Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Why I read it: One of the GoodReads groups I am in, The World's Literature, is focusing on literature from and about Turkey this year. Birds Without Wings was one of the February picks.
This is an incredibly well-executed novel. The author tells the story of Turkey in the early 20th century, from its development from the Ottoman Empire or Anatolia, into a time where the people living there embraced the word Turk, Turkish, Turkey (prior to that change, it had been a pretty derogatory term.) This is the second book I've read this year to include Mustafa Kemal, but while the other book focused on his violent acts from an outsider perspective, Birds Without Wings entwines his story from youth to Atatürk, and explains his pivotal role in where the country is now. It is done rather without judgment, just the facts. Well, I'm not sure. The Armenians are removed and the Christians are removed and the violence surrounding it is implied but not focused on.
The core of the story isn't Mustafa Kemal, however. It focuses on the people living in a small village where people speak Turkish written in a Greek alphabet, where friendships cross religious and ethnic lines, but war and governmental change creates conflict in all those areas. It is a sad but true transformation from tolerance to division. The story is told from multiple perspectives, from Iskander the Potter to the mistress of the wealthiest man in town. The writing is dense, filled with local color, and goes by quickly with the changing perspectives.
The author's opinion is clear throughout the novel, mourning the past where different people could live together in the days of the Ottoman Empire. This quotation sums up a great deal of the tone of the book:
"It was said in those days one could hear seventy languages in the streets of Istanbul. The vast Ottoman Empire, shrunken and weakened though it now was, had made it normal and natural for Greeks to inhabit Egypt, Persians to settle in Arabia and Albanians to live with Slavs. Christians and Muslims of all sects, Alevis, Zoroastrians, Jews, worshipers of the Peacock Angel, subsisted side by side and in the most improbable places and combinations. There were Muslim Greeks, Catholic Armenians, Arab Christians and Serbian Jews. Istanbul was the hub of this broken-felloed wheel, and there could be found epitomised the fantastical bedlam and babel, which, although no one realised it at the time, was destined to be the model and precursor of all the world's great metropoles a hundred years hence, by which Istanbul would, paradoxically, have lost its cosmopolitan brilliance entirely. It would be destined, perhaps, one day to find it again, if only the devilish false idols of nationalism, that specious patriotism of the morally stunted, might finally be toppled in the century to come."
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