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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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