Louis de Bernieres paints on a wide canvas. His setting is Turkey from about 1900, amidst the collapse of the old Ottoman Empire, through the horrors of the First World War and the Gallipoli campaign to the founding of Ataturk’s secular, modern state. In Anatolia, a small community mirrors the destructive forces unleashed by this crumbling edifice and the tensions caused by difference and incompatibility.
Prior to the upheavals in their lives, the Anatolian villagers have livedlives of quasi-Edenic tolerance, mixing education, friendship, even love. Yet, like any Eden, this state of affairs cannot last and a serpent enters, trailing clouds of dissension, suspicion, intolerance and violent bigotry with it.
Like de Bernieres’ enormously successful and hugely readable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, history here is observed through the little people, the victims of the massive forces of grand movements and imperial posturing. We are treated to an ant’s-eye view of history through the priest, the imam, the landlord, the village beauty and the community¹s boys. Observing all is the village seer, Iskander the Potter, with his grasp of philosophy and religion. According to Iskander, “Man is a bird without wings . . . and a bird is a man without sorrows”. So de Bernieres¹ themes are the sorrows of war, nationalism, religion and history and their impact at a personal level.
From this perspective, Birds Without Wings does not disappoint. It is crammed with the product of painstaking research that enlivens these villagers. The book, unlike the birds, soars endearingly with the complex, interwoven tales of the individual villagers’ search for happiness, successor love. It is not hard to envisage the searing heat or the intense cold of the Anatolian mountains, or to smell and hear the village, so detailed is de Bernieres in his description. This detail is at its most impressive linguistically, with de Bernieres in full command of the English, Turkish and Greek that he uses.
Birds Without Wings, however, does represent a major departure from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. History here is not seen solely from the underside. We do not just follow the fortunes of a disparate set of Anatolian peasants. De Bernieres here includes the history-makers as well as its takers. Half the book essentially follows the life and career of Mustafa Kemal, also known as Kemal Ataturk, the victor of Gallipoli and father of modern Turkey. The material is non-fiction and assembled from a number of historic sources. Herein lies a major structural flaw with the book – the tension between fact and fiction and the cross-pollution between the two.
The non-fiction tends to dominate towards the end of the book, at the expense of the fictive characters. In addition, the characterisation of Ataturk himself is thin. He remains an enigma from the pages of history, with no interaction with the fictive characters and without the imaginative life of the villagers, some of whom fight for him. He is only seen from a third person perspective but whose? We are never to know.
The inclusion of historical material begs several questions. Unlike, say, War and Peace with its historical background, here that canvas is centre-stage. To what extent is de Bernieres’ account of the appalling
conditions of Gallipoli subservient to the requirements of his fiction? Whynot research the ramifications of the Versailles Treaty in any decent history of the twentieth century? In the end, the two narrative strands are not woven into one seamless whole and the novel as novel, or the history as history, are the poorer for it.
De Bernieres’ focus is the processes of history, from the global and imperial to the mundane and personal. The book closes with the Epilogue of Karatavuk the Letter-Writer. He returns to the trope of the wingless birds and their relationship to the sweep of history. He writes: “You and I once fancied ourselves as birds, and we were very happy even when we flapped our wings and fell down and bruised ourselves, but the truth is that we were birds without wings . . . For birds without 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.”
The novel allows us an overview of both winged and wingless birds. But despite the high places to which it takes us, these birds will never fly together. This novel is really two books – both immensely enjoyable on their own terms but, nevertheless, separate.