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June 21, 2009

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Turkish Despatches June 09 – 3: de Bernières’ Birds without Wings

by quaesitor
de bernieres birds without wings

Appropriately enough, I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings while here in Turkey. And I have to say that it is quite simply one of the most breathtaking and moving novels I’ve ever read.

It’s crafted on an epic scale (600+ pages), and has a fascinating dual focus:

  • at the MICRO level, we get to know and love the many and varied inhabitants of Eskibahçe, a small fictitious town near the Aegean coast (placed not far from Telmessos, now called Fethiye)
  • at the MACRO level, we follow the determined but bumpy path of Mustafa Kemal, as he forges the modern Turkey out of the embers of the defunct Ottoman Empire, becoming the father of the new nation, Atatürk.

The reasons for this parallel tale quickly become clear. The geopolitical machinations of the many nation states in the run up, course of and then aftermath of the 1st World War had a profound and tragic impact on the ordinary citizens of towns all over Turkey. Without this big picture, an understanding and sympathy for these individuals would be impossible. And the realities were brutal. For throughout first quarter of the 20th Century, this region faced appalling atrocities, ethnic hatreds and population dislocation. And the consequences are still being felt across the region.

De Bernières has sought to personalise all this – to depict the tragedies with human faces, something that fiction and/or social history can do far better than dull and lifeless statistics. Eskibahçe is a beguiling creation in which Greeks, Armenians and Turks live side by side as fellow Ottomans, almost despite their religious differences. The Christians and Muslims in the town would almost jokingly refer to one another as infidels – and there was mutual interdependence – even though of course the Ottoman Empire was explicitly a Muslim entity and non-Muslims were 2nd class citizens. But when Atatürk agreed with Greece on a massive population exchange in 1923, the impact was devastating. 1000s of Turkish speaking ethnic Greeks ended up being marched out, while 1000s of Greek speaking Turks were pushed back to Turkey. This was the final stage after years of terrible atrocities.

No one came out smelling of roses. Christians and Muslims equally behaved appallingly, thus fuelling the hatred and lust for revenge. But having chatted with Turkish friends who’ve read the book, they seem to agree that de Bernières is scrupulously fair. There are sympathetic characters on all sides, as well as the inevitable venal and hateful individuals. De Bernières has a great gift of describing military realities – he did it powerfully in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (a book linked to this one by a handful of overlapping characters). And in my view, he does it even more poignantly in this book. The descriptions of the horrors of Gallipoli are unforgettable without being gratuitous.

So as one or two reviews have stated, this really is a masterpiece. For not only has he managed to condense and articulate a huge swathe of historical research and details (I learned loads), but he has done so in the course of a brilliantly told narrative. It was a book that I never wanted to end – which to my mind is the best praise you can give to any book.

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