"Birds Without Wings" is an exceptionally beautiful novel that takes place during the waning period of the Ottoman Empire, in the small Anatolian town of Eskibahce. As the story opens, an ethnic mix of Turks, Armenians, and Greeks, both Muslims and Christians, are living side-by-side in a comfortable and relatively peaceful existence. But first the Franks, as the Ottomans call the Western Europeans, and then the Greeks invade their homeland. These events set off a cataclysmic chain of events that tear apart the lives of the residents of Eskibahce. The Sultan declares a holy war against the invaders. The Muslims are conscripted as soldiers and the Christians are sent into labor battalions. The Armenians are evacuated from the region in a death march. The Italians occupy Eskibahce. The Christians are forced to relocate to Greece. Throughout it all, the residents struggle to survive amidst the turmoil.
Although this novel does an exemplary job of bringing alive the history of Turkey, there is far more here than a recounting of historic events. Told in alternating voices, viewpoints, and time periods, this story is panoramic in scope as it follows more than a dozen principal characters and a large cast of secondary ones through a series of interrelated story lines.
There are the childhood friends Karatavuk and Mehmetcik, who are inseparable until war breaks out. At that point, Karatavuk becomes a soldier who participates in the hellish battle of Gallipoli, and Mehmetcik, who is forced into a labor battalion, later defects and becomes a brigand. There is the beautiful Christian girl Philothei, who is betrothed to Ibrahim the goatherd and whose death is foreshadowed at the start of the story. There is the landlord and town protector Rustem Bey, who casts out his adulterous wife and takes a mistress. There are Abdulhamid Hodja and Father Kristoforos, holy men who call each other infidels yet are good friends. Interspersed throughout the story are chapters on the life and career of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who moves up the military ranks to win the fight for an independent Turkey. There are merchants and craftsmen, madmen and beggars, prostitutes and scholars. Each has a tale to tell. The main focus of the book is really the town of Eskibahce itself, rather than any one character.
De Bernieres provides a rich portrayal of his characters. The language is lyrical, and some of the vignettes have the cadence and color of folk tales. At times the story is painfully sad and sometimes it is humorous. It reflects the full spectrum of compassion and suffering, love and hatred, pride and shame, tolerance and persecution. It brings home the horrors of war and prejudice. Iskander the potter, who likes to quote proverbs, says, "Man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrows." Birds are present throughout the story. They sing throughout the night, carry letters to the dead, have their voices captured in clay whistles, and live in cages outside the entrance to many homes. The town residents are portrayed as wingless birds that are grounded in the reality of war and unable to flee the turmoil.
This is not a quick read, since it contains a lot of historical background and details about the forces that brought about the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Republic of Turkey. There are some Turkish words that are not defined and must be deduced within context (a short glossary would have helped). But the book tells a memorable and masterfully written set of stories that capture the heart and soul of the Turks. It is a powerful epic with an important message. Highly recommended.