Sunday, 30 January 2011

Birds without wings, by Louis de Bernieres

‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is probably the author’s most famous work (assisted by being made into a film). The Financial Times reviewer described this book as “A more ambitious novel than ‘Captain Corelli’, and a better one.” Certainly it is more ambitious, covering a sweep of twenty year’s of Turkish history. However that leads de Bernieres into long passages that read merely like a history book. Hence it is difficult for me to say that it is a better novel than ‘Captain Corelli’, though it is certainly an excellent one.

The book employs the same formula of describing an idyllic village and then allowing evil and destruction to erupt into it. The peaceful co-existence of the Muslim Turks and the Christian Greeks and Armenians is beautifully described; touchingly described. The intertwining of their lives and cultures, ignorant of radical religion and nationalism, is particularly made flesh in the characters of Philothei, a beautiful young Christian girl, and the doting goatherd, Ibrahim.

There is much humour in the first half of the book, and I particularly liked the story of Rustem Bey bringing home a Circassian Mistress (though his treatment of his wife and her lover prefigures the violence to come). The happy village life has dangerous undercurrents, mainly based on ignorance, but they are controlled by the love and humanity of most of the inhabitants.

The book becomes progressively darker, as Turkey enters the First World War. The descriptions of the warfare in the trenches of Gallipoli (from the Turkish point of view) is especially vivid and gory. Things go from bad to worse, including the deportation of the Greeks and Armenians – though the historical lecturing makes clear that Turks also suffered from forced marches and other appalling cruelties. The cruelty of man bursts through the surface, and many are not brave or strong enough to prevent it. The machinations of foolish politicians at the top of the tree in Greece, Turkey, Britain and so on, are lacerated by the author. The horrors culminate in the burning of the (then) Greek city of Smyrna – now modern Izmir.

The 625-page book is epic in its size and scope. I think it would have benefited from the historical narrative being cut back, since the best parts are undoubtedly those describing the lives and deaths of the village inhabitants. This is a sad and informative book, well worth the time to read it. Now I understand better the deep mutual suspicion that still exists between Greece and Turkey.

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