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Birds Without Wings (de Bernieres)

Birds Without Wings
Louis de Bernieres, 2004
Knopf Doubleday
576 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400079322


Summary
In his first novel since Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres creates a world, populates it with characters as real as our best friends, and launches it into the maelstrom of twentieth-century history.

The setting is a small village in southwestern Anatolia in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Everyone there speaks Turkish, though they write it in Greek letters. It’s a place that has room for a professional blasphemer; where a brokenhearted aga finds solace in the arms of a Circassian courtesan who isn’t Circassian at all; where a beautiful Christian girl named Philothei is engaged to a Muslim boy named Ibrahim.

But all of this will change when Turkey enters the modern world. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is an enchantment. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—December 8, 1954
Where—London
Education—Bradfield College; Victoria University of
   Manchester; University of London
Awards—Commonwealth Writers Prize, 1994.
Currently—London

Louis de Bernieres is a British novelist most famous for his fourth novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. In 1993 de Bernières was selected as one of the "20 Best of Young British Novelists", part of a promotion in Granta magazine. Captain Corelli's Mandolin was published in the following year, winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book. It was also shortlisted for the 1994 Sunday Express Book of the Year. It has been translated into over 11 languages and is an international bestseller.

In 2008 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in the Arts by the De Montfort University in Leicester, which he had previously attended when it was known as Leicester Polytechnic.

De Bernières-Smart was born near Woolwich and grew up in Surrey, the first part of his surname being inherited from a French Huguenot forefather. He was educated at Bradfield College and joined the army when he was 18, but left after four months of service at Sandhurst. He attended the Victoria University of Manchester and the Institute of Education, University of London.

Before he began to write full-time he held a wide variety of jobs, including being a mechanic, a motorcycle messenger and an English teacher in Colombia. He now lives near Bungay in Suffolk with his partner, Cathy and two children, Robin and Sophie. De Bernières is an avid musician. He plays the flute, mandolin, clarinet and guitar, though considers himself an “enthusiastic but badly-educated and erratic” amateur. His literary work often references music and composers he admires, such as the guitar works of Villa-Lobos and Antonio Lauro in the Latin American trilogy, and the mandolin works of Vivaldi and Hummel in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

Books
Latin American trilogy
It was his experiences in Colombia (as well as the influence of writer Gabriel García Márquez, describing himself as a "Marquez parasite") that, he says, profoundly influenced his first three novels, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (1990), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992).

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
De Bernieres' most famous book is his fourth, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, in which the eponymous hero is an Italian soldier who is part of the occupying force on a Greek island during the Second World War. In the US it was originally published as Corelli's Mandolin.

In 2001, the book was turned into a film. De Bernieres strongly disapproved of the film version, commenting, "It would be impossible for a parent to be happy about its baby's ears being put on backwards." He does however state that it has redeeming qualities, and particularly likes the soundtrack.

Since the release of the book and the movie, Cephalonia (the island on which the book is set) has become a major tourist destination; and as a result the tourist industry on the island has begun to capitalise on the book's name. Of this, de Bernieres said: "I was very displeased to see that a bar in Agia Efimia has abandoned its perfectly good Greek name and renamed itself Captain Corelli's, and I dread the idea that sooner or later there might be Captain Corelli Tours, or Pelagia Apartments."

Red Dog
His book Red Dog (2001) was inspired by a statue of a dog he saw during a visit to the Pilbara region of Western Australia and has been filmed in 2011.

Birds Without Wings
Set in Turkey this 2004 novel portrays the people in a small village toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Kemal Atatürk, and the outbreak of the First World War.

A Partisan's Daughter
His 7th novel, published in 2008 tells of the relationship between a young Yugoslavian woman and a middle-aged British man in the 1970s, set in London.

Notwithstanding
Published in 2009, Notwithstanding is a collection of short stories revolving around a fictional English village, Notwithstanding, and its eccentric inhabitants. Many of the stories were published separately earlier in de Bernieres's career and are based on the village where he grew up, Wormley, Surrey, and he muses whether this is, or is no longer, the rural idyll. The author reflects in the Afterword:

I realised that I had set so many of my novels and stories abroad, because custom had prevented me from seeing how exotic my own country is. Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations...We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough...Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.

(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
In his compassionate portrayal of simple people struggling against sweeping historical forces and his vivid descriptions of the cruelties of war, de Bernieres has reached heights that few modern novelists ever attempt. While Birds Without Wings can be confusing and meandering at times, it offers a thrilling ride through a whirlwind of history that changed forever a pivotal part of our world.
Nicholas Gage - Washington Post


The prose is gorgeous.... Everyone in this cast of characters is someone memorable, and their lives and fates intertwine to make a marvelously engaging story of a village.
Chicago Tribune


De Bernieres is at his finest when he allows us to experience the hardships and horrors through the lives of the villagers. He writes movingly of the battle of Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view, and the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of trench warfare.
Seattle Times


A sweeping account of the rise of modern Turkey and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. In an intensely personal way, [de Bernieres] shows how these historic changes affected the inhabitants of Eskibahce...and in a more global way...how misplaced imperial aspirations and gratuitous war can devastate ordinary people.
Newsday


“Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many,” a proverb-prone narrator reflects as he begins the story of Eskibahce, a small town in Anatolia, and of its inhabitants’ fate in the turmoil of the early twentieth century. After generations of cheerful intermingling, the town’s Muslim Turks, Christian Greeks, and Armenians are divided by the First World War and then by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. De Bernières gamely tries to illustrate the human cost—a complex series of migrations and persecutions—through a cast of endearing, folksy characters. He interleaves the narratives with the biography of Kemal Ataturk. But history, in this case, may be too vast for his approach; despite many affecting moments, both the big picture and the small stories are lost in an overwhelming sprawl.
The New Yorker


It's been nearly a decade since Corelli's Mandolin became a word-of-mouth bestseller (and then a major feature film), and devotees will eagerly dig into de Bernieres' sweeping historical follow-up. This time the setting is the small Anatolian town of Eskibah e, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. The large cast of characters of intermixed Turkish, Greek and Armenian descent includes breathtakingly lovely Philothei, a Christian girl, and her beloved Ibrahim, the childhood friend and Muslim to whom she is betrothed. The narrative immediately sets up Philothei's death and Ibrahim's madness as the focal tragedy caused by the sweep of history-but this is a bit of a red herring. Various first-person voices alternate in brief chapters with an authorial perspective that details the interactions of the town's residents as the region is torn apart by war; a parallel set of chapters follows the life of Kemal Ataterk, who established Turkey as a modern, secular country. The necessary historical information can be tedious, and stilted prose renders some key characters (like Philothei) one-dimensional. But when de Bernieres relaxes his grip on the grand sweep of history—as he does with the lively and affecting anecdotes involving the Muslim landlord Rustem Bey and his wife and mistress—the results resonate with the very personal consequences that large-scale change can effect. Though some readers may balk at the novel's sheer heft, the reward is an effective and moving portrayal of a way of life—and lives—that might, if not for Bernieres's careful exposition and imagination, be lost to memory forever.
Publishers Weekly


In the ten years since his international best seller Corelli's Mandolin, English novelist de Bernieres has truly steeped himself in the culture and history of southwestern Turkey. The result is an absorbing, polyvocal epic centered on a charming coastal Anatolian village where religious and ethnic harmony is shattered by World War I and the subsequent internecine slaughter during which Ottomans become Turks; Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians become forced exiles, replaced by Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete; and Armenians become victims. This novel emphasizes the brutalities and stupidities of modern warfare (notably at the battle of Gallipoli) even more emphatically than de Berni res's magic realist debut, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts. About a dozen characters tell their quasi-picaresque stories in short chapters interpolated by an amusing, highly anecdotal sketch of the brilliant career of Mustapha Kemal, later called Atat rk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, who, in abolishing the fez "becomes the only dictator in the history of the world with a profound grasp of the semiotics of headwear." Vivid characterization, wry humor, believable bawdiness, pathos, and trenchant observations of the perils of empire and nation building make this a strongly recommended selection for all historical fiction collections. —Mark Andr Singer, Mechanics' Inst. Lib., San Francisco
Library Journal


The popular British author's first since the huge international success of Corelli's Mandolin (1994) is an epic chronicle of the making of modern Turkey. And it's the story of the destruction of an ethnically mixed population (including Greek, Armenian, and Turkish Christians and Muslims) who had coexisted harmoniously until the militant nationalism of warrior-politician Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. "Ataturk" (whose history is nestled among several brother narratives), triggered wholesale atrocities and mass deportations. The novel ranges from the late-19th-century Ottoman Empire to the early 1920s and the memories of those who survive beyond them, and is centered in the village of Eskibahce in southwestern Anatolia. The lack of a central plot, frustrating in itself, is somewhat assuaged by the varied, colorful voices of de Bernieres' several narrators. Prominent among them are stoical Iskander the Potter, a repository of indigenous folklore and wisdom; impossibly beautiful Greek girl Philothei, whose thwarted love for Muslim goatherd Ibrahim forms a paradigm for their cultures' struggles; wealthy merchant Rustum Bey, who kills his faithless wife Tamara's lover and consigns her to public stoning, before embarking on a voyage to Istanbul that culminates in a complex relationship with his Circassian mistress Leyla; and Iskander's son Karavatuk, who forms an unlikely friendship with Philothei's brother Mehmetcik, and later narrates an enthralling (if overlong) account of his wartime experiences, notably the historic carnage of Gallipoli. Birds Without Wings also features beguiling interpolated stories, notably that of Yusuf the Tall, who commands his son to kill his promiscuous daughter, then declares himself a murderer. Unfortunately, it also contains numerous passages of authorial moralizing about "nationalism and religion...[and the] evil..." they produce, as well as interminable variations on the metaphors of men as wingless birds and birds as frail, defenseless victims. It would be foolish to deny that there are great things herein, but their author's laboriously shouldered agenda goes a long way toward undermining them. Enormously readable, intermittently brilliant, honorably conceived and felt—and very deeply flawed.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel, “We were birds without wings.... Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” [p. 550–551]?

2. The setting of Birds Without Wings is an early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what way is the world of the novel vastly different from the world today?

3. In his prologue, Iskander the Potter says that he misses the Christians after they were removed from Eskibahçe: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves” [p. 7]. Why does he feel that the presence of “others” allowed the villagers to see themselves? Why is the loss of variety so important? Why were so many different kinds of people able to live together in Eskibahçe so peacefully?

4. What makes Eskibahçe such a marvelously colorful village? Who are some of its most eccentric and engaging characters? How does the village change over the course of the novel?

5. The novel vividly describes the nationalist fervor that swept the world in the early twentieth century: “Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece for the Greeks, Turks and Jews out!” [p. 16] What causes these feelings? What are their ultimate consequences?

6. After Ayse and Polyxeni convince the reluctant Daskalos Leonidas to write a message in tears on the wings of a dove,which they hope will fly to Polyxeni’s dead mother, Ayse exclaims, “It’s incredible! A man with that much education, and he didn’t even know about how to get a message to the dead” [p. 77]. What does this scene suggest about the gulf between traditional and modern ways of understanding the world?

7. On the way to Smyrna, Iskander prefaces his story by saying, “The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole” [p. 128]. Is what Iskander says here true of the novel itself? How does the story line “creep all over the place”?

8. What kind of man is Mustafa Kemal? How does he achieve his great military success? What are the ultimate consequences of his actions?

9. Leyla tells Rustem Bey that the women in town are saying he is a bad master because he doesn’t beat her [p. 228]. What does this passage suggest about the relationship between women and men in the novel? What roles are women expected to play? In what ways are they oppressed by their culture?

10. What are the most horrific aspects of war as they are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for one another and even for their enemies? How does war affect the village of Eskibahçe?

11. Why does de Bernières use different narrators and different points of view in the novel? Does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novel’s main themes?

12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?

13. Can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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