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Louis de Bernières: Birds Without Wings

De Bernières has done Greece before but this is the Greece that was in the Ottoman Empire and, for a while, looked like becoming a Greater Greece in what is now South West Turkey. The story is set primarily in Eskibahçe. The epilogue implies that it is based on the real-life Fethiye. The story starts at the beginning of the twentieth century. Like other towns in the Ottoman Empire, Eskibahçe has Turks, Greeks and Armenians, though all speak Turkish. Indeed, the Greek priest can say Greek prayers but does not know what they mean. There is just one Greek who can actually speak Greek, an ardent Greek nationalist who is waiting for the day when this part of the world will become a Greater Greece. He will die disappointed. Though the inhabitants do have their differences, particularly as regards religion, de Bernières shows an almost idyllic situation with Greeks and Turks as friends and with each, in times of need, praying through the other’s religion. Several stories which will run through the book, illustrate this. The first concerns Philothei, a Greek girl of great beauty who has been in love with and betrothed to Ibrahim, the Goatherd, since they were young children. The second concerns Ayse, a Turkish woman, and her friend Polyxeni, the mother of Philothei, while the third concerns two boys who adopt the names of birds, Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, though their real names are Abdul and Nico respectively. The adopted names – a kind of blackbird and a kind of robin – are given to them when Iskander the Potter, Abdul’s father, makes them clay bird whistles which imitate these birds.

These three relationships, and others, illustrate for de Bernières what happens in this part of the world in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly when the Ottoman Empire breaks up and becomes modern Turkey. At the beginning, the different groups get on well, depend on one another and form friendships and even marriages. But while we watch the people of the village, de Bernières also gives us, bit by bit, the life story of Mustafa Kemal, a great national hero or an evil villain, depending on your political views and the creator of the modern Turkish state. The First World War arrives but Eskibahçe knows little about it till its Turkish inhabitants are sent to serve in the army, specifically at Gallipoli, while the Christians are sent to work in labour units. Gradually the Christians are rounded up. First the Armenians are sent to another part of the country but, in reality, quickly slaughtered. When the war ends, the Greeks are rounded up to be sent to Greece in exchange for Turks now living in Greece. Of course, the few incoming Turks speak only Greek, have no money and few skills, while the outgoing Greeks provided most of the technical skills in the area and only speak Turkish. The end result, however, is modern Turkey (and modern Greece, though we see little of that).

De Bernières gives us a wonderful portrait of the town of Eskibahçe and its inhabitants, from Rustem Bey, an essentially decent man but who, when he finds his wife with a lover, kills the lover and sends his wife to the market place to be stoned and then takes what he thinks is a Circassian mistress (she turns out to be Greek but he never finds this out) to the Dog, a mad man who lives in the cemetery, half-naked. He also gives us portraits of the people of the town, their stories told with great affection. It is a wonderful story with a wonderful message about living together. It is not without its unpleasantness, as he spares us little of the atrocities of all sides and is highly critical of all the political powers – Greek, Turkish and Western (with Lloyd George a special target) but it makes for very fine reading.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Secker and Warburg