Birds Without Wings

by Louis De Bernieres
ISBN: 0676976948

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A Review of: Birds Without Wings
by Michael Harris

When the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin sat down one wintry eve to enumerate the properties of novelistic prose, he named polyphony as a core element. The crush of a hundred voices, confounding each other, supporting each other, filling in gaps and carving out fresh mysteries-this is what we demand of a good, meaty novel. And Louis de Bernires' latest offering, Birds Without Wings, fits the bill handsomely. A hundred voices, at least.
Christian Greeks, Muslim Turks, Armenians and Jews make up the chorus, happily coexisting under the Ottoman empire's millet system, wherein religious liberty was guaranteed. Guaranteed, that is, unless a World War were to break out.
The inhabitants of Eskibahe, a folksy town in early twentieth century Anatolia, have no cares for such worldly worries as the novel opens. Men play endless games of backgammon at cafes, children terrorize each other in the countryside, and the only leader among them-the wealthy landlord Rustem Bay-is so distracted by the confusions of his love life that his tenants enjoy a relative anarchy, bending scripture and mythology to their own (sometimes cruel) whims.
De Bernires interweaves an early biography of Turkish general and statesman Mustafa Kemal (later President Kemal Atatrk) with the stories of the townsfolk he's invented, to an intriguing effect. He has a habit of holding global politics and drawing room intimacy in the same hand-and he holds them fast. As in the case of Tamara, Rustem Bay's arranged wife, who is forced into prostitution when discovered in the arms of the man she truly loves:

"Tamara weeps silently as she cradles in her arms the hundred-fathered syphilitic child to which she has just given birth. The disease has ravaged the empire ever since the introduction of compulsory military service, and the child is white-faced and distorted."

By the novel's halfway point, Rustem Bay complains of "a terrible wavering in my soul" and the reader may wish he'd been stricken with something worse than wavering-say, syphilis. But justice does not come easy in this mayhem. De Bernires unfolds his narrative both impassively and movingly-stony but boiling, like the face of a mother moved beyond grief.
The critic Bakhtin also referred to novelistic polyphony as "dialogism", which lends an important shade of meaning: myriad voices, if held in a dialogue, will not run invisibly in tandem. Indeed, they may exchange blows in the best prose. These frictions of tone, character, and motive, create the combustions that keep us reading.
There are classic novelists who revel in dialogism (Charles Dickens, Fay Weldon) and there are modern examples, too-A.S. Byatt's Possession is a stew pot extravaganza of voices, hotly competing for rank; and any of de Bernires' novels are equally complex. Actions and circumstance are allowed to be good or evil-but humans play host to the twin voices of Bakhtin's dialogism.
Rustem Bay, having cruelly discharged (and nearly murdered) his wife, catches the next camel to Istanbul in search of a beautiful mistress. "It is said that in those days one could hear seventy languages in the streets"; we learn this, ever mindful of the crowded intermingling throughout Turkey that preceded the first World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He purchases, after some ugly haggling, a Circassian Mistress, Leyla, whose real name is Ionna and whose real background is Greek. Straddled with more lies than can be healthy, Rustem Bay returns to Eskibahe, "Leyla" in tow, herself toting a vial of animal blood which, inserted at the right moment, will simulate the very fine membrane called Honour.
Somewhat akin to Paris Hilton taking up residence in small-town America, Leyla descends from cosmopolitan Istanbul to Rustem Bay's hometown with a resigned grace. She enlists the beautiful child Philothei, daughter of Polyxeni, as a servant. "I would like a girl who is very pretty and young. I need someone who is pretty, otherwise my eyes will be in a bad mood all the time."
Rustem Bay consents and now has two outrageous beauties stalking his vast manor. Philothei, whose eyes are "dark as well water" is blessed (or cursed) with beauty surpassing all precedent. She is a force of nature. Upon her arrival on this shabby planet, the ethereal Philothei ("beloved by God" as her name suggests) becomes the wonder of the townspeople, who proceed to jabber on about her inestimable charms for the next 600 pages.
But the courtesan Leyla knows a deeper truth about beauty: "It's a kind of loneliness that you never escape, but if you don't want anyone to know you, to know you as you really are, then beauty is the perfect protection."
Philothei's best friend is ugly beyond redemption, but bumbles faithfully alongside her godlike peer. Drosula is her name, a lovely bit of onomatopoeia. "Beauty is precious," says Drosula as an old woman, reflecting on past events. "And the more precious something is, the more it hurts us that it will fade away, and the more we are hurt by beauty, the more we love the world; and the more we love it, the more we are saddened that it is like finely powdered salt that runs away through the fingers." Drosula being ugly; her body will never teach ardent young men the tortures of fate.
But she has time to philosophize, as do all who are pardoned from beauty's draft.
Beauty and war are the two great reckoners in Birds Without Wings. As the Gallipoli campaign edges toward its disastrous conclusion, Karatavuk (a too-young boy from Eskibahe) writes his worrying mother: "I kiss your hands, and I carry your face in my heart." But, later, "I will say that if there is no God, then everything is inexplicable, and that would be very hard for us, but if there is God, then He is not good."
As Drosula avoids the perils of beauty, Karatavuk's father avoids the call to war. This is Iskander the Potter, a simple man who helps to open and close the sprawling tome. A man in love with the easy logic of epigrams, he means to deal in harder stuff than words.
"Every birth entails a death," Iskander the Potter simply notes when the beautiful Philothei is born.
And his shrug of a comment balloons from there, arriving ultimately at a profound judgment on the vanity of any concrete history. All land is stolen land, the reader learns. And as for religion: "the first casualties of a religion's establishment are the intentions of its founder." Fatalism, that snake with a mouthful of its own tale, permeates de Bernires' novel.
Is there any redemption? Nothing so grand. Consolation, perhaps, in the beauty of the work itself.
His eighteenth century style, where everything is laced with an old-fashioned, Walter Scott essence, can make the narrative gilded as a fairy tale. No Hemingway dry bones for this one. "I like to sort of wallow," de Bernires told Margaret Reynolds in a 2001 interview. That prodigious detailing (whether the result of exhaustive research or a gifted imagination) fills de Bernires' characters up as fruits fill up their peels-so they brim, burst, with flavour. The wealth of sentiment he provides can leave one staring out windows, suddenly in love with strangers.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin, also known in film circles as That Embarrassing Nicholas Cage Vehicle, was one of the finest novels produced in the 1990s. By the same author, Birds Without Wings now emerges as a multi-voiced paean to what Yeats so knowingly dubbed "a terrible beauty."
Yeats' poem, "Easter 1916"", refers to the botched Irish nationalist uprising but might easily play coda to Birds Without Wings and the life of poor Philothei:

"All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."

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