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.

The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Stephen, a Chinese man from Hong Kong, has tuberculosis and so his family has sent him to join his father in Japan to get away from the heat and dampness. From Kobe, he travels to the small, seaside resort town of Tarumi where his grandfather has a cabin. The slow pace of life in the small town is an adjustment from the bustling city, but the mountain air and the sea are healthful. However, while Stephen adjusts to life with the cabin caretaker, Matsu, the world seems to be falling apart outside of his bubble. The year is 1937 and the imperial Japanese army is advancing into southern China.

The Samurai’s Garden fundamentally balances these two contradictory forces. On the one side there is the failing relationship between Stephen’s parents, the horrors of the Japanese campaign in China, and the associated tensions, such as the refugee crisis in Hong Kong, the lack of young men in Tarumi, and the hostility felt by some Japanese against the wealthy Chinese interloper. On the other, there is the tranquility of the garden, the shrine, and how Matsu and his friend Sachi adopt Stephen as though he is their own child.

The entirety of the story unfolds in the course of the more than a year Stephen stays in Tarumi, and the reader only meets his friends, mother and sister through their letters and his memories. Other than brief visits with Stephen’s father, on whom his opinion changes radically, the story mostly focuses on the four Japanese people he meets in Tarumi: the young girl Keiko and four older folks who have a long history together, Matsu the caretaker, Kenzo the owner of the tea house, and Sachi the leper, who they both love. Stephen is the focal point, but his relationship with Matsu and later Sachi is more important than the one with Keiko, which is more closely tied to the broader developments beyond town. There something fleeting about young life, but there is something eternal about Tarumi and the tensions simmering for decades between the older people.

The Samurai’s Garden was deceptively simple at the start, but turned into a deeply contemplative meditation on solitude, companionship, love, and loss. I admit to being a sucker for such stories, and the isolated, seaside, mountain village was a breath of fresh air I longed to visit. At the same time, issues of class, nationality, illness, jealousy, and growing up surround the story, sometimes creeping into the forefront of the narrative, but always silently underpinning its developments. For instance, Matsu is a “strong silent type,” but takes on the role of father, always leading by example and dominating the house he has lived in all these years. Yet, despite being a Japanese man in a Japanese village at the time when the Japanese were conquering China, he is still officially a servant. Stephen doesn’t treat him that way, except in the assumptions he makes.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Samurai’s Garden, but it is an idyllic fantasy. Stephen never wants for anything, with someone else paying for the house and the food, having no deadlines, and never needing to interact with anyone who he doesn’t want to see. He pines to see certain people and suffers physical hardship, but is not forced to grapple with most serious concerns. I legitimately enjoyed the book and it offered deep perspective on issues of loneliness, but I do wonder if part of my fondness grew out of the vision of a beautiful garden where the outside world can only intrude with a rain of white blossoms. There are real problems in the world of The Samurai’s Garden, but the garden is a refuge.

Next up, Louis de Berniéres’ Birds Without Wings, a love story between a Christian woman and a Muslim man in early 20th century Turkey.