BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS
Louis de Bernières
Waiting for the follow-up to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has felt at times like scouring the sky for the return of Halley’s comet. The good news is not only that it has appeared in our generation, but that it is bigger and if possible brighter than the novel that launched a thousand book clubs.
Though set on the other side of the Aegean, Birds Without Wings is to some extent a prequel to Captain Corelli, following the fortunes of a small town in south-western Turkey through the first quarter of the twentieth century. The inhabitants – mainly Turkish Moslems and Greek Christians – live together in general harmony, until the rise of nationalism in the First World War drives a tragic wedge between them. In parallel with their story, de Bernières tells of the rise of Kemal Atatürk, the creator of modern Turkey, and his role in the defence of Gallipoli.
The cast features a pair of star-cross’d lovers similar to Captain Corelli’s, but this novel has a more epic scope (as well as a more plausible ending) and draws together a wide parade of brilliantly drawn characters. They include the noble Rustem Bey, clinging to his dignity despite his wife’s fatal indiscretions; Leyla, the mysterious concubine who indulges his passion for garlic; Iskander the potter, with his fund of proverbs; and Abdulhamid, the Moslem cleric whose greatest joy is his beautiful horse.
Against the delightful quirks of these individuals, de Bernières sets the bloody, short-sighted machinations of political theorists who bring catastrophe to ordinary lives. There is a point at which his historical commentary threatens to suffocate the plot, but he is a skilful enough writer to redress the balance in the nick of time. Birds Without Wings is a wise, beautiful and enthralling book, with many uncomfortable echoes in our own age.