Birds Without Wings is a monumental sweep of history from 1900 to about 1920, tracing the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey. Louis de Bernières creates the epic by stitching together the tales of the inhabitants of the fictional village of Eskibahçe in southwest Anatolia.
In the early 20th century, Eskibahçe is a village of harmony, intolerance, kindness and contradictions. Turks, Greeks and Armenians – Muslims and Christians – all live together in seeming accord. Children play together. A Christian boy teaches his Muslim friend to read and write. Men do business with each other. Women intermarry and change their religion to that of their husbands (the religion of women is of no matter anyway). Muslims and Christians pay heed to each other’s beliefs and traditions, boosting their chances for good fortune and seeking the best of each world. So much is the intermingling that Turkish is written in the Greek alphabet.
And yet … they quickly stone a Muslim woman accused of adultery … a father forces his son to kill his disgraced daughter … a drunken Greek incites others to kick and spit on an Armenian who accidently jostles him.
And yet … the imam stops the stoning for lack of the requisite witnesses to adultery and takes in the woman until she is well … the Armenian gives up a rare scotch to soothe the Greek’s toothache … the Muslim landowner saves three Armenian girls from rape and slaughter.
It is a small world made richer for the paradoxes.
de Bernières revels in the humour of the inconsistencies. Take, for instance, this passage from the Greek schoolmaster, writing to Karatavuk, a Muslim village boy (now a soldier), on behalf of the boy’s illiterate parents:
I have to tell you that it sits very ill with me, having to write to you in Turkish using the Greek script, which I would prefer to remain unsullied and unadulterated, although I know that this is an ingrained habit in many places around here, presumably where the Greeks have been degraded by mingling for too many hundreds of years with their interloping Turkish neighbours. … For me it is like having to use a golden spoon to clear out a drain, since my own language and my manner of writing are so much superior to yours in every manner of expression. I concede, however, that the letter you wrote to your parents, and which I have had to read to them, much against my initial inclination, did possess some considerable poetic force, and I was moved by it, somewhat against my will. (p 319)
The balance is tipped with the onset of WW1. Muslim men are enlisted to fight in the jihad. Christian men are sent to labour battalions where they work as slaves. Armenians are massacred. Christians are expelled en masse to Greece and Muslims brought to Turkey. Those left in Eskibahçe realize that they needed their old diversity to survive.
The villagers’ tales are interspersed with stories of the rise of Mustafa Kemal (known to history as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey). These give some context in the early parts of the novel. Later on, the story gets bogged down with too many historical accounts. Karatavuk’s accounts of the fighting are more compelling.
An early reminiscence tells us that Eskibahçe exists no more, finally destroyed by earthquakes in the 1950s.
Had you thought I’d given up the reading part of this project? It has been a while between book reviews. It’s just one of those times when my day job is getting in the way of leisure pastimes. Not helped by choosing to read a 550+ page behemoth. Hope to be back on track soon.