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Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières

I almost hesitate to recommend Birds Without Wings, it’s so long and stuffed full of so much history. But then I could say it’s intoxicating, it’s high comedy, it’s romance, it’s sweeping, ornate, intense, fervent, brutal and, my not-so-favorite fashionable word, empathetic. Birds Without Wings is the last of the five books I pulled off my shelf because the covers are beautiful, the five books that inspired this newsletter. It also follows on neatly from last month’s book, because it is set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

The imaginary village of Eskibahçe is in western Turkey, near Smyrna on the Aegean Sea. Village in this sentence means both the buildings and the inhabitants. Eskibahçe is remote. It is visited only by traders and tramps. If its people travel, they go in caravan, because the roads are dangerous. It clings to tradition and to a habit of rubbing along. At first this appears to be a fairy-tale Convivencia, where everyone speaks Turkish but writes it in Greek letters, where there are characters called Iskander the Potter, Stamos the Birdman and Mohammed the Leech Gatherer, but any Utopianism is quickly punctured. Only Greek, Christian boys are taught to read and write, a woman’s life is in the hands of a man, poverty is so extreme that one family lives in the hollow trunk of a tree. De Bernieres shirks nothing, but at the same time writes with tenderness and humor. Nobody, not even those guilty of the most intolerant thoughts or of the most heinous acts, is treated as evil. And nobody, not even the village imam, the most convincing representation of a saint I have ever seen in a work of fiction, is a perfect shining hero. You can’t identify with the protagonist in this book, because there isn’t one, and yet there are many.

Birds Without Wings could be described as interconnected short stories. It could also be described as an epic of Tolstoyan magnitude. The story of Eskibahçe is interrupted by sections relating the career of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). As the book goes on, these sections get longer and the Eskibahçe sections shrink. A cloud falls and you long for the characters you’ve grown to love. You might even give up, because history, man’s inhumanity to man, becomes so depressing. Don’t give up. Like reading War and Peace, skip the bits you find to be too much historical detail, or too much commentary. The rest is worth it.

From chapter 77, I am Philothei (12)

When he was a boy, Ibrahim the goatherd:

‘… could imitate all the different bleats of a goat. I have forgotten the names of some of these bleats, but they were things like the bleat of a goat who is looking for its kid, the bleat of a goat that has accidentally bitten on a stone, and the bleat of a goat that is unable to fart… as time went by he used to do bleats that were more and more absurd. The bleat of a goat that is thinking of becoming a Christian. The bleat of a goat that is too stupid to know how stupid it is. The bleat of a goat that had a good idea the day before and can’t remember what it was. The best bleat of all was the bleat of a goat with nothing to say.’

If you like a long, slow read that will make you laugh out loud, while also making you cry and squirm in horror, Birds Without Wings is for you.

Louise de Bernières is the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (misleadingly and unaccountably published as Corelli’s Mandolin in the US).

The lovely cover is from my American edition. The print in this edition is very small, so you might prefer an e-book. With a Kindle you can also get instant translations of all the foreign words de Bernières sprinkles around and links to Wikipedia explanations of all the Turkish objects, customs and foods.

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