Synopses & Reviews
In his first novel since Corelli's Mandolin
, Louis de Bernieres creates a world, populates it with characters as real as our best friends, and launches it into the maelstrom of twentieth-century history.
The setting is a small village in southwestern Anatolia in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Everyone there speaks Turkish, though they write it in Greek letters. It's a place that has room for a professional blasphemer; where a brokenhearted aga finds solace in the arms of a Circassian courtesan who isn't Circassian at all; where a beautiful Christian girl named Philothei is engaged to a Muslim boy named Ibrahim. But all of this will change when Turkey enters the modern world. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is an enchantment.
"One of the most engrossing novels I've read all year....Everyone in this cast of characters is someone memorable, and their lives and fates intertwine to make a marvelously engaging story..." Chicago Tribune
"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." Kirkus Reviews
"Louis de Bernieres's overstuffed new novel is an absorbing epic about the waning years of the Ottoman Empire but you may need to develop your own mental filing system to keep up with all its characters and incident." The New York Times Book Review
"A fascinating, evocative work written on a grand scale not much seen today. Despite its flaws, it is as rich and compelling as any novel written about the Anatolian upheaval." The Washington Post
"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
"[A] sweeping account of the rise of modern Turkey and the last days of the Ottoman Empire....[I]ntensely personal." Newsday
"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
"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 Bernieres's first three novels are The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Eurasia Region, 1991), Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book Eurasia Region, 1992), and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. The author was selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Corelli's Mandolin won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book, in 1995. His last book was Red Dog, published in 2001.
Reading Group Guide
1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings
as his title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel, “We were birds without wings. . . . Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” [p. 550-551]?
2. The setting of Birds Without Wings is an early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what way 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 Polyxenis dead mother, Ayse exclaims, “Its incredible! A man with that much education, and he didnt 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? How does the story line “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 he is a bad master because he doesnt beat her [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 they are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for one another 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? Does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novels main themes?
12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?
13. Can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?
WHITBREAD AWARD FINALIST
A Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller
“A quite astonishing, and compulsively readable, tour de force. . . . De Bernièress subtly differentiated characters attach themselves to us and wont let go.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your groups discussion of Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernièress eagerly awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Corellis Mandolin. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Birds Without Wings is a hugely ambitious novel about the pleasures of peace, the meaning of home, and the foolishness and fratricide of war. In its rich tapestry of scenes and characters, it encompasses the whole range of human emotions and behaviors, from the most savagely cruel to the most selflessly compassionate.