Mr. Thursday’s Book Shelf 9: Birds Without Wings

Mr. Thursday’s Book Shelf: Birds Without Wings

Written by Louis De Bernieres (better known for Corelli’s Mandolin and Nicholas Cage), this is the complementary story of a small, Turkish town’s identity in the face of a new brand new Turkish state. The consequences of World War I, the ascension of Ataturk, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire reflect upon this broken town of Eskibahce in southwestern Anatolia.

The story revolves around Eskibahce (Garden of Eden) and its residents. Muslim Turks and Christians of Greek descent live harmoniously in this out-of-the-way town. Although their religious differences are apparent, it is a regular occurrence for the Muslim women to approach their Christian friends and ask them to pray for them to the Virgin Mary. In the story of Philothei, the most beautiful Greek girl in the village, and Ibrahim the Mad, their religious differences make no difference to the lovers or their families. They are simply a good match.

With the start of World War I and the proclamation of a holy jihad, Muslim boys from the town must march off to war as their Christian friends remain behind to either be sent to work camps or to become out-laws and bandits in the countryside. Bernieres’ description of war electrifies and horrifies. The horrors of trench warfare are illustrated brilliantly and eloquently. Told from a first-person perspective (either experiencing it currently or through recollection) lends to a fuller understanding of the experiences.

Additionally, De Bernieres follows the story of Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) and his rise through the ranks of the Ottoman military until he becomes the Father of Turkey. He never speaks through Kemal in first-person instead using his own omniscient voice, but he uses fictional village people, merchants, and artisans to express how the international and domestic power struggles affected life on the Anatolian Peninsula.

However, for me, the stories of individual struggles, which are expertly woven together, is the treat of this novel. Rustem Bey, the kindly but proud aristocrat of Eskibahce, and the conflict between his adulterous wife, Tamara, and his “Circassian” mistress, Leyla, is exceptional. The tensions of a man with financial stability and preeminence but who simply wants the true love of a woman is tragic. The appeal for true love is a universal theme. De Bernieres’ understanding of the human condition is the foundation of his expertly crafted prose.

Would I recommend this book? I’m not sure. It is a very slow burner, and it takes a significant number of pages before the plot gets moving.  Nevertheless, Birds Without Wings is a lovely read if you like historical fiction or beautiful prose.

Birds Without Wings
Louis De Bernieres
Paperback: 576 Pages
Vintage Publishing

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