An ensemble cast of characters go about their lives in the tiny village of Eskibahçe in southwestern Anatolia in modern day Turkey in the days of the Ottoman Empire. In the idyllic late nineteenth century, Christians of Greek origin live in harmony with Muslim Turks. While there is clear religious demarcation between the two, the village folk do not consider it strange when a woman changes her religion after marriage, and people are apt to pray to both gods to hedge their bets in trying times.
Colorful characters populate Louis de Berničres’ Eskibahçe. There is Philothei, the beautiful Greek girl in love with Ibrahim, the Muslim goatherd. There is the ideologue, Daskalos Leonidas, whose passion for Greece to reclaim her lost glory leads to a disastrous personal consequence. There are childhood friends, Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, who lose their innocence in the Great War but survive it to reaffirm their friendship. And then there is the nobleman, Rustom Bey, whose patriotism and nobility hides a deep sorrow due to the death of his family and his inability to be successful in love.
The tides of rising nationalism in the Ottoman Empire and the political ambition of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk touch Eskibahçe with tragic consequences. As England, France, Italy and Germany join the war, it quickly turns into a jihad, or holy war, with Muslims pitted against Christians. Eskibahçe’s innocence and sense of harmony is lost as the men (and boys) are conscripted into service. After eight long years of battle where thousands of lives are lost, the politicians work out a compromise where the Christians of Greek origin are forced to migrate from the Ottoman Empire (now renamed Turkey) to Greece, and Moslem Turks to Turkey. This again creates havoc in tiny Eskibahçe, as people have to leave the comfort of their homes and sunder the friendships built over generations to live in a distant and unfamiliar land.
De Berničres came into prominence with his lyrical and wide sweeping epic Corelli’s Mandolin. Set on the Greek island of Cephalonia against the backdrop of the Second World War, much of Corelli’s success was because of clearly delineated characters, particularly the tragic love trio of Pelagia, Corelli and Mandras, and a relatively linear focus on the story line. Birds Without Wings is much more ambitious in scope, spans a longer time frame, and deals with myriad more characters. This is at once the book’s shortcoming and strength. While the many characters of Birds Without Wings allow us to get to know the pulse of Eskibahce and the milieu of the Ottoman Empire, the storyline tends to get bogged down at times as de Berničres takes us through periodic detours into their lives.
De Berničres adroitly paces the narrative, though, from the perspective of several characters in the novel. Some of the narrative is told in real time, while in others, narrators reflect on the events that took place a long time ago in their lives. This allows de Berničres the freedom to move back and forth in time and offer the reader the benefit of post hoc wisdom as well as the naivety that invariably accompanies a telling of current events. As he did so successfully in Corelli’s Mandolin, here too de Berničres exhibits a penchant for interspersing macabre descriptions of the horrors of war with sly humor of the peccadilloes of man, as well as with the poignancy that accompanies personal acts of valor and sacrifice. De Berničres’ command of the language, his feel for characters, and his sense of the place of the individual caught in the eddies of uncontrollable events give strength to the novel, even as it demands tremendous patience of the reader due to its glacial speed in its ample mid-section.
De Berničres mixes history and fiction into a heady brew and informs the novel through eminently identifiable characters and events. While some may question his right-leaning political stance and at times one-sided view of history, there is no doubting his narrative skills. This long (and long awaited, since it has been ten years since Corelli’s Mandolin) novel demands a significant investment of time on the part of the reader, but the payoff at the end is both palpable and gratifying.