Birds Without Wings – Louis de Berniéres

“Ah, yes,” said Iskander, “now I remember. 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. Let me see…”

Birds Without Wings is the story of Eskibahçe, a (fictional) small town on the coast of Turkey in the early twentieth century. The story hinges on and builds to the climactic schism between Greece and Turkey that saw a brutal war and deportation of Muslims from Greece and Christians from Turkey. The transition was jarring for both sides, as the author points out, but particularly so for the Christians in Eskibahçe, who have their “Ottoman” identity stripped and, despite speaking Turkish, are declared “Greek” on account of their fluid religious beliefs. Birds Without Wings is marketed as a tragic love story between two characters, pretty Philothei (a Christian) and her devoted goatherd Ibrahim (a Muslim), but this is a deeply misleading characterization since their symbiosis is more symbolic of the town itself than a particularly strong plot.

I did not like Birds Without Wings. Ordinarily I would wait to put this opinion near the end of the post, but I want to put it nearer the front because the multitude of my complaints, ranging from the picayune to the overarching, the stylistic to the structural informs everything I am going to say. I actually found myself disliking the novel quite early on, despite its topic and setting being ones that I tend to gravitate toward, but kept reading less to see what would happen so much as to give it a fair shake. I want to do the same in this review.

The sleepy little town of Eskibahçe is Ottoman through and through, with a good lord, Christians living alongside Muslims, gendarmes who play backgammon, and a common agreement that they are all Ottomans. There are antagonisms between the two groups, but also friendships, including between the Priest and the Imam–it is even expected that a woman will adopt her husband’s religion at the time of marriage. As the book unfolds, the events of the wider world, largely recounted with a focus on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, slowly closing in and constricting life in Eskibahçe.

Birds Without Wings is a book with a myriad of small plots in order to give a panorama of the small town, picking up the threads at various points, but without continuously telling any of them. In order to do this, the chapters are told from a large number of viewpoints at many different points in time; the only repeated viewpoint that changes with the passage of time is that of Philothei. However, this technique is where my issues with structure started. It is not just that there are a variety of narrators and viewpoints, but rather that these are highly inconsistent, such that only some of them are actually told from point of view characters, while others are given as though in an interview with an unheard interlocutors, and others still are narrated by an unspecified, untimed, omnipotent narrator who frequently drops in strange, highly-opinionated comments. For instance:

The French are just setting into motion a petulant foreign policy which has remained steadfastly unchanged ever since, and whose sole object is to obstruct and irritate the Anglo-Saxon world as much as possible, even when that is against French interests.

This is just one example that I actually wrote down. Another memorable instance compared food Mustafa Kemal ate to that of a British boarding school, except without having anything else in the story offer a frame of reference for such a comment. Perhaps the year is 2004 and this omnipotent narrator is the author, but, mostly, these interjections were jarringly out of place.

Some of the characters in Birds Without Wings were compelling enough, and this carried over into some of the plots, including the relationship between the landlord Rustem Bey and his mistress Layla Hanim, the friendships between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, Ayse and Polyxeni, and Ayse and her husband, the Imam, Abdulhamid. These little relationships, sometimes tainted by nostalgia, envy, or fondness, are the strength of Birds Without Wings. Note that I do not include anything about Philothei, the only narrator who changes, in this list. She is presented as a beautiful baby, girl, and woman, but basically a non-entity and therefore an entirely uninteresting metaphor for the town as a whole, which is a stand-in for the humanitarian disaster throughout the Aegean.

To make matters worse, I found the novel sort of stilted and overwritten. Some of this is affect, being winding, repetitive, and open-ended in the way oral stories and reminiscences can be and for that I can only express personal preference. However, the writing was also verbose and ran particularly toward big words–not a crime in and of itself, but liberally sprinkled, seemingly without purpose. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the words are meant to be archaic and obscure so as to highlight the rural setting, but it seemed to me more likely that the words fit instead with odd authorial choices such as the opinions and similes discussed above that are just out of place.

Another reader might be more sympathetic to Birds Without Wings, but I found little to like and a lot to loathe in this supremely disappointing novel.

Next up is Victor Serge’s Conquered City, which is a narrative account of the Red Army’s conquest of St. Petersburg in 1919.