Synopses & Reviews
Louis de Bernièress last novel, Corellis Mandolin
, was met with the highest praise: "Behind every page," said Richard Russo, "we sense its authors intelligence, wit, heart, imagination, and wisdom. This is a great book." A. S. Byatt placed the author in "the direct line that runs through Dickens and Evelyn Waugh." Now, de Bernières gives us his long-awaited new novel. Huge, resonant, lyrical, filled with humor and pathos, a novel about the political and personal costs of war, and of love between men and women, between friends, between those who are driven to be enemies.
It is the story of a small coastal town in South West Anatolia in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire told in the richly varied voices of the people Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Greek and Armenian descent whose lives are rooted there, intertwined for untold years. There is Iskander, the potter and local font of proverbial wisdom; Karatavuk Iskanders son and Mehmetçik, childhood friends whose playground stretches across the hills above the town, where Mehmetçik teaches the illiterate Karatavuk to write Turkish in Greek letters. There are Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja, holy men of different faiths who greet each other as "Infidel Efendi"; Rustem Bey, the landlord and protector of the town, whose wife is stoned for the sin of adultery. There is a man known as "the Dog" because of his hideous aspect, who lives among the Lycian tombs; and another known as "the Blasphemer," who wanders the town cursing God and all of his representatives of all faiths. And there is Philothei, the Christian girl of legendary beauty, courted from infancy by Ibrahim the goatherda great love that culminates in tragedy and madness. But Birds Without Wings is also the story of Mustafa Kemal, whose military genius will lead him to victory against the invading Western European forces of the Great War and a reshaping of the whole region.
When the young men of the town are conscripted, we follow Karatavuk to Gallipoli, where the intimate brutality of battle robs him of all innocence. And in the town he left behind, we see how the twin scourges of fanatical religion and nationalism unleashed by the war quickly, and irreversibly, destroy the fabric of centuries-old peace.
Epic in its narrative sweep, steeped in historical fact, yet profoundly humane and dazzlingly evocative in its emotional and sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is a triumph.
"It's been nearly a decade since Captain Corelli's Mandolin became a word-of-mouth bestseller (and then a major feature film), and devotees will eagerly dig into de Bernires' sweeping historical follow-up. This time the setting is the small Anatolian town of Eskibahe, 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 Atatrk, 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 Bernires 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 Bernires's careful exposition and imagination, be lost to memory forever. Agent, Lavinia Trevor. (Aug.)Forecast: Corelli had the advantage of WWII, a prominent love story and a movie tie-in; this book's period and setting are less familiar. Still, readers who enjoyed Corelli will be likely to give it a chance. 10-city author tour." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Birds Without Wings remains a quite astonishing, and compulsively readable, tour de force....This long, passionate, sometimes clumsy, always committed novel tells us more about our flawed human condition than is comfortable to know, and that is its greatest strength." Los Angeles Times
"[A] sweeping account of the rise of modern Turkey and the last days of the Ottoman Empire....[I]ntensely personal." Newsday
"Do read [Birds without Wings] before you die. It would be a terrible thing to have missed a work of such importance, beauty and compassion." Camilla Gibb, The Globe and Mail
"An absorbing read about a remote but captivating time. The Ottoman world's break-up is a rich, poignant story, and Mr. de Bernières is a good storyteller. At times he is nearly as good as Dido Sotiriou." The Economist
"Dazzling...a fabulous book in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dickens....So joyous and heartbreaking, so rich and musical and wise, that reading it is like discovering anew the enchanting power of fiction." San Francisco Chronicle
"Louis de Bernieres is in the direct line that runs through Dickens and Evelyn Waugh...[H]e has only to look into his world, one senses, for it to rush into reality, colours and touch and taste." A. S. Byatt
"This is one of the great novels about the early 20th century and the emerging modern world, an epic of human disaster, on small and grand scales....One of the most profound and moving books you're likely to read." The New Zealand Herald
"So much is remarkable about this novel, from the heft of its history to the power of its legends. In this great bazaar of family life and international politics, the bittersweet metaphor of 'birds without wings' grows deeper and richer....This epic about the tragedy of borders is likely to cross all borders, moving readers everywhere as it describes the harrowing cost of remaking faraway places in the image of our dreams." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
About the Author
Louis de Bernières' first three novels are The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Eurasia Region 1991), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book Eurasia Region 1992), and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. The author was selected as one of the Granta twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, his fourth novel, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book, 1995. His most recent book is Red Dog, published in 2001.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Birds Without Wings
, Louis de Bernières’s eagerly awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Corelli’s Mandolin.
1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his title? What practical and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel that “we were birds without wings… Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” (p. 550)?
2. Birds Without Wings is set in a village in Turkey in the early twentieth century. In what ways, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what ways 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? In what ways does it “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 that “you are a bad master because you don’t beat me” (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 it is described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for each other 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? In what ways does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novel’s main concerns?
12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetcik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?
13. In what ways can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the large themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, self and others?