A Review of Birds without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres

Imagine a community where people of different races and religions live side-by-side in relative peace, where social units are constructed organically from diverse roots and the local clerics playfully tease each other as “infidels” as a sign of friendship. This is the kind of place Louis de Bernieres depicts in his novel Birds without Wings, which is set at the turn of the 20th century in a town called Eskibahce in southwestern modern-day Turkey, then a part of the waning Ottoman Empire.

The story begins with the prologue of Iskander the Potter, who makes clay bird whistles for his son Abdul and his friend Nico, each of whom eventually assumes a nickname for the kind of bird song his whistle makes—Karatavuk and Mehmetcik (black bird and red robin), respectively. These two boys have different faiths and traditions, but, like the rest of the town, they form bonds that transcend these would-be divisions.

Like all small towns Eskibahce is filled with gossip and intrigue, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. There is no such thing as anonymity. Traditions are kept but they are quietly relaxed when common sense suggests it: Father Christophoros, the Greek Orthodox pastor, allows his wife to sit and eat with him rather than stand behind him and wait for him to finish, and the Muslims frequently ask their Christian neighbors to go into the church and light a candle in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary on behalf of one of their needs. The Muslims look forward to the Christian feast days and are delighted by the drinking and dancing which accompany these occasions. There is no Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Eskibahce. Intermarrying between the religions is even allowed. Customarily the bride would take the husband’s faith, though she was still allowed to practice her original religion privately if she wished. This is anything but the smug certainty that often permeates religious and ideological discourse.

Another hallmark of health is in the tolerance of the locals for eccentricity. It was either Richard Weaver or H.L. Mencken who commented that the modern mindset has no room for personality; anyone who does not fit into a mold is eschewed and somehow treated as less than human. But in Eskibahce, there are all kinds of crazies who are not only tolerated but also perhaps even loved because of their unusualness. Even “The Blasphemer,” as angry as he makes the local clergy, is allowed to yell his insults without penalty. In the hills above the town, there also dwells a homeless man known only as “the Dog.” With a frightful appearance which resulted in part from having his lips and tongue burned away by a hot iron, he cannot speak, and yet he is allowed to “trespass” amongst the graves (he would be arrested these days), and the townsfolk bring him alms for his sustenance.

Perhaps the most colorful character of the book is the local landlord, Rustem Bey. He’s the kind of guy you’re supposed to hate—the local capitalist who lives off the rent of his tenants. In spite of his relative wealth, however, he hardly has the imperious demeanor of an archbishop or a congressman. In fact, the locals, who, on their own, consider him a de-facto leader of the community, esteem him. Somewhat status-obsessed, he worries about appearing a fool in his countryside get-up, which includes a fez and two revolvers tucked into his belt.

It isn’t all paradise, though. Rustem Bey catches his wife, Tamara, sleeping with another man. Rustem Bey murders him, and takes Tamara to the town square to be stoned to death, which is the punishment for adultery according to Islamic law. The local imam, Abdulhamid Hodja, however, interrupts this orgy of righteousness and asks where the required four witnesses to the crime are. He has the disgraced wife, now gravely wounded, taken to his house—to be cared for mostly by his own wife, of course. Interesting in this and other episodes is the absence of any effective police force; the gendarmes are constantly in the town square playing backgammon (they didn’t have Dunkin Donuts yet), but the imam is capable, by virtue of his own authority, to tamp down the rabble, which includes some Christians who illicitly joined in the stoning.  Eventually Tamara recovers, but the stigma of her sin damns her to live out her days in the local brothel—run by a transsexual woman, no less—where she gives birth to several babies terminally ill with venereal diseases. She herself wastes away in the dim light of the house of hedonism, never actually having been divorced by her husband.

Rustem Bey, in the wake of this episode, leads a caravan to Smyrna and Istanbul in search of a new companion and brings back a mistress, Leyla Hanim, who he believes to be Circassian but who is actually Greek. Nevertheless, they live many years together happily with Leyla’s cat, Pamuk.

Still another girl is ordered to be shot in an “honor killing” when she is caught in flagrante delicta. Her father orders his second son to do the deed, who, having carried out the task, angrily washes his hands of the sin and heads for the hills, where he completes his life as an outlaw. One is tempted to stand in judgment, but similar servings of “justice” have been dished out in the West, too, and not as far into the past as we’d often like to think.

One crucial difference between the two religious communities of Eskibahce is in education. Abdulhamid Hodja—genteel, erudite, and devout—nonetheless educates the Muslim children only in reciting the first portion of the Koran in Arabic. There is no concern for their understanding the content, only for memorization. Reading, writing, and math are not undertaken. The Christians, however, learn to read and write. It is not the finest education but it goes some way in making a student self-sufficient. Karatavuk, seeing that his friend Mehmetcik can write, begs him to teach him, and so he is probably the only Muslim kid in the town who can do this—in the highly unusual scheme of the Turkish language written with Greek letters.

So here you have it, Eskibahce, a small place not without faults but relatively peaceful and with lots of colorful characters in it. Louis de Berniernes depicts a place that is relatively happy, a place I confess I wouldn’t mind living, honor killings aside. But while this small town is minding its own business, the bowels of the Orbis Terrarum are rumbling in the lead-up to the “Great War.” One little clue of this comes from the midnight oil that glows through the window shades at the home of Leonidas, the local teacher of the Christians. It was in the small hours of the morning that he would write his tracts, agitating for a restoration of the vast old Greek empire. Of this firebrand, de Bernieres writes: “He was possessed by beautiful visions of Constantinople restored to its place as capital of the Greek world, and, like all who have such beautiful visions, his were predicated on the absolute belief that his own people and his own religion and his own way of life were superior to others, and should therefore have their way. Such people, even as insignificant as Leonidas, are the motor of history, which is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas.” Indeed, Leonidas comes to demonstrate that the line between a do-gooder and an evil-doer is very thin.

Gradually the pains of conflict and war make themselves felt even in quiet little places like Eskibahce. When the Armenians are sent on their death marches, the town loses a significant portion of its neighbors, including the local apothecary, with whom everyone got along. Incidentally, government bureaucrats determined racial classifications; one’s self-conception mattered not a wit, nor were interpersonal relationships respected. By means such as this organic communities are destroyed, leaving fewer and fewer protective barriers between each individual person and the nation-state.

Along with conflict comes the great sin of nationalism. The Ottoman Empire crumbles, leaving the contingents of various nationalities free to hate each other. The Patriarch in Constantinople declares the Orthodox to be “Greek” rather than Ottoman; the Greeks sharpen their swords in pursuit of the Golden Age of the Hellenic Empire; and various political power struggles in Istanbul revolve around the idea of Turkish nationalism, creating a cauldron of human stupidity that, interestingly, only the aforementioned “Dog” can emerge relatively unscathed, but only because he lived in caves like an animal. Maybe he wasn’t the animal, after all.

The author takes us to the front in World War I and doesn’t bother with glorifying it. One can be sure that de Berniernes will not be called upon to write recruitment commercials for the Army any time soon. Death, brutality, and disease—these are all described honestly. Strangely, though, the troops on opposing sides come to a kind of understanding. They cease to hate each other and only continue fighting because they are under orders to do so. Also astutely discussed are the economic perils of war. It is a beloved myth, at least in America, that war is good for the economy. The author shows us what a lie this is when he depicts a beautiful little town plunged into poverty not least because it has been deprived of its most capable workers, who’ve been conscripted to join the fight.

On this topic, an interesting note. Leonidas’s father, when he finds out the kind of bellicose intellectual company his son keeps, gives a white-hot lecture that echoes some of the more astute observations of certain economists:

“I’ll tell you something, my son. I’d have more respect for Alexander and you and your friends if you were bright enough to understand that it’s money and enterprise and brains that make the world turn around. All these military campaigns, and revolutions, and conspiracies, and talk about racial this and racial that…What do they bring? Bloodshed and disaster. If you want to be any use in the world, put money in your pocket.”

Ludwig von Mises couldn’t have said it better.

Not even the end of the “Great War” could signal a new quiet for Eskibahce, though. Greece, with its unquenchable thirst for territory she hadn’t possessed in centuries, after getting permission from English Prime Minister Lloyd George to occupy part of Western Turkey, tries to launch a full-scale war to retake the land. This fire is put out, but eventually it is agreed that all Greeks should live in Greece, and all Turks should live in Turkey. The government bureaucrats show up again to announce that many people will be forcibly removed from their homes. Caught in a bind in this is the beautiful girl Philothei, a Christian who had more or less been betrothed to the Muslim Ibrahim since early childhood. She visits Ibrahim, recently returned from the war front, to decide what to do, and a tragedy ensues that leaves Ibrahim tetched for the rest of his life. Meanwhile Father Christophoros leads the “Greeks” out of Eskibahce, carrying the beloved icon of the Virgin Mary while imploring the mercy of God. At this moment, his faith wavers, and like many characters in this story, he grapples with agnosticism in the wake of the horrors he has lived through. In this caravan is one character who, in her secret Greek ancestry, had come to be a living manifestation of the unity in this town that flourished between peoples from different sides of one of humanity’s most infamous political fault lines.

In place of the departed Christians come Muslims from Crete, who bring their own cheerful customs that the natives enjoy. But the town isn’t the same anymore. By this time Abdulhamid Hodja had died, and the new imam comes into town enacting fundamentalist changes and taking all the joy out of life. On many of his actions there is mixed reaction, but indignation is fairly universal when he destroys the Christian wine in the town with all the ferocity of a Baptist preacher.  The natives notice that Eskibahce lacks its former hilaritas, and after awhile even the Cretes get ground down into the dust of a newfound Puritanism.

Sometime after the Christians left, Mehmetcik, who had become an outlaw, returns to see his family but only finds strangers living in his home. Among the graves above town, having heard the call of a blackbird there, he meets his friend Karatavuk, to whom he explains that he is the infamous outlaw Red Wolf. By this time the townspeople had caught wind of his presence and were coming up the hill, rifles in hand. Karatavuk trades shirts with him and acts as a decoy so that his friend can escape, but not without price. Not recognizing him, Karatavuk’s own father, Iskander the Potter, shoots him in the arm.

Such an accident ends up, in its way, being providential. Because he can no longer use both hands, Karatavuk becomes the town’s letter writer rather than the new potter, writing Turkish with Roman letters as the new president, Kemal Ataturk, desired. In a certain sense here, things have come full circle. The young Muslim boy who, dissatisfied with memorizing things in a language he could not understand, and who forces his Christian friend to teach him to write, unexpectedly in adulthood becomes the town writer, and does it while living in the former home of the nitwitted Greek nationalist Leonidas. From his desk, in an unsent letter to his old fugitive friend, Karatavuk laments that we are all birds without wings, that we are stuck here on earth, and that because we are stuck, we are made to endure to unimaginable horrors.

It would be a depressing end to a beautifully written book were it not for this very important fact: Karatavuk’s utter dejection in the wake of the horrors of war is the necessary soil in which the virtues of peace, love and tolerance can once again take root. In his sorrow there is hope that future generations can learn to avoid the Big Ideas—converting the heathen and making the world safe for democracy, for instance—that constantly get mankind into trouble. The question is: What will it take for this lesson to be learned once and for all, so that no more communities are destroyed, no more forced exiles ensue, and no more innocent blood is spilled as the price of false certainty?