of war, as soldiers
die almost as often from the disease of the battlefield as from being
shot, bombed or gassed.

Unfortunately, de Bernieres’ powerful prose serves a book that reads
almost more like a history than a novel. Unlike “Corelli’s Mandolin,
which was supported by a long-running love story, “Birds Without
Wings” has many different stories but little that pulls them
together. De Bernieres has said he writes his novels in pieces and
then puts them together later. Here, some of the pieces must have
fallen on the floor during construction.

That lack of focus ultimately keeps “Birds Without Wings” from
reaching his usual high standard. At times, he also seems to repeat
himself: “Corelli’s Mandolin” had an Italian officer who liked music;
so does “Birds Without Wings.”

De Bernieres tells all of this with the rich prose and vivid
descriptions that are his gift, but he often uses them to push a
story we keep thinking will get somewhere but never quite does.