Monday, January 24, 2005


The Cat: “She was licking/The opened tin/For hours and hours/without realising/ that she was drinking/her own blood.” This poem, written by Spyros Kyriazopoulos, opens Louis De Bernieres’ latest offering, Birds Without Wings. In contrast to the relative light-heartedness of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which saw De Bernieres receive the criticism of old Greek resistance fighters who did not enjoy being represented as incompetent and ineffectual, Birds Without Wings deals with heavier, more tragic material – the final traumatic act in the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire with its “salade macedoine” mix of ethnicities and religions and its replacement with a bland, homogenous nationalistic potato salad, shorn of the romanticism of wonder and of the Other.
The nostalgia for the exotic time of the Pashas and Beys is well documented in English literature, prompting Lawrence Durrell to write The Alexandria Quartet of 1957-60, in which a brilliant and overdue Levantine society worked out its destiny in prose as honeyed and indigestible as Oriental confectionery. De Bernieres however, chose to view the destruction of the Ottoman Empire through the lives of the people of Eskibahce, on the ancient Lycian coast, now just another ghost town on Turkey's southern shore but once a place where Christians and Muslims lived in friendly intimacy, illiterate in both Greek and Turkish, and more alike than they knew. A beautiful Christian girl makes veiling all the rage, while the village mullah halts the stoning of an adulteress by appealing not merely to Islamic but to the doctrines of Jesus, son of Mary. It is a place that is supranatural, capricious, sentimental, superstitious, good-hearted and brutal in the extreme.
In place of a single complex life story or family narrative, De Bernieres introduces and sets in motion a mob of characters restricted, necessarily as in Dickens, to a single salient characteristic. There is the beautiful Philothei, a Greek girl betrothed since infancy to Ibrahim the Goatherd; two boys who play at birds nicknamed Karatavuk (Blackbird) and Mehmetcik (Robin); Father Christoforos with his religious doubts and Abdulhamid Hodja with his beloved mare; the greasy Greek schoolteacher who is a social misfit and stays up all night corresponding with irredentist secret societies; the landlord Rustem Aga, who locks his unfaithful wife in a brothel and his Circassian mistress who is actually a professional harem girl from Corfu; and Ibrahim the Potter, who has a talent for such leaden aphorisms as “If the cat's in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens.”
In Eskibahce, the boundaries between Christian and Muslim are ill-defined, the fringes melding into an uneasy whole through superstition, shared customs and the fatalism that has hitherto ensured that each person has known their place within society and has not challenged it for centuries. Bernieres challenges typical Balkan myths of definable nationalism. The Christians of Eskibahce, save Father Christoforos do not speak Greek, though they write Turkish in Greek letters and are more at home with their Turkish neighbours than with their eccentric Smyrna-educated teacher who despairs of inflaming them with the zeal he feels for the ancients and with the hatred he feels for the Turks. For the Christians of Eskibahce, identity has to do with their surroundings, the trees, the mysterious Lycian ruins that dot the landscape and age-old friendships. The fabric of pre-Kemalist society is convincingly portrayed by a master story-teller. If you have ever had the privilege of speaking to a survivor of the 1922 massacres, you would note that their narrative has more lyricism and exoticism through the fractious symbiosis of cultures and less nationalism and “labels” than we would expect. How fractious and superficial, fragile and subject to the depravities of the age this simple society actually is, will be seen at the ease in which people who have hitherto been respected, such as the Armenian tooth-puller, are denigrated and finally expelled, though in Bernieres’ version of the Catastrophe, evil usually comes from the outside, while the inhabitants, “birds without wings,” are powerless to avoid it.
As he tells their stories with remarkable wit and lyricism, De Bernieres interleaves a biography of Mustafa Kemal, ‘founder’ of ‘modern’ Turkey. This introduces a 19th-century solemnity which jars with the genre scenes in Eskibahce, and seems to be a throwback to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where a similar device is employed to describe Napoleon. As the novel develops, the chapters on Kemal become darker and more ominous. Interestingly enough, Philothei’s birth at the dawn of the new century is juxtaposed with Kemal’s nine years earlier. In one section, he is actually referred to as “Destiny’s Child.” Give us Beyonce any day.
As the old order begins to disintegrate, the Muslim boys of the town are called up to do their religious duty and fight for the Sultan. They are surprised to find they are fighting one set of infidels (Australian Franks, British Franks, even French Franks) while allied with another set of infidels (German Franks). Mehmetcik, who despite his name is a Christian, is shipped off to a labour battalion. The Armenians are told to collect their belongings and, in a scene kept scrupulously free of hindsight, marched out of the town.
Karatavuk finds himself at Gallipoli. De Bernieres’ masterly pen recreates the battlefield as he fights his way through the Allied invasion and defeat. The story winds its way through the Greek liberation of the Asia Minor, the Turkish defence under Ataturk, the mass departure behind their icons of the Christians from Eskibahce to mainland Greece, and the burning of the Christian quarters of Smyrna, as told by the foul-mouthed corpse of a drowned Greek merchant who denounces the Greek and Allied leaders as he sinks to the floor of Smyrna harbour.
For De Bernieres, “history is nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas". His historical bugbears are religious absolutism and "the devilish false idols of nationalism”. Yet in the saintly village mullah, Abdulhamid Hodja or Karatavuk and his comrades at Gallipoli, De Bernieres the novelist shows that religion and patriotism can also produce acts of heroism and generosity. Those sections are a reminder that a book doesn't have to have complex characterisation to convey the less obvious truths of life.
There will be those who will seek to impose their own definitions on the events described in the book. While western critics dispassionately compare Birds Without Wings to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and discuss technique (by the way, Drosoula, Mandras’ mother who curses him in Corelli, appears in Birds, cursing a murderer, providing interesting linkage) I found it tugging at my heartstrings as I compared it to the accounts of the lost Paradise my grandfather described to me, fleeing the mania of the chetes of Aydin as an eleven year old boy. Bernieres’ rendition of the humanitarian disaster that was the cleansing of Anatolia, is exactly what he pre-empts in his provision of Kyriazopoulos’ poem – an attempt to finally dress a festering wound that we have been licking for decades and which, until it heals, will continue to inflict pain upon our souls.


First published in NKEE on 24 January 2005