Birds Without Wings - Louis de Bernières *******SPOILER ALERT*******

I read this as part of a larger WW1 themed study to get a more focused perspective of the Great War from the point of view of the lives of the people of Eskibahce. I was fully aware that this was a work of historical fiction but my hope was that the author would use this fictional village in the Ottoman Empire and its fictional occupants as a mirror through which I could see the effects the Great War took on the everyday lives of these Ottoman citizens of Muslim, Greek and Armenian background.

Like most other principalities in that region the behemoth that was the Ottoman Empire had its own nationalistic issues and the war seemed only to bring the nationalistic sentiments of these various groups to the forefront, and the village of Eskibahce with its mixed population was not immune.

The book started off by introducing these charming villagers and their peaceful home; the backgammon playing gendarmerie forever stationed in the meydan, the mischievous kids trailing each while living out the unchanging country childhood, women gossiping and going about their daily chores, and men going about their individual labours or gossiping while sipping sweetened tea and smoking tobacco.

There was almost a timeless quality about it all and I enjoyed it on a superficial level but I have to admit I had a hard time in the beginning getting involved in the story, feeling connected and I’m not sure why. The prose was beautiful, the characters were interesting and quirky, the humour was wry and made me laugh out loud a lot of the time, and I appreciated the author’s use of Mustafa Kemal’s life as a timeline. If I were to hazard a guess I’d say its because I didn’t really like any of the adults until the chapters dealing with the Galipoli campaign. Once I hit that part, I couldn’t put the book down. The descriptions of what life was like for these men drew me in. I felt for them and got a tiny glimpse into the hell of trench warfare.

Charming as these people were I thought, mistakenly that I’d see a village perhaps unaffected by the ravages of the war, that maybe these people stood up for their neighbours and that the commonality of being Ottoman with its religious freedoms and other rights would outshine their various petty grievances. But as I got to know these people more, I realized that there were things I just couldn’t get past. An example of this is the enthusiastic participation of the villagers in the stoning of Tamara Hanim. For the most part, I liked the kids and the adults they grew up to be-I think the relationship that I cared for most was that of Karatavuk and Mehmetcik. The former’s friendship with his fellow soldier Fekrit and their back and forth with the Anzac troops are my favourite parts of the story.

On a wider scale, the utter wastefulness of the carnage and brutality of the troops towards the civilians in the name of religion and ethnic superiority had an almost numbing effect –here they go again This paragraph from the book sums up this sentiment :

“In the long years of those wars here were too many who learned how to make their hearts boil with hatred, how to betray their neighbours, how to violate women, how to steal and dispossess, how to call upon God when they did the Devil’s work, how to enrage and embitter themselves, an how to commit outrages even against children. Much of what was done was simply in revenge for identical atrocities..”

The book is filled with lines I could include and I wish I was more so inclined. I can say that my impression of the Armenians, Turks and Greeks was different at the end of reading this as when I started out. At the end of it all, I just ran out of sympathy for these people who seemed to go out of their way to repeat the atrocities that were done unto them so that they may be forever repeated in the vicious cycle that is history repeating itself. As far as powerful messages go, this is one of them. Another is perhaps the ludicrousness of war in general and people in particular.