“Man is a bird without wings,” Iskander told them, “and a bird is a man without sorrows.” -From Birds Without Wings, page 44-
“Well, the mystery is a shallow one, and not very difficult to fathom, Polyxeni Hanim. I clip their wings because most people don’t want to buy a bird that might escape so that they have to sprout their own feathers in a flash and take off in hot pursuit. Most people couldn’t be bothered, you see. People make odd birds; they don’t fly much.” -From Birds Without Wings, page 50-
For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders and their quarrels are very small. But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek, and then, after all that, the years go by, the mountains are levelled, the valleys rise, the rivers are blocked by sand and the cliffs fall into the sea. -From Birds Without Wings, page 550-551-
This is not a novel which can be read quickly. It must be read slowly and contemplatively to fully enjoy its message. There were several times I almost stopped reading – but, because this was a challenge read, I kept plugging along. And I am glad I did. Louis De Bernieres’ thoughtful novel – Birds Without Wings – is one that deserves to be read and considered in light of the history it is based on.
In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, a small village in southwestern Anatolia is home to a fascinating cast of characters: Philothei, a beautiful Christian girl in love with Ibrahim – a Muslim; Drosoula, Philothei’s homely best friend; Karatavak and Mehmetcik who play their bird whistles and pretend to fly; Rustem Bey and his beautiful mistress Leyla Hanim; The Dog – who lives among the dead and flashes his ghastly smile; Iskander the Potter; Velad the Fat; Ali the Snowbringer; and a real person from Turkish history, Mustafa Kemal, who is known for his famous statement: “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die. By the time that we are dead, other units and other commanders will arrive to take our place.” -From Birds Without Wings, page 314-
Told in alternating points of view over a span of more than twenty years, the novel is a series of glimpses into village life, the horrors of trench warfare, and the political and historical events which define the story. De Bernieres gives the reader insight into the villagers, using humor to soften the sometimes brutal reality. When war comes to Turkey, no one in the village is not spared the consequences.
I was most touched by the boyhood friendship between Karatavak (the blackbird) and Mehmetcik (the robin). One Muslim, the other Christian, they maintain their friendship despite being separated by war and geography. Karatavak’s recollections of the battles in Gallipoli are shocking, brutal and filled with sorrow – and yet, he also shows the survival of humanity amid the tragedy.
The novel also explores the conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Turks and Greeks and Armenians, the working classes and those with education and money. De Bernieres seems to be making a statement about the pointless and arbitrary nature of war and conflict between countries and races.
The Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, submits a memorandum in which Greece lays claim to Thrace and to western Anatolia. he proposes a voluntary exchange of Turkish and Greek populations. The idea seems terribly sensible, as if it is a perfectly acceptable idea that the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals should be arbitrarily disrupted in the interests of nation-building. -From Birds Without Wings, page 401-
De Bernieres brings a strong sense of place to his novel – from the idyllic setting of the village of Eskibahce…
The town itself rose up to the left-hand side, occupying a concave hillside that was like a vast amphitheatre. In it our ancestors could have built the biggest theatre in the world, had the idea occurred to them, because down at the bottom was the meydan, which might have been a natural stage. In the meydan, and I swear this is not some mischievous traveller’s tale, there was actually a family living with an asthmatic donkey in the hollowed trunk of an enormous tree. More than anything else this illustrates how quickly civilised standards tailed away the further you got from Smyrna. This was the kind of place wehre you might find beehives actually inside people’s houses, and people making cattle food in their kitchens, consisting of cakes made of apricot and walnut leaves. -From Birds Without Wings, page 236-237-
…to the impoverished streets of Galata…
Emaciated dogs squabbled with naked infants and pigs over heaps of rubbish, offal and excrement. Prostitutes, filthy, flaunting and inebriated, howled and catcalled from the doorways and balconies. Tattered chickens with bleeding rumps scratched in the gutters. A dead cat lay swelling on the cobbles, circled by crows. Rats preened their whiskers in the cornerways. Shutters and doors sagged from their rotting frames on broken hinges, roofs patched with packing case and cardboard caved gently in up on their beams, and dead-eyed drunks swerved along the straitened alleyways or slept stupefied in the gutters, their mouths working soundlessly, their chins flecked with spittle. “At least,” thought Rustem Bey, “there is no one here who will endure the pains and troubles of growing old,” but it was so grim that he found himself thinking that there was nothing to do with such a place, except burn it to the ground and start again. He gave thanks to God that it had not been his destiny to live in such a hell of desperation, filth and iniquity, but it did not yet strike him as paradoxical that he had come here in order to seek his happiness. -From Birds Without Wings, page 160-161-
This is not a novel which was easy to read – although I enjoyed the occasional humor and insights. At over 550 pages in length with very small print, it took me more than a week to get through. In the end, I was left with a good sense of the history of Turkey in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. I’m glad I took the time to read this fascinating novel.