Birds Without Wings – H3a Reading Group Review

Birds Without Wings
by Louis de Bernieres

As the book begins with a dedication to  Louis de Bernieres’ maternal grandfather I will start from there.  As I am not a historian I cannot comment on the accuracy of the information given, particularly about Ataturk.  During our discussion on 27 October 20l0 we agreed that we were not sure about the accuracy of the sequence of events as Mr Bernieres did not reveal his source for historical information.  There were also no footnotes to help with unkown words.  It seems that the writer is in the habit of inventing new words.

I am sure we have all been to villages similar to those in Lancashire in northwest England in particular where you can read on the village epitaph of young men who fell at Gallipoli in the Great War of l9l4-l9l8 or can perhaps remember neighbours who had fought there.  And what about  the Australians and New Zealanders – the grandchildren of whom you can see wandering  around Çannakkale almost l00 years later.  What a waste of young life!

On the other side of the trenches young men like Karatavuk or Fikret, the rough stevedore from İstanbul, whose key phrase went something literally like this, “I am from Pera and I don’t give a shit!”  These boys defending their home and country!  Innocent individuals caught up in a war which saw the injury, maiming and death of a combined half a million young lives.

There were quite a few things that touched me when reading the book.  We are living in Turkey approximately a hundred years after the events took place.  About two years ago we visited the village of Kaya Köy which may have been the village where our story takes  place.  Where were our characters in Birds Without Wings?  Now there is only silence, empty shells of houses.  What happened to all those people!  I have to comment on the fact that as we were walking through one of the churches the most beautiful  turquoise blue bird flew through the church only to be seen later on the roof.  Did it  mean something?

There would have been many such villages or small towns along the Aegean where the population was made up of Christians, (Armenians, Greeks and, in some places, Jews), as well as Turks.  They were in fact Ottomans everyone having their place in society.  These people may have been living together for centuries tolerating each others differences.  Louis de Bernieres does well with his characterisation enlightening us about their lives.  Perhaps it makes the bitter reality of the subsequent events more easy to palate although difficult to read.  What or who was to blame?  The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, the expansion of the Russian empire, the allies, Germany. nationalism or the rise of nationalism and the end of multi-ethnic empires.

ON REFLECTION

Having lived in a similar village (Adatepe which is situated in the northern Aegean) in 2000, I found something missing.  Our village seemed to have only a partial history.  When you look around the village which has become popular again, you can see stone houses, some Turkish some Greek, a han, the remains of a Turkish bath, coffee houses and olive groves.  There is a mosque dating back hundreds of years .  We also had a church in the square which was demolished, the stones used in the construction of a primary school which was later abandoned when there weren’t enough children in the village.  The school is now used as a summer school for adults where  they have courses throughout the summer.  In its hey-day there had been more than 500 houses in the village.

What had happened  to our village?  The Greeks who had spoken Turkish were deported to Greece in l922-23 and with the exchange of populations the Turks who spoke Greek came to live in the region.  They preferred to live by the sea shore, and our village slowly slid into decline until it was rediscovered ironically by a few Italians, French and Germans followed by Istanbullites.  When we began to live with the villagers we learned that almost everyone had a pet name and we listened to stories about treasure hunters and buried treasure.  It was said that a bag of gold coins had been found underneath one of the old Greek houses, people who had been hidden by the locals including the young girl who hid in the well later to be married and assimilated.

In conclusion I feel that Birds Without Wings shows us in colourful detail about the people who made up the village of Eskibahçe and that people co-existed for hundreds of years before the birth of nationalism and religious intolerence.

Camille Şahin
November 20l0

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