But Little Bequalmed
- Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières
Secker, 625 pp, £17.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 436 20549 1
Anyone who has read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) will be disconcerted by the first nine or so chapters of Birds without Wings: the adjectives have withered. On the opening page, we’re told that being a Muslim makes you ‘grave and thoughtful, dignified and melancholy’, and that wine is ‘a precious and sacred thing’ to Christians. By Captain Corelli’s standards, this is puzzlingly flat: why doesn’t anyone have an ‘errant and wrinkly cleavage’ or an ‘incipient and Hellenic beard’? And where are the ‘stale but amiable pussycats’, the ‘demented and metaphysical’ hangovers, the nights ‘made sepulchral by the attenuated and dancing shadows’? By page 35, a ‘portentous and dignified’ priest has made an appearance, and on page 42 there’s talk of religion’s ‘tendentious but unchanging certainties’. But it’s hard to relax until page 44, where, in the space of three paragraphs, someone’s ‘intrinsic and extraordinary mystique’ exerts a ‘continued and insatiable fascination’ on children whose ‘resolute and stalwart’ elders smoke in ‘exemplary and companionable silence’. At this point, it’s clear that Louis de Bernières is back in business, preparing to depict a few ‘incandescent and illicit moments’ of tenderness among the ‘banal but vile atrocities’ of history’s ‘prolonged and atrocious holocaust’.
This time the setting is a small Ottoman town called Eskibahçe, somewhere near Fethiye on Turkey’s south-west coast. Life is simple in Eskibahçe, where ‘the scents of oregano and thyme’ fill the air, and Armenians, Greeks and Turks live in near perfect harmony. The town’s Muslims spend a lot of time beseeching their Christian friends to make offerings to the Virgin on their behalf. Christian women prepare for childbirth with the aid of Koranic verses, and Father Kristoforos, the Greek Orthodox priest, finds it hard to distinguish between Christian and Muslim sayings. He’s on good terms with Adulhamid Hodja, the kindly imam, whose ‘saintly eccentricity’ is ‘inexhaustibly surprising’. Adulhamid, in turn, is given to reminding the Christian villagers of Jesus’ words about casting the first stone (‘Well, after all, we are both peoples of the Book’). One Muslim citizen is inflexible enough to have his daughter murdered for falling pregnant by a Christian; one Greek has it in for his Turkish neighbours and nurses irredentist dreams. But both of these troublemakers are recent arrivals.
The story begins in 1900 with the strenuously multicultural ceremonies marking the birth of a Christian girl, Philothei. The other townsfolk come on stage in a leisurely fashion: Polyxeni, Philothei’s mother, pays neighbourly visits to the imam’s wife, Ayse, while Ali the Snowbringer and Mohammed the Leech Gatherer pursue their timeless trades. Iskander the Potter sits contentedly at his wheel, inventing such homely proverbs as ‘if the cat’s in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens.’ The town is wisely ruled by a benevolent landowner, Rustem Bey, and the apothecary, Levon the Armenian, provides medical care for all. Philothei grows up to be a famous beauty and the best friend of Drosoula, a sensible, strikingly ugly girl who appears in old age in Captain Corelli as an ‘admirable and hirsute amazon’. Soon, Philothei is engaged to a Muslim boy, Ibrahim the Goatherd, later to be known as Ibrahim the Mad. We’re also introduced to Mehmetçik and Karatavuk, a lovable pair of bird-obsessed scamps who are inseparable despite their different faiths.
This idyllic community is obviously doomed, and in the book’s long course both the town and the Ottoman Empire disintegrate. De Bernières explains wider political developments by cutting from time to time to a present-tense biography of Atatürk, ‘the only dictator in the history of the world with a profound grasp of the semiotics of headwear’. Mini-lectures stud the narrative: history is ‘a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas’; but ‘the ultimate truth,’ as one of the characters in Captain Corelli puts it, is that ‘history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it.’ In the strongest part of the novel, Karatavuk fights at Gallipoli, where he witnesses many tear-jerking acts of courage and compassion. Mehmetçik escapes from a forced labour battalion and becomes a famous bandit, while Adulhamid Hodja dies of a broken heart when soldiers requisition his horse. Levon falls victim to the mass slaughter of Armenians; Muslims and Christians massacre one another; and in the end Polyxeni and the rest of Eskibahçe’s Christians are deported to Greece.
In some ways, it’s a promising sign that the town is inhabited by one-dimensional figures, since the contrast between the warm-hearted, comical characters and the historical torments inflicted on them was one of the things that made Captain Corelli such a shamelessly corny success. It was like learning that the Romans had laid waste to the Village of Indomitable Gauls and killed Obelix’s dog, or that René from ‘Allo ‘Allo! had been hanged for collaborating with General Von Klinkerhoffen. At the same time, however, de Bernières tried to show that his jolly Cephallonian fishermen could plausibly take part in tragic events. By becoming a Stalinist thug and serial rapist, the heroine’s traumatised fiancé showed that even charming villagers have a capacity for evil. Few of the other characters seemed to share that capacity, though, and their counterparts in Birds without Wings don’t either. As de Bernières sets about dramatising the grim historical record, human decency prevails in Eskibahçe to such a degree that it becomes hard to believe that a ‘production and flourishment of hypocrisy, megalomania and psychopathy’ could take place among these relentlessly tolerant people.
‘It is one of the great curses of religion,’ de Bernières announces, ‘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.’ Well, this may be true in the rest of the country, but not in Eskibahçe, where home-grown misbehaviour rarely lasts long. When Rustem Bey sentences his unfaithful wife to death by stoning, a few of the characters are briefly possessed by ‘the evil that emanates as if from nowhere when people are permitted to act basely in a righteous cause’. Then the imam turns up and shames them into letting her live. When ‘a notorious and inveterate drunk’ beats up Levon the Armenian, Ayse and Polyxeni start cheering him on ‘like an intoxicated chorus of maenads’. Then they change their minds and apologise. Levon forgives his assailant – he even slips him a bottle of Scotch – and, later, when Kurdish tribesmen arrive to murder the Armenians, Rustem Bey nobly saves Levon’s three daughters. Ali the Snowbringer gives Polyxeni his donkey when the Greeks are expelled, and everyone curses the Franks for causing their friends to be taken away.
The only character who’s shown spilling innocent blood is Ibrahim. Like the fiancé in Captain Corelli, he’s damaged by years of soldiering. After witnessing Greek atrocities he perpetrates some of his own, although he explains that, unlike some of his comrades, he never raped anyone: ‘I was no good at it.’ For a while he seems set to go mad and kill Philothei, thereby falling victim to ‘the triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism’ which, de Bernières explains, ‘effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race’. In the event, de Bernières is too tender-hearted to let this happen: Philothei just gets distracted and falls off a cliff. In fact, de Bernières doesn’t seem very interested in the thwarted love-affair plot: when it reaches its climax he’s busy holding the rest of the threads together. By this stage the characters themselves are finding it hard to keep track, as when Ayse and Polyxeni wonder who to ask for help when Adulhamid Hodja’s health begins to fail:
‘What about Levon the Armenian? He is an apothecary, he will know exactly what to do.’
‘He was taken away. They took all the Armenians away. You know they did.’
‘Oh, I’d forgotten for a moment. Who could have known how it would be without them?’
Then there’s the question of the writing style, which must be one of the strangest ever used by someone who’s found himself computing his sales by the million. ‘One of the irritations of being a writer,’ de Bernières has said, ‘is that one constantly finds oneself having to get up and go and find a reference book. It might just be a thesaurus . . .’ It just might. De Bernières said this in the course of explaining what drove him to design a small, wheeled bookshelf – now available from Habitat’s Very Important Products range in ‘clear, red or smoke’ – and, on the evidence of Birds without Wings, the Louis de Bernières Book Caddy has been subjected to rigorous home testing. Not every chapter is done in his characteristic mode, which reads like García Márquez translated by Dr Johnson: Karatavuk, for instance, narrates his experiences at Gallipoli in an enjoyably wide-eyed ‘and then, and then’ style. Elsewhere, though, people are ‘immanitous’, ‘but little bequalmed’, ‘perseverant’ or ‘inexplicably disculpated’. Istanbul is a place of ‘mommixity and foofaraw’, and de Bernières only manages not to use ‘epiphenomena’ twice by resorting to ‘epiphenomenally’ instead. From ‘the cacophonous and diligent howling’ of dogs to the ‘enchanting and inspiriting sound of mandolins’, the paired adjectives are ‘correct and satisfactory’. When Iskander the Potter drags clay into the house, his wife is described as ‘the veritable incarnation and epitome of uncomplaining complaint’.
De Bernières also names several chapters after their narrators, as Orhan Pamuk does in My Name Is Red (2001): ‘I am Philothei’, ‘I am Ayse’, ‘I am Ibrahim’, ‘I am Karatavuk’. He throws in a soldier called Orhan and a cat called Pamuk, too; the death of Pamuk the cat gets a chapter of its own. As it happens, Orhan Pamuk once issued a denunciation of both ‘the exoticism of popular travel literature’ and ‘magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm’. Birds without Wings sins in both these ways, chiefly in order to show that ‘Johnny Turk’ – as the ‘English Franks’ put it at Gallipoli – is at heart a decent chap, often hard to distinguish from a certain kind of Englishman. He flourishes in a stable social hierarchy, distrusts utopian schemes, and is stolidly materialistic in outlook despite a few quaint beliefs. Though superstitious when poorly educated, and sometimes fatalistic, he’s essentially a secular liberal with curly slippers and a water-pipe – which is at least better than being a malignant and turbaned Turk.