Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniÿres

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The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines "pastoral" as "a form of escape literature concerned with country pleasures", offering as an example the Idylls of Theocritus, "in which shepherds lead a sunlit, idealised existence of love and song". It concludes that: "The pastoral in its traditional form died with the rise of Romanticism."



The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines "pastoral" as "a form of escape literature concerned with country pleasures", offering as an example the Idylls of Theocritus, "in which shepherds lead a sunlit, idealised existence of love and song". It concludes that: "The pastoral in its traditional form died with the rise of Romanticism."

But that was written before Louis de Bernières set out single-handed to resuscitate the genre. Birds without Wings, his first novel since Captain Corelli's Mandolin, is set in the imaginary - or, at least, fictionalised - town of Eskibahce in south-west Anatolia during the final years of the Ottoman empire. Here, in a beautiful and abundant land, Muslims and Orthodox Christians live contentedly together: the divisions of religion and race are blurred by marriage, shared superstitions, a common language (Turkish) and identity (Ottoman). As Iskander the Potter says in the opening chapter: "We knew that our Christians were sometimes called 'Greeks', although we often called them 'dogs' or 'infidels', but in a manner that was a formality, or said with a smile, just as were their deprecatory terms for us."

The narrative is freewheeling and fragmented, passed from narrator to narrator, and proceeding from the turn of the 20th century up to the 1920s, when Turkey achieved nationhood and its "Greek" population was deported en masse - an episode for which the term "ethnic cleansing" had not yet been invented. The intimate dramas of Eskibahce are punctuated by brief, comparatively formal accounts of the progress of Mustafa Kemal, born in Salonika in mainland Greece, and destined to become the father of the Turkish nation, Kemal Ataturk.

As the novel progresses, and the forces of "the great world" impinge on Eskibahce, the two stories begin to overlap. The novel's longest continuous narrative is a memoir by Karatavuk, Iskander's son, of the defence of Gallipoli, at which Ottoman forces were led by Kemal. The emotional heart of the novel, though, is the virginal romance of the preternaturally lovely Philothei and her lover Ibrahim, a goatherd: this is pastoral with a vengeance. It is presumably no coincidence that this part of Anatolia was a heartland of the Greek pastoral tradition, just as nobody who has read TS Eliot will take it as mere serendipity that, towards the end of the novel, a merchant from Smyrna meets death by water.

While Philothei is a Christian and Ibrahim is a Muslim, nobody sees this as an obstacle. After all, the Muslims habitually ask favours of the icon of the Virgin in the church; but war and the new spirit of national consciousness impel them towards tragedy. One of the book's major flaws is that this tragedy, set up in the opening moments, is resolved in a contrived and implausible fashion. It does not help that it is strung out over too many pages, so that its momentum is never felt nearly as acutely as the wider calamity of the town's slow dissolution.

There are other difficulties, too. The book is monstrously baggy and repetitive, and the writing often atrocious - the dialogue, which is presumably intended to be taken as colloquial Turkish, sometimes includes bizarre archaisms (fitchew?), while the prose unselfconsciously mixes clichés with obscurities (immanitous?).

De Bernières is too fond of telling the reader what to think: it turns out that wars and nationalism are bad, religious tolerance and peace are good, sex and wine are more pleasant than celibacy and abstinence, and that the forms of religion matter less than the spirit behind them. Well I never.

Yet the novel is an excellent primer on an episode in history the effects of which are still being felt, but about which I - like, I suspect, most British readers - was shamefully ignorant. Above all, it is a hugely generous, good-natured book: the flaws are massive, but also easy to forgive.

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