Birds Without Wings
by Louis de Bernières
In BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS Louis de Bernieres tells, with great affection, of the little Anatolian town of Eskibahce, which was too unimportant to appear on any map. It was carved from the mountainside above a valley through which an ancient river, no longer navigable except to caiques, made its way to the Mediterranean, just where it joins the Aegean Sea. Its streets were too narrow for camels to pass, but the houses were stacked up the mountainside so that every dwelling received light and air. Dogs lay asleep in the shade cast by latticed upper windows; boys could be heard playing on the hillside, running and jumping amongst the Roman ruins and the tombs.
The track to Eskibace meandered through pine trees in the shade of which were scattered Muslim graves in varying states of attention. The track passed the Mosque and the Church of St. Nicholas, and the Christian chapel with its smelly little ossuary. Christian and Muslim families had intermarried for generations, and the same could almost be said for their faiths, for the worshippers in each religion liked to hedge their bets. Here the imam and the priest argued contentedly (but secretly) into the small hours, and chivvied their Turkish speaking flocks to a Heaven where God spoke only Greek and Arabic.
In 1884, far away across the Aegean Sea, a child was born, little Mustafa, son to the customs officer; he was later to have 'Kemal' (perfect) added to his name, and later still 'Ataturk'. And so Macedonia, home to Vlads, Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Serbs, Slavs, Albanians, Europeans of many origins and a large colony of Jews, was to give to the world its greatest Turk, as it once gave Alexander, its most conquering Greek.
The deeply conservative, superstitious and almost entirely illiterate people of Eskibahce hear in 1912 that Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia have rebelled against the decrepit Ottoman Empire, under the wing of whose senile old Sultan most of their kindred had prospered for generations. In 1914 came other news of war. The people of Eskibahce have never heard of the Germans, the French, or the British Empire, which, it seems, has governed so much of the world without their even hearing about it. Eskibahce is unaware that in Austria-Hungary, Emperor Franz Josef has annexed Bosnia Herzogovina, thereby changing the course of European history forever.
In Istanbul the Sultan decrees a Jihad, a Holy War, in alliance with Christian Germany against Russia, France and the British Empire (many of whose soldiers-in-arms are Muslim). Millions of his subjects give their lives as martyrs, especially at the appalling killing field of Gallipoli. But they perish in vain, for the war is lost. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners and refugees of all races and creeds suffer and die in the death marches, pogroms, massacres, and genocide. The Ottoman Empire implodes upon itself, the Sultan is deposed (fainting into the arms of his chief eunuch), and Greece and Turkey embark on an internecine, merciless, and pointless war with one another.
The happy tranquility of Eskibahce proves as fragile as that of the rest of the world, and its distress is such that the cats and dogs cry in the streets of the desolate little town. Earthquakes in 1956 and 1957 finally destroyed all human habitation in Eskibahce: the painted pink walls of the ancient houses fell; the sounds of camels and donkeys, goats and poultry, dogs and children ceased; now, lizards and cicadas are all that lives amongst the rubble, and only the song of blackbirds and nightingales can be heard amongst the Tombs.
BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS must surely rank with 'War and Peace' and 'Dr. Zhivago', among the finest novels of our time. The love stories in the book are written with wry
insight and originality. Between the covers of the novel can be seen and heard humour, irony and despair; over against the hideous cost of war are extraordinary depths of love, lifelong friendship, and the sort of unexpected, unplanned and undeserved happiness that occurs in all walks of human life every day: 'the obvious, unnoticed things'.
Various august reviewers have shouted Bernieres' praises from the hills. They have rightly compared his work with that of Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Tolstoy, Steinbeck...
For his love of small things, his delight in human frailty, his joy in the pursuit of love, and his belly laugh at pomposity, thank you.