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Book: Birds Without Wings

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 PostPosted: Tue Aug 17, 2004 9:55 am    Post subject: Book: Birds Without Wings Reply with quote Back to top

San Francisco Chronicle, CA
Aug 14 2004

Birds Without Wings

By Louis De Berničres

KNOPF; 553 PAGES; $29.95

"Birds Without Wings" is Louis De Berničres' first novel since
"Corelli's Mandolin" (1994), which won the Granta Prize, sold 2.5
million copies worldwide and became a big-budget Hollywood film with
Penelope Cruz and Nicolas Cage. Even the author acknowledges that his
new novel may not duplicate the success of the previous one. "Birds"
is a long, interesting and sometimes challenging book. An account of
the changes the first third of the 20th century brings to a small
Turkish village may not appeal to a mass audience, particularly
without an overriding romance to leaven the tale.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Eskibahçe is a town of no
distinction in western Anatolia. Muslims, Orthodox Christians and
Armenians live there in relative peace under the policy of tolerance
that represented the Ottoman Empire at its best. In Eskibahçe, a
Christian father veils his young daughter at the request of the
learned imam, who finds that her beauty is distracting the local men;
a Muslim housewife asks her Christian neighbor to light a candle
before the icon of the Virgin -- just in case. The scandals,
triumphs, solutions and problems remain local matters that the local
people can handle, just as their parents and grandparents did.

Then what Iskander the Potter calls the "great world" intervenes,
precipitating decades of wrenching sorrow and bloodshed. The Armenian
genocide is followed by World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman
Empire and the emergence of modern Turkey. The end of the war
produces the forced expulsion and resettlement of half a million
ethnic Greek Christians to Greece (and of 1 million ethnic Turks to
Turkey), a socially and economically disastrous policy dictated by
the Lausanne Settlement.

De Berničres presents the suffering of the inhabitants of Eskibahçe
in counterpoint to the life of Kemal Ataturk, commenting that history
"is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh
in the name of great ideas." De Berničres writes dense, fine-grained
prose that moves with the measured grace of a 19th century novel. But
he often seems to have spent too much time with the thesaurus and to
have picked up a little too much local color. If there's an obscure,
multi-syllable adjective that can replace a simple, familiar one, he
invariably chooses the former. He delights in including words and
phrases in Turkish and Greek, but rarely bothers to translate them.
When a grotesque, eccentric beggar takes up residence among the
nearby ancient tombs, the people of Eskibahçe provide alms in the
form of food: "They arrived with their small but honourable offerings
of kadinbudu köfte, green beans in olive oil and iç pilŕv, and then
departed, having greeted him with a quiet 'Hos geldiniz.' "

In an interview with the Observer, De Berničres said, "I'm one of
those writers who's always going to be trying to write 'War and
Peace': failing, obviously, but trying." A more apt comparison would
be Dickens. De Berničres' narrative doesn't proceed with the
irresistible, martial sweep of "War and Peace"; events seem like the
product of chance and myriad small decisions made by individuals,
rather than historical inevitability. There's a Dickensian tone to De
Berničres' accounts of the everyday experiences of his numerous
characters, including minor, eccentric ones. It's easy to imagine Pip
encountering Daskalos Leonidas, the embittered teacher who spends his
days teaching Greek to students he disdains and his nights writing
subversive political tracts that everyone ignores.

"Birds Without Wings" also lacks the passion that marks the novels of
Tolstoy (and Dickens, for that matter). Although Iskander's son
tavuk takes part in it as a sniper, De Berničres fails to convey
the horrors of Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, where 281,000 Allied
troops and 250,000 Turks perished. The intimate domestic vignettes
come to life in a way that the big set pieces don't. When two village
housewives help each other during hard times, blithely ignoring the
religious and ethnic differences that will later tear their lives
apart, the reader can almost smell the onions and olives in their
kitchens. Karatavuk describes the stench and filth of the battlefield
in endless detail, but the images don't register with the same force.
The catalog of tortures inflicted on the civilian populace by various
armies and brigands has less impact than the list of dishes at the
feast that Rustem Bey's new mistress prepares for him.

Ultimately, "Birds Without Wings" is an ambitious book in which the
little things are what come to life. -
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