Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Birds without Wings Louis de Bernières


Louis de Bernières’ Birds without Wings is a big book. It deals with big topics – war, genocide, religious tolerance or the lack thereof – and, in time-honoured tradition, is thus lengthy (Tolstoy is one of his favourite authors).

Having attempted to scale one of his earlier novels, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, only to fail miserably, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to be drawn almost instantaneously, and easily, into de Bernières imaginary town of Eskibahce in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.

With a confident tone, essential for an English writer who has written, virtually exclusively, novels set in non-Anglophone cultures, we’re presented with an extensive line up of characters, given handy short-hand titles such as Lydia the Barren, or Ali the Snowbringer, living in a fractious harmony together. That is to say that they argue and fight amongst each other as only the inhabitants of a small town can do, but that their conflicts arise from local matters and circumstances rather than ethnic or religious questions – as is pointedly illustrated in one episode where a Moslem character driven demented by toothache attacks a Christian. At the same time we have short chapters devoted to Mustafa Kemal, the future creator of a modern, 'secular’ Turkey, filled with historical detail (which will no doubt be debated in full by de Bernières detractors) which propel the reader through the first half of the book with a sense of foreboding and tension. Finally, within the opening chapter, we’re given the account of a murder that the unfolding book will endeavour to explain. All strong opening gambits to draw a reader in.

Convinced by his opening strengths, the reader will no doubt make his/her way through the 95 chapters, plus 6 of the epilogue but at a certain point (for this reviewer it became evident in chapter 77), the journey, in all likelihood, will take on the characteristics of an onerous task. The increasingly frequent juxtapositions of dry, detail laden chapters on Mustafa Kemal threatens to tip over the balance of the book. A problem that de Bernières himself seems aware of, as he admitted in interview: “It has more substance and more ambition [than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin]. What slightly worries me is that the sections about Mustafa Attaturk. They slightly unbalance the narrative. I wanted them in there so people could follow the course of the history if they actually wanted to. They can always skip those bits if they don’t like them.”

It brings to mind comments from Lionel Shriver, speaking about sexism in publishing, when she said: “men are supposed to cop the big literary prizes (one of the reasons the Orange came into being), and to take on the Big Subjects. They’re also supposed to write the Big Books—physically big. If I turn in a 1,000-page manuscript, my agent will turn purple. If I’m David Foster Wallace, or Jonathan Franzen, I’d get ‘oh spectacular, your magnum opus, we’ll make a fortune and win the Pulitzer’”. For a writer confident enough to approach big questions and foreign cultures, it’s a shame that this confidence doesn’t extend to cutting back on excess material.

The problem, in part, is ideological in nature. This is, as the dust-jacket proudly proclaims an “epic and profoundly humane” novel. And so, we have a plot where de Bernières is unwilling to skip on characters or detail, and is unwilling to finish (as demonstrated by the 6 chapters of epilogue) until the message – that the monstrous events in history come from above, with the pursuit of the big ideas – has been conveyed, again, and again. One could suggest that that’s the response of an uncommitted reader, that history and stories are complex, interweaving, and at times necessarily lengthy and dull. Fair point. One could respond with a quote from Tolstoy: “Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible”.

And in fact, when de Bernières is dealing with particular characters, such as Rustam Bey, the town’s Aga, or his concubine Leyla Hanim, the paradoxes and tragedies of the period come to life astoundingly. De Bernières is a fine, fine dramatist, when not fighting his own inclinations.

There is much to recommend the book, or at least the 70 or so chapters that would have remained had de Bernières or his editors performed some vital artistic pruning, from the creation of vivid and complex characters, through to a courageous re-evaluation of the Ottoman empire and the slaughters that occurred during the first world war. In the hands of a lesser writer, Birds without Wings would have been a disaster. It’s a testament to de Bernières talents that he almost manages to pull it off. Almost. One hopes that the next time around, though, this immensely talented writer will not abdicate his authorial responsibility, padding his books with material that may, or may not, contribute to the story.

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