God, this is horrific. If you’re looking for a sweet but deep sequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is what the bloke in our book club thought he was giving us, this is way out of your depth.
This is Turkey before, during and after WWI, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t voluntarily read war stories, but this was for book club and having been brought up on the glorious allies, I was interested to read the perspective of the other side’s glorious allies. But I was sickened by the brutality and inhumanity in this story. De Bernières writes with such clarity and perception there are images painted in my head I will never wipe clean.
Of course, nothing to do with the war was glorious. Not at all. Why is it so hard to avoid this stuff? Why are so many brilliant novels about such savagery?
Birds without wings is centered around a Turkish village called Eskibahçe, a kind of microcosm for the wider world. The characters are a mixed bag racially, culturally, economically, linguistically. They’re an amusing bunch and rub along very well at the start. A beautiful Christian girl is betrothed to a Muslim goatherd, women ask blessings across the religious divide, mixed boys are best friends and everyone unites against the Armenians. But, like the wider world, there are horrible tensions underneath. These charming characters stone an adulteress to near death on her husband’s instigation, and a man forces his son to murder his pregnant sister because that is their law but he cannot do it himself. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has whole chapters where he describes his catalogue of horrors. This is a start of a long plunge to the bottom.
I learned about the other side’s war. It was as extreme as the allies’ war. De Bernières is graphic and grotesque in his vignettes. He has imagined such cruelty, such sickness in the minds of men that I wonder, why does he write this? Why do we read it? Do we not classify this as gratuitous because it is literature, because it comes from de Bernières?
I felt compromised, reading some of the horrible sections of this book. I would have closed it smartly if someone had looked over my shoulder at the page. He is such an accomplished author the characters feel real and it seems voyeuristic to watch them inflict such damage on the “others”.
The terribly sad thing is that the “others” brutalised in this story have been friends lived alongside, or women loved, or random people of a different religion, or unknown people from the other side of the world. Violence, de Bernières seems to tell us, is universal and ubiquitous.
There is a very strong argument for “lest we forget”, in the writing of such things, so evocatively. Does this novel persuade us that never again should we go there? Or is there something in the violence that gives us a thrill?
I was reading this litany of senseless violence and wondering how its portrayal benefited anyone when, in Christchurch on 15th March, a gunman opened fire in a mosque during Friday prayer. He killed fifty people and maimed a nation in an ignorant act of violence against perceived “others” which exploded like a bomb in peaceful New Zealand.
I don’t imagine for a moment the gunman has read de Bernières. The question I am left with is: would it have helped?