Ernie's Reviews > Birds Without Wings

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
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Aug 28, 12

it was amazing
Read in August, 2012

** spoiler alert ** This book was recommended by my friend Chris. The story is set in a small, poor town in the Anatolia part of Turkey, before, during and after WWI and including the Turkish war for independence. I do not know much about the time or region. The author provided a lot of historical narrative, which was both annoying and helpful. Basically, there were chapters that consisted of descriptions of government actions, troop movements, wars, death-marches, etc that were occuring all around the region during the time. Meanwhile the story was about the inhabitants of this community... what they did,... how they interacted,.. describing their aspirations... and showing the catastrophe that occured when the Ottoman Empire disappeared. The book is about labels that people apply for personal life and their consequences...... A man was asked what would happen to his Christian daughter when she married a muslim.... answer: she will become a Christian-Muslim. At the same time they were aware and wary of the differences among them. The differences were long standing. The Christians were descendents of Greeks who had settled there. They no longer knew Greek but spoke Turkish. The curious aspect of this town was that the people who could write, did so using Greek letters but they wrote in Turkish. People in other areas were perplexed by this contradiction.

But the differences had grave consequences outside the town --- the story described children as they grew up then followed their duty as citizens of the Ottoman empire to join the holy war that was WWI. Numerous contradictions appeared..... The loyal Chrisian Ottomans wanted to fight but were rejected because it was a holy war against Christians. The Muslim boys who joined this Muslim fatwa discovered their major ally was Germany... Christian. --- Meanwhile, the Christian boys who were turned down as soldiers were taken into labor battalions to support the troops. But it turned out that these were slave labor camps. ---- Basically, these were the horrors that preceeded the horror of WWII. When Hitler justified his treatment of Jews, Gypsys and Slavs, he did so by pointing out that no one remembered the holocausts of WWI.... Turks on Armenians, Greeks on Turks, Turks on Greek Christians. People were uprooted and sent to new villages based on their religions. Communities lost their skilled people. Christians speaking Turkish were taken to Greece. Muslims speaking Greek were taken to Turkey. Walking. Some of them made it.

I know this is rattling. I liked the writing. I liked the descriptions of the people. I know Australians who have told me about Gllipoli and this book tells the other side. If anything, this telling is worse because this describes the insanity of trench warfare on the penninsula. It was much more than idiotic charges, ordered by British officers to ANZAC troops, into machine guns.

I am still thinking about the book. The story is sad and profound. A side story is told about Mustafa, the creator of the Turkish State. He came up through the military. He wanted to create a secular Turkish/Muslim state. The Ottoman Empire was fading. To replace it he used nationalism and religion. Those seemed the most effective tools. --- And the counterpoint is this village that was in the process of evolving away from those narrow views. Couldn't it have been done some other way? Maybe not. The last chapter of the book describes a modern village in Anatolia... very civil. But there are no Greek descendents... just as there are no Muslim descendents in Greece. People are happy. But.... It is not really restoration... it is loss.

In the beginning of the book, one of the villagers makes up... or remembers a proverb.... "A man without a soul is like a bird without wings". Birds come up throughout the book in various uses. But at the end of the book, one of the characters ponders the birds... as he had done as a child with his pals..... how nice it would be to be a bird and fly. To be free, to soar, to see everything from the sky. He thinks that birds without wings would be sorry creatures.. colorful but hopping on the ground, going nowhere, vulnerable.

At the same time the birds in the book have sorry fates. They are admired but in admiration they are caged, tamed, hunted, copied imperfectly through whistles or airplanes.

Clearly, I am not done thinking about the book. It is a time and place I do not know. Unfortunately the story is a familiar one in history. But the charming description of the people and town will stay in my memory a long time. I recommend the book. The people are charming. There are friendships. Romances. Quirky people. A fair amount of historical fiction. But it is not a light read.
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