Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres

Continuing the Turkish theme—and indeed there is a cat named Pamuk and a minor character named Orhan—my book club selected this novel about Turkey during the early 20th century. We had enjoyed a good discussion of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a few years ago, so hoped for good things from this new novel.

The first half makes a good beach book, with its short chapters, so vibrant and humorous. In a mosaic of self-contained anecdotes, de Bernieres builds up a portrait of a small town on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, many of whose colorful characters have nicknames that reflect their professions (e.g., Iskander the Potter, Mehmet the Tinsman) or perceived characteristics (e.g., Lydia the Barren, Ali the Broken-Nosed). Muslims and Christians all consider themselves Ottomans, and there is no religious strife. In fact, they sometimes give offerings in each other’s traditions, saying they wanted to back both horses. De Bernieres is an excellent writer, and each scene is deeply imagined and brought to life with sensual detail that delights.

If there is a serious thread in the beginning, it is of misogyny, women as property or pets that must be put down when they misbehave. As the story progresses, we see this attitude applied to those of particular ethnic backgrounds, such as Armenians, and other scapegoats, such as the unpopular local activist and teacher. We see people’s foolishness and cruelty when gathered together into a group. There was much written about mob psychology after WWII, trying to make sense of the Holocaust. This town is too small for the people to be anonymous in their mob, but, like eighth-graders in the hallway, they cannot resist egging on a fight or joining in the persecution of the day’s victim. And de Bernieres reminds us of the many other holocausts that led up to and followed the Great War.

Once the war starts, the story gets serious. We spend several chapters at Gallipoli, up to now well-documented from the Australian side, but here we see it from the Turkish side, through the eyes of one of the young men of the town. The vivid writing and sensual details that made the first half of the book so delightful here bring home the horror and occasional joy of war.

The brief chapters about Mustafa Kemal that were interpolated into the first half of the book now expand into longer narratives about the progress of the war, the various political factions in the country, and the War of Independence with Greece that followed the Great War. Although well-written and engaging, this part of the book is essentially a nonfiction summary of the political and military context. I found these sections unnecessary to the story, but perhaps my opinion is skewed because I had recently read several books about Ataturk and the end of the Ottoman empire.

In fact, by the time the story returns to the town in the final pages, I found I had lost interest in the characters and their dilemmas. Even the promised climax seemed rather flat to me, and the story trailed off. But perhaps that is the point. Even for those who survive, war destroys the quality of their lives. Nothing is the same afterwards. Poppies may grow over the mass graves in Gallipoli, but the longing to return home is never satisfied.

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