Louis de Bernières' Corelli's Mandolin is one of the most charming, accomplished novels I have read in recent years. So the prospect of reviewing his new book had me all but salivating. Happily, the wondrous Birds Without Wings more than lives up to expectations.
Like Corelli's Mandolin, which was set on the Greek Island of Cephalonia during its Italian occupation in World War II, Birds Without Wings is also a story of two Mediterranean cultures living cheek by jowl. Eskibahee, once called Paleoperiboli by its Greek settlers, is a small hillside village on the southwestern coast of Turkey. At the beginning of the 20th century, Greeks and Turks along with a smattering of Armenians and Jews live amicably in the town. The community is so intermingled the Greeks speak only Turkish and the few Turks who can write use the Greek alphabet. The line between Greek Christianity and Turkish Islam is equally skewed. Muslim women think nothing of asking their Christian friends to light votive candles on their behalf, and the Christians have great respect for the local imam. It is not unusual that Ibrahim, a Muslim boy, is in love with Philothei, the most beautiful Greek girl in town. Karatavuk, the son of the Muslim potter, and Mehmeteik, from a Christian family, are inseparable friends, never parted for a day until they are conscripted into service for the First World War. But anyone familiar with the history of the region can foresee that tragedy will befall this idyllic community: tragedy in the form of hatred, war, expulsion and genocide. The blossoming of Turkish nationalism will reignite the tribalism that has always marked this region of the world. Eskibahee's way of life will be destroyed, and this coming cataclysm hangs over the novel like the sword of Damocles.
Readers familiar with de Bernières' work know he has a very unusual way of unfolding a narrative. Different characters tell parts of the story, and sometimes an omniscient narrator chimes in with third person authority. It is a dazzling technique, and one that affords the writer the opportunity to present his fictional world without a singular prejudice.
In Birds Without Wings, for instance, we get some of the story with hindsight, from survivors who were children at the time. Other events are told as they occur. Throughout, there are sections about the rise of Mustafa Kemal, known as AtatŸrk, the great military leader who westernized Turkey, that read almost like history. It is the tragic intersection of the stories that give the novel its substance and weight.
De Bernières' brilliance is that he manages to recount bleak history cloaked in radiant garb. He is a gifted storyteller who offers up his tale at an unhurried pace, introducing violence or despair with the same inevitability as such happier impulses as loyalty and honor. Blood feuds, retaliation, religious intolerance all are so ingrained in everyday life in Eskibahèe that few among its likable inhabitants really take them seriously. But it is precisely because the novelist allows us to embrace these characters, warts and all, that we are shocked when these ordinary people are driven by a madness that will destroy everything and everyone they love.
De Bernières' writing here rivals Remarque's in All Quiet on the Western Front (Karatavuk's account of the bloodbath at Gallipoli is bone-chilling), and Birds Without Wings is, among other things, a great anti-war novel. History, it tells us, is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas. Strong sentiments, but a reminder that the same internecine hatred erupted in Europe (and elsewhere) countless times during the ensuing century.
Corelli's Mandolin was such a masterwork that it seems almost unfair that de Bernières could produce another book as good, perhaps better. Birds Without Wings is a tour de force, a novel as complex and compelling, as instructive and unsettling as history itself.
Robert Weibezahl's book, A Second Helping of Murder, has been nominated for the Macavity Award.