No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, April 01, 2006

#29: Birds Without Wings -- Louis de Bernieres

It took me a while to get into this novel, a fictionalised account of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The first few chapters seemed very dry, despite some excellent writing. If I hadn't actually been in Turkey, less than a hundred miles from Eskibahçe -- the (probably fictional) village that is the focal point of the novel -- I might not have persevered. But I did, and I'm glad of it: I understand a bit more about the bloody and violent history of Turkey, about the conflicts that have torn the region, and about the reforms instituted by Ataturk in the early 20th century.

Eskibahçe is home to Christians, Muslims and Armenians, to a Greek courtesan passing herself off as Circassian, to the stunningly beautiful Philothei and to Drousoula, her plain friend, who appears in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Drosoula is not the only connection between the two novels: deliberate comparisons are drawn between the Italian occupation in this novel and Corelli's presence in Cephalonia, and some scenes seem to mirror episodes in the earlier novel. Above all, there's that same sense of the effects of the outside world on a small, close-knit community. This, however, is a much darker novel than its predecessor (much longer, too, and not necessarily in a good way): the descriptions of Gallipoli, Smyrna, and the death-marches are savagely precise without sensationalism. De Bernieres doesn't catalogue atrocities, but he does use specific incidents to illustrate the horrors perpetrated by the Greeks upon the Turks, and vice versa.

As well as the horror of war, and the irrevocable changes wrought upon Eskibahçe and its inhabitants, there are moments of humour, of love, of gentleness. There's a strong sense of Eskibahçe being cocooned, isolated from the outside world: most of the people (goatherds, potters, farmers, leech-gatherers) have only a very sketchy notion of the European powers that surround them. None of it matters as much as one villager's toothache, another's infidelity, a boy's red shirt. They live in a landscape that is smooth with use. Drosoula marvels at a pair of statues she sees, near the end of the book: growing up in southern Turkey, she's used to statues being partial, ruined, fragmentary. Earlier, there's a wry reference to Allied officers digging for antiquities in shell-craters, too eager to take sensible precautions before they venture out from cover.

This novel achieves something that I'm only just consciously learning to admire: the use of individual characters to illustrate history. I suspect that a lot of my favourite historical novels do it well, but I've never really thought about it before. Perhaps de Bernieres' large cast -- not all of whom have distinct voices -- brings this to the fore. Perhaps I've noticed it here because there's one character, at least, who I don't think is brought to life: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose tale is told in the third-person present tense, in 22 chapters. His story and his accomplishments are laid out clearly, but I never had a sense of the man behind them.

Birds Without Wings isn't as bleak as, for example, Birdsong: but it doesn't have the playfulness of de Berniere's other novels, and the weight of the more factual passages -- Ataturk, the death of King Alexander, and so on -- unbalances the lighter, simpler tales of the villagers.

In lots of ways Philothei was nobody at all and she only lived in a very little world, and she was destined to be ordinary. I expect that if she had lived to old age, you could have written her biography in half a page, and I expect that if she had never been born, it would have made no difference to the world at all.

But in a way the whole of the novel is about what happens to Philothei.

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