Birds Without Wings

BirdsWithoutWings

BirdsWithoutWingsby Louis de Bernières
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

Welcome to guest reviewer David D. Bogosian, and thanks for sending in the following:

Growing up in the Armenian community, my knowledge of events in Asia Minor during the early years of the 20th century is probably better than most. Nonetheless, I came away from my reading of Birds Without Wings with a far deeper, more nuanced, and admittedly less settled view of that era.

The book is a historical novel, and in this case the history takes up about as many pages as does the novel. Its fictional narrative takes place in the little town of Eskibahçe, not far from the Mediterranean coastline in southwestern Anatolia. The town is populated primarily by Turks and Greeks, with a few Armenians thrown in for good measure. The story’s narrative arc follows a number of the town’s inhabitants during the years just before, during, and after the First World War. Its didactic objective is to show how the twin forces of religion and nationalism led to cataclysmic events that intervened in the lives of people who neither understood nor sympathized with those movements, and yet were obliged to suffer untold hardships as a result.

In his painting of scenes and depicting of people, de Bernières is unexcelled. The town and its people are made so vivid and real, one walks away from the book with no trace of longing for a film adaptation; it would simply be superfluous. Having heard various anecdotes from my own grandmother about small town life in pre-Genocide Ottoman times, I can say that the book’s characters, events, and patterns of speech and thought all come across as thoroughly genuine and credible. Birds Without Wings can almost be read as a travelogue across time, capturing a unique period when a centuries-old equilibrium was giving way to radical new ways of thinking, with calamitous consequences for virtually everyone.

The book is not, however, without its flaws. The author engages in a number of literary conceits which hinder rather than help. Interwoven with the narrative thread that takes in Eskibahçe and its people is an extended series of chapters that constitute a mini-biography of Mustafa Kemal, destined to become Atatürk and leader and modernizer of post-Ottoman Turkey. The result is a fragmenting of the story line, and I found myself mainly annoyed by the insertion of the Kemalist chapters and eager for the story to resume its pace. Also, the fictional narrative is told from the first-person perspectives of perhaps a dozen different characters, with no one having real primacy of place. Consequently, the story has no primary protagonist. And in one lugubrious chapter, we are asked to suspend disbelief as a drowning man gives us his observations while sinking slowly to the bottom of Smyrna’s harbor. Most of these devices come across as contrived and pretentious; I would have preferred a more direct approach.

Nevertheless, the quality of the prose ranks with the best. The descriptions are vivid, suggestive, and dripping with poetry. For example:

The bulbuls and nightingales set themselves to song, and in the distance a bereaved woman wailed for her slaughtered sons. An owl shrieked, and another whooped. The moon, just at the beginning of the wane, was like a swan adrift on a dark lake. The myriad candle flames wandered slowly about the courtyard, disorientating the senses.

He found the two gendarmes playing backgammon together on a table in the shade of the plane trees on the meydan. As the day had grown warmer, so more of the buttons of their tunics had become undone. Both of them were in urgent need of the weekly shave that they would take that evening before Friday began. They looked up, not unduly pleased to be interrupted in their duty to the holy game of backgammon, and pronounced “Hoş geldiniz” in reluctant unison.

Birds Without Wings reveals much about daily life in the rural backwaters of the Ottoman Empire. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the various religious and superstitious rituals and the way the lines between communities would blur, as Muslims ask their Greek neighbors to light candles and say prayers on their behalf to the Virgin Mary, while the Greeks likewise solicit their Muslim neighbors’ rituals when they are in dire straits. Necessity knows no religious scruples, and people just want to hedge their bets.

The book also reveals much about the dubious state of the human soul, where people living amicably side by side can be easily incited to stoning one of their own, or turning an indifferent eye as one man lashes out violently against another for no other reason than his ethnicity. But—and this is what makes the book’s darker overtones bearable—there are also many moments of kindness, generosity, magnanimity of spirit. The people of Eskibahçe are fully immersed in the human condition, and the book indulges in no romanticizing of that fact.

Armenians considering reading this book should be warned: the author’s views (and he is not shy about espousing them) on the Genocide are decidedly unfriendly to ours. He clearly thinks that atrocities were being committed by everyone (Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Kurds) against everyone else, and will not grant us the primacy of suffering which we Armenians like to retain for ourselves. In fact he repeatedly points out what he deems the greatest “forgotten genocide” of all, in which Turks were slaughtered by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and other Christian nations as various segments of the Balkans were wrested away from Ottoman rule. Quantifying suffering is always a dicey proposition, so I won’t attempt to evaluate the legitimacy of his position. Suffice it to say, don’t look for anti-Turkish diatribes in this book (or for that matter, anti-anyone).