Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres is my new #1 book to recommend to people interested in Turkey!
How did the “Turks” and the “Greeks” function before the forced migration in 1923-24? What was a Turk? What was a Greek? And what would they have called themselves? How did a baboon impact modern Turkey? Surely you have asked these questions. They are all answered in this fascinating novel. And yet the reader comes away with so much more than answered questions, rather I finished the book with a deeper understanding of a nation that is still in many ways dealing with the transformation that took place after WWI.
Set in an Ottoman village in southwest Turkey not far from Fethiye during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey, Birds Without Wings gives its readers a wall-sized window view into the lives of its characters and their culture.
At first I assumed the author had acquired the personal journals of an entire village and turned them into a novel.
To give it a wider scope the book follows the life of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, from birth to president. This parallel track works as an excellent tool in giving the reader the wider historical perspective during the time in which the events of the village are taking place.
This book is one of those can’t-put-down-page-turners that has nothing to do with cliff hangers. I was eager to go to the next chapter NOT to find out what happened next but rather to continue with the story wherever it led. The chapters are written from the perspective of different characters usually in the first person. To fill in the blanks he acts as narrator at times as well.
You will meet Iskender the potter who makes ceramic bird whistles that play a significant role in the story.
Leyla hanim the (Greek) “Cicassian” mistress to Rustem Aga, the landlord of the village who stands in stark contrast to the Agas of Yashar Kemal’s novels.
Levon the Armenian who is kind to his enemy.
You will wonder at Father Kristoforos, the Orthodox Christian priest who watches over his flock and despises the Italian Catholic soldiers who are stationed in the village during the war, but has a friendly rivalry with Abdulhamid hodja the wise imam with the beautiful horse.
Christian Philothei, the most beautiful girl in the village, is in love with Muslim Ibrahim, the goatherd who has loved her since birth but is psychologically ruined in WWI and unable to face life afterwards.
Mehmetcik and Karatavuk, boyhood friends separated during WWI because of their different religions, who act like birds using the ceramic whistles made by Iskender.
Leonidas, the Greek school teacher who disdains every person in the village with his Big Idea of the Greeks taking back the swaths of Anatolia that are rightfully theirs, and many more adults and children who fill in the details of the tapestry of life that make up this Ottoman village.
While reading this story I laughed out loud a few times, I cried, I was angry and indignant, astonished, and even ill during the war scenes*. de Bernieres is a gifted author able to play with his readers emotions like Jimi Hendrix on the guitar. His vocabulary is expansive, and I am thankful for the dictionary feature on my Kindle.
Having read Ottoman and Turkish History books and the biography of Ataturk, I was pleased that this narrative cemented what I had learned. It perfectly complemented the history tomes putting skin on the bones I had put together in my studies. But these history books are not necessary to fully enjoy this narrative.
One aspect of the novel that I questioned was the author’s view of human nature. No character in the novel is evil. The only “bad guys” are unnamed and distant from the story mysteriously guiding world events. No single character is evil. The mob acts in evil ways and pushes individuals to act horribly (or allows them to, gives them the freedom or anonymity they need), but they do not act so when they are alone. This is repeated over and over again throughout the book. My sense is that the author believes that people are basically good with an ability to do evil acts when circumstances allow. My own view is a bit different. Suffice it to say here that I have never had to teach my children to disobey. I would be interested in your view on this aspect of the book.
*Warning: The WWI scenes are brutal. They go on for 100+ pages detailing the death and stench and blood and misery. A friend of mine who read the book just skipped those pages until the story returned to the village. Depending on your stomach and personality, you may want to do this as well.
You probably know the author from Corelli’s Mandolin: A Novel
. I have not read that story but want to after reading this one.
If you were trying to tell the story of a time/nation would you choose a city or a village as your setting?
Are you interested in other Turkey-related books? Check this out:
29+ Books Related to Turkey: A Reading List with notes
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