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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in southwest Turkey (Anatolia) in the early part of the last century — a quirky community in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully over the centuries and where friendship, even love, has transcended religious differences.

But with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of the Great War, the sweep of history has a cataclysmic effect on this peaceful place: The great love of Philothei, a Christian girl of legendary beauty, and Ibrahim, a Muslim shepherd who courts her from near infancy, culminates in tragedy and madness; Two inseparable childhood friends who grow up playing in the hills above the town suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of the bloody struggle; and Rustem Bey, a wealthy landlord, who has an enchanting mistress who is not what she seems.

Far away from these small lives, a man of destiny who will come to be known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is emerging to create a country from the ruins of an empire. Victory at Gallipoli fails to save the Ottomans from ultimate defeat and, as a new conflict arises, Muslims and Christians struggle to survive, let alone understand, their part in the great tragedy that will reshape the whole region forever.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Editor's Note: At this point in the novel, Yusuf's daughter is pregnant by a Christian, leaving him with only one, terrible course of action...

The Tyranny of Honour

Yusuf the Tall loved all his children equally, with a passionate adoration that, when he thought about it, sometimes made him lachrymose. If his life were like a garden, then his daughters would be like the roses growing alongside its walls, and his sons would be like young trees that formed a palisade against the world. When they were small he devoted happy hours to their entertainment, and when they grew older he hugged them until their eyes bulged and they thought that their ribs would crack. He had grown to love his wife too, partly because this is what happens when a wife is well chosen, and partly because from her loins had sprung these brooks and becks of happiness.

But now Yusuf the Tall did not know what to do with his hands. It seemed as though they were behaving on their own. The thumb and middle finger of his left hand stroked across his eyeballs, meeting at the bridge of his nose. It was comforting, perhaps, for a scintilla of time. There was no comfort longer than that in this terrible situation. Sometimes his hands lay side by side on his face, the tips of his thumbs touching the lobes of his ears. He had thrown off his fez so that they could stroke his hair backwards, coming to rest on the back of his neck. The maroon fez lay in a corner on its side, so that his wife Kaya kept glancing at it. Despite this awful emergency, and the drama in which she was caught up, her instinct was to tidy it away, even if it were only to set it upright. She sat on the low divan, kneading her fingers, biting her lip and looking up at her husband. She was as helpless as one who stands before the throne of God.

Yusuf the Tall strode up and down the room, waving his hands, protesting and expostulating, sometimes burying his face in his hands. Kaya had not seen him so anguished and begrieved since the death of his mother three years before. He had painted the tulip on the headstone with his own hands, and had taken bread and olives so that he could eat at the graveside, imagining his mother underneath the stones, but unable to picture her as anything but living and intact.

Yusuf had passed the stage of anger. The time had gone when these patrollings of the room had been accompanied by obscenities so fearful that Kaya and her children had had to flee the house with their hands over their ears, their heads ringing with his curses against his daughter and the Christian:"Orospu çocu¢gu! Orospu çocu¢gu! Piç!"

By now, however,Yusuf the Tall was in that state of grief which foreknew in its full import the horror of what was inescapably to come. His face glistened with anticipatory tears, and when he threw his head back and opened his mouth to groan, thick saliva strung itself across his teeth.

Overtaken, finally, by weariness, Kaya had given up pleading with him, partly because she herself could see no other way to deal with what had occurred. If it had been a Muslim, perhaps they could have married her to him, or perhaps they could have repeated what had been done with Tamara Hanim. Perhaps they could have kept her concealed in the house, unmarried for ever, and perhaps the child could have been given away. Perhaps they could have left it at the gates of a monastery. Perhaps they could have sent her away in disgrace, to fend for herself and suffer
whatever indignities fate and divine malice should rain upon her head. It had not been a Muslim, however, it had been an infidel.

Yusuf was an implacable and undeviating adherent to his faith. Originally from Konya, he was not like the other Muslims of this mongrel town who seemed to be neither one thing nor the other, getting converted when they married, drinking wine with Christians either overtly or in secret, begging favours in their prayers from Mary Mother of Jesus, not asking what the white meat was when they shared a meal, and being buried with a silver cross wrapped in a scrap of the Koran enfolded in their hands, just because it was wise to back both camels in salvation’s race. Yusuf the Tall regarded such people with disdain. Moreover, it is one of the greatest curses of religion that it takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbours who have loved each other into bitter enemies. He had lived serenely among Christians for most of his life, but now that she had despoiled and defiled herself with an infidel, this was the worst in all that tormented him.

Yusuf stopped pacing the room, and at last called his sons together. His other daughters assembled too, standing silent and cowed at the back of the darkened room.

When his sons were before him, Yusuf took his pistol from his sash, weighed it in his hand, took it by the barrel, and handed it to his second son, Sadettin. Sadettin took it by the butt, and looked at it in disbelief. At first his voice seemed to fail him. "Baba, not me," he said.

"I have tried," said Yusuf,"and I can’t. I am ashamed, but I can’t."

"Not me, Baba. Why me?"

"You have courage. Great courage. And you are obedient. This is my command."

"Baba!"

Yusuf beheld the spiritual and moral agony of his second son, and the surprise, but he would not relent.

"It should be Ekrem," pleaded his second son, gesturing towards the first-born. "Ekrem is oldest." Ekrem held out his hands as if to push his brother away, shaking his head vigorously.

"Ekrem will take my place when your mother dies," said Yusuf. "He is the first-born. You are all used to obeying him. He will be head of the family. It is you who must do this thing." He paused. "I command it."

Father and second son looked at each other for a long moment. "I command it," repeated Yusuf the Tall.

"I would rather kill myself," said Sadettin at last.

"I have other sons." Yusuf placed his hand on Sadettin’s shoulder.

"I am your father."

"I will never forgive you," replied his second son.

"I know. Nonetheless, it is my decision. Sometimes . . ." and here he hesitated, trying to name whatever it is that takes our choices away, ". . . sometimes we are defeated."

Yusuf and Sadettin stood facing each other silently, and at the back of the room one of the girls began to sob. Sadettin appealed to his mother; kneeling before her and taking her hands in his, "Anneci¢gim! Annece¢gim!"

Kaya removed her hands from his grasp, and raised them in a small gesture of impotence. She seemed suddenly like an old woman who has turned her back on life.

"I command you," said Yusuf the Tall.

"It will be on your head," exclaimed Sadettin angrily, rising to his feet.

"On my head," repeated Yusuf.

Sadettin entered the haremlik. It was dark because the shutters were closed, and it smelled comfortingly of things feminine and mysterious. In the corner, glowing and glittering with terror in the half-light, he saw the eyes of his sweet sister, Bezmialem, of all his sisters the most gentle, and the one he loved the best.

"Sadettin," she murmured, her soft voice full of resignation. "I thought it would be Ekrem."

"I thought it would be him," said Sadettin.

She glanced at the pistol, placed her hand on her stomach and looked down. "You will kill both of us."

"Yes."

"The child is innocent."

Sadettin felt the pistol grow heavier in his hand. To himself he thought, "I won’t defile my right hand" and he transferred it to his left.

"I am innocent," said Sadettin.

"We are all innocent," replied Bezmialem.

"You are not." He felt a sudden surge of anger. He blamed her for bringing down the shame, and for shutting him in this trap.

"I found something better than honour," she said, her eyes momentarily shining with happy remembrance.

"What is better than honour?"

"I don’t know the name of it. But it is better. It makes me innocent."

Sadettin took his sister’s right hand in his, knelt before her, and touched it to his heart, his lips and his forehead. He kissed it. He tried to suppress his pain, and he bowed his head. "It is not me who does this thing," he managed to say at last. He said it as quickly as he could, so that the words would not be throttled by sorrow and die in his throat.

"It is our father who does this," said his sister. "The injustice isn’t yours."

"May God receive you in paradise," said Sadettin.

"May I see you there," replied Bezmialem.

"May the angels carry you."

"And you when the time comes."

Sadettin raised himself up and realised that after all he would have to defile his right hand. He transferred the pistol, threw his left arm around his sister’s neck and embraced her. They stood
together, trembling. Softly she put her arms around him, as if he were a lover. He felt the soft pulse of her breath on his neck. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against her heart, clenched his eyes shut, muttered, "In the name of God . . ." and fired. He held Bezmialem to him as she choked and the spasms and convulsions overcame her. He thought that they would never end, and the dread came over him that he might have to go out, reload the pistol and shoot her again. For a desperate few seconds he wondered if it might not be possible to take her to a surgeon and save her. At last her head fell on his shoulder, and finally he let her down gently to the floor. He knelt and kissed her, the arc of his motion so familiar because so akin to the rituals of the mosque, and then he rested his forehead on hers.

When Sadettin emerged into the selamlik, his shirt was glistening with the dark blood that his sister had coughed up, and it was as if he had become another man. He threw the gun down at his father’s feet in a brutal gesture of contempt, held his father’s gaze, and wiped his hands so roughly together that they made a sound like clapping. "I have defiled my right hand because of you. I am finished with you all," he said.

"Where will you go?" asked his father.

"Where do the birds go?" asked Sadettin. He gestured in the direction of the Taurus Mountains, rising up from the Elysian coastal plain like a vast and sombre fortress. Behind them stretched the grim plains of the east, where a hard and uncouth people sat silently in the dark for months, doing nothing whilst they waited for the winter snows to melt.

"I am an outlaw," he said. "That is where I will be.With God’s help, I shall not live long."

Sadettin left, taking nothing with him but a musket, and without kissing his father’s hand, or touching it to his forehead, or to his heart.

Shortly afterwards Yusuf the Tall emerged from the house with the pistol restored to his sash, his fez brushed and restored to his head. A small and anxious crowd of people had gathered outside,wondering about the meaning of the shot. They had seen Sadettin leave in a fury, with his musket over his shoulder and the blood on his shirt, and his air of one who would never be able to bear a human touch again.

Ignoring these people,Yusuf set off down the steep and teeming alleyways.

He was affronted by the normality of the town. He stepped over the sleeping dogs, and skirted the kneeling camels. In the distance he could hear the Blasphemer railing against the priest. Little Philothei was being followed as usual by Ibrahim. Her friend Drosoula, as usual, had the devoted Gerasimos in tow. Abdulhamid Hodja rode by on Nilufer, her bells tinkling and her ribbons fluttering. Under his awning, Iskander the Potter worked at his wheel, and raised a lazy clay-caked hand in greeting. The goldfinch of Leonidas twittered in its cage outside the teacher’s door. Ali the Snowbringer led his donkey by, its flanks wet and glistening from the melting packs of ice. Karatavuk in his black shirt, and Mehmetçik in his red, played with stones under a fig tree. To Yusuf, all this ordinariness was like the mockery of God.

He found the two gendarmes playing backgammon together on a table in the shade of the plane trees of the meydan. As the day had grown warmer, so more of the buttons of their tunics had become undone. Both of them were in urgent need of the weekly shave that they would take that evening before Friday began. They looked up, not unduly pleased to be interrupted in their duty to the holy game of backgammon, and pronounced "Hos. geldiniz" in reluctant unison.

"Hos. bulduk," replied Yusuf, adding,"I am sorry to disturb you."

He drew the pistol from his sash, and laid it down gently on the board, so that he would not disturb the pieces. The gendarmes looked up at him in puzzlement and expectation.

"I am a murderer," declared Yusuf gently, "and I have come to offer myself for arrest."


From the Hardcover edition.
Louis de Bernieres

About Louis de Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres - Birds Without Wings
Louis de Bernieres is the author of Corelli’s Mandolin (available in paperback from Vintage Books) and of a trilogy of tragicomic novels: The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. He lives in England.
Praise

Praise

“Astonishing, and compulsively readable.” -- Los Angeles Times Book Review"Fascinating, evocative. . . . Rich and compelling. . . . A thrilling ride through a whirlwind of history. . . . De Berni?res has reached heights that few modern novelists ever attempt." --The Washington Post"Engrossing. . . . The prose is gorgeous. . . . Everyone in this cast of characters is someone memorable, and their lives and fates intertwine to make a marvelously engaging story of a village." --Chicago Tribune"Marvelous. . . . Breathtaking. . . . Heartbreaking yet resplendent. . . . De Bernières masterfully explores the terrible price of love, politics and war. . . . [He is] a magnificent storyteller." --The Miami Herald"A masterpiece. . . . Display[s] de Bernières' remarkable literary voice: erudite, compelling, witty." --USA Today"An absorbing epic. . . . De Berni?res [is] adept at juxtaposing brutality with episodes of high comedy or romance." --The New York Times Book Review"A sweeping account of the rise of modern Turkey and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. In an intensely personal way, [de Berni?res] shows how these historic changes affected the inhabitants of Eskibahçe . . . and in a more global way . . . how misplaced imperial aspirations and gratuitous war can devastate ordinary people." --Newsday"Beguiling. . . . Startlingly unique. . . . De Bernières is so inventive--celebratory but never sentimental." --Newsweek"A literary triumph. . . . Louis de Bernières [may be] the next Leo Tolstoy." --Seattle Post-Intelligencer"Lovely. . . . Epic in scope and with a clear message: Peace is a more livable climate than war, and the political aspirations of power mongers waste the lives of the humble populace." --Oregonian"The most eagerly awaited novel of the year . . . . A mesmerizing patchwork of horror, humor and humanity." --Independent (UK)"De Bernières is at his finest when he allows us to experience the hardships and horrors through the lives of the villagers. He writes movingly of the battle of Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view, and the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of trench warfare." --The Seattle Times"Fine-grained prose that moves with the measured grace of a 19th century novel." --San Francisco Chronicle"A rich, mottled chorus, an amalgam of subplots that weave and complement each other in such a way that the town itself might be better called the central character. . . . Do read it before you die. It would be a terrible thing to have missed a work of such importance, beauty and compassion." --The Globe and Mail"An absorbing read about a remote but captivating time. The Ottoman world's break-up is a rich, poignant story, and Mr. de Berni?res is a good storyteller." --The Economist"De Bernières has a gift for irony, a sure hand for fast-moving plots . . . a talent for bringing the written word to life, and a delicious sense of the absurd." --Washington Times "Rich prose and vivid descriptions. . . . De Bernières writes powerfully of the savagery of war." --Pittsburg Tribune-Review"A magnificent, poetic, colossal novel, filled with wry, poignant stories. . . . Louis de Bernières' rapaciously sensuous writing makes the pages of this book crackle with heat and resonate with birdsong. . . . Birds Without Wings is superbly written, gathering people and their hearts and souls and all their baggage of loss and hope together in one place and giving a point to life. It is, in every sense, a sublime book." --The Irish Times"A vast book, told in de Bernières' signature style . . . . We feel everything through a host of vivid, moving, and often amusing characters." --San Jose Mercury News “Unites the chimerical poetry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the fine-grained domesticity of Trollope. . . . de Bernières . . . can move seamlessly from humor to poignancy and from easy charm to a searing anger.” --Financial Times"Enchanting. . . . At once intimate and sweeping. . . . At a time when the hypocrisy of modern invasions and of simplistic caricatures of other faiths circulates all too easily, this book offers a timely message to us all." --The Sydney Morning Herald"Bears de Bernières' literary hallmarks--vast emotional breadth, dazzling characterization, [and] rich historical detail . . . swerving between languid sensuality and horror, humor and choking despair." --Scotland on Sunday"Rendered in greater detail and with greater emotional impact than the prize-winning author has accomplished in any of his previous work." --Richmond Times-Dispatch"Operatic. . . . Splendid, lyrical. . . . De Bernières is a writer who can make you want to turn the page to find out what happens. . . . He has a blockbuster audacity in bringing together elements that work." --The Age
"Stunning. . . . Haunting. . . . Both exotically remote and tragically relevant. . . . So much is remarkable about this novel, from the heft of its history to the power of its legends. . . . A deeply rewarding work." --The Anchorage Press"Armies march, populations flee, and mountains of corpses lie rotting, the landscapes of horror brought fully to our imaginations in terms so visceral we could weep. . . . One of the most profound and moving books you're likely to read." --The New Zealand Herald
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

WHITBREAD AWARD FINALIST
A Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“A quite astonishing, and compulsively readable, tour de force. . . . De Bernières’s subtly differentiated characters attach themselves to us and won’t let go.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières’s eagerly awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Corelli’s Mandolin. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Birds Without Wings is a hugely ambitious novel about the pleasures of peace, the meaning of home, and the foolishness and fratricide of war. In its rich tapestry of scenes and characters, it encompasses the whole range of human emotions and behaviors, from the most savagely cruel to the most selflessly compassionate.

About the Guide

Set on the eve of World War I, Birds Without Wings tells the story of Eskibahçe, a charming and vibrant ethnically mixed town in present-day Turkey, and how it is irrevocably changed by the ravages of nationalism, war, and religious fervor. Before the war, Eskibahçe is filled with a wild assortment of characters, Christian and Muslim, Turkish and Armenian, the mad and the sane, the rich and the poor, living side by side in remarkable harmony. There is Ali the Snowbringer, who lives with his family and his donkey inside a hollowed-out tree; Iskander the Potter, who supplies the town with proverbial wisdom along with his pots; Karatavuk—Iskander’s son—and Mehmetçik, whose deep friendship reaches across religious barriers; Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja, priest and imam, who hail each other playfully as “infidels”; Rustem Bey, the landlord and protector of the town, who finds happiness with a Circassian mistress after his wife is nearly stoned to death for adultery. There are lunatics as well—a crazy Sufi known as “the Dog,” who lives in a tomb and terrifies everyone with his smile, and a man known as “the Blasphemer,” who flies into cursing fits at the sight of any holy man. There is Philothei, a girl of such disquieting beauty that she must be veiled, and her besotted lover, Ibrahim the Goatherd, who will be driven mad by the horrors of war. And there is Mustafa Kemal, whose military daring will lead him to many stunning victories against the invading Western European forces and to a reshaping of the whole region. What happens to these characters—and their beloved town—because of the war is the great tragedy that Birds Without Wings describes with such unforgettable vividness.

About the Author

Louis de Bernières’s novels include The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Eurasia Region, 1991), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book Eurasia Region, 1992), and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. The author, who lives in London, was selected as one of the twenty best young British novelists in 1993.

Discussion Guides

1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel, “We were birds without wings. . . . Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” [p. 550–551]?

2. The setting of Birds Without Wings is an early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what way is the world of the novel vastly different from the world today?

3. In his prologue, Iskander the Potter says that he misses the Christians after they were removed from Eskibahçe: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves” [p. 7]. Why does he feel that the presence of “others” allowed the villagers to see themselves? Why is the loss of variety so important? Why were so many different kinds of people able to live together in Eskibahçe so peacefully?

4. What makes Eskibahçe such a marvelously colorful village? Who are some of its most eccentric and engaging characters? How does the village change over the course of the novel?

5. The novel vividly describes the nationalist fervor that swept the world in the early twentieth century: “Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece for the Greeks, Turks and Jews out!” [p. 16] What causes these feelings? What are their ultimate consequences?

6. After Ayse and Polyxeni convince the reluctant Daskalos Leonidas to write a message in tears on the wings of a dove, which they hope will fly to Polyxeni’s dead mother, Ayse exclaims, “It’s incredible! A man with that much education, and he didn’t even know about how to get a message to the dead” [p. 77]. What does this scene suggest about the gulf between traditional and modern ways of understanding the world?

7. On the way to Smyrna, Iskander prefaces his story by saying, “The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole” [p. 128]. Is what Iskander says here true of the novel itself? How does the story line “creep all over the place”?

8. What kind of man is Mustafa Kemal? How does he achieve his great military success? What are the ultimate consequences of his actions?

9. Leyla tells Rustem Bey that the women in town are saying he is a bad master because he doesn’t beat her [p. 228]. What does this passage suggest about the relationship between women and men in the novel? What roles are women expected to play? In what ways are they oppressed by their culture?

10. What are the most horrific aspects of war as they are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for one another and even for their enemies? How does war affect the village of Eskibahçe?

11. Why does de Bernières use different narrators and different points of view in the novel? Does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novel’s main themes?

12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?

13. Can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?

Suggested Readings

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky; Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet; John Fowles, The Magus; A. R. Homer, The Mirror of Diana; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; James McBride, Miracle at St. Anna; Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi; Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.

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