Years ago, Louis de Bernières' first novel "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" was the first book I read with a book club. We had different opinions about it and even I wasn't sure I would not necessarily put it on my list of favourite books.
So it took me a while to tackle another book by this author. What a mistake. I absolutely loved this novel. Greece and Turkey at the beginning of the last century with a lot of information about their history, a great addition to Victoria Hislop's "The Thread" which I read earlier this year.
Same as in the other novel, Turkish and Greek people live peacefully alongside each other, Christians, Muslims and Jews. They have no problems with their neighbours, even agree to their children getting married to each other or asking someone from the other faith to pray to their saints, for example. Until the fall of the Ottoman empire when all Christians are relocated to Greece and all Muslims to the newly founded Turkey. We also learn about the childhood and the early days of Mustafa Kemal, better known to the rest of the world as Atatürk.
One quote that says so much about the sentiment behind this book: "It is not possible to calculate how many Armenians died on the forced marches. In 1915 the number was thought to be 300,000, a figure which has been progressively increased ever since, thanks to the efforts of angry propagandists. To argue about whether it was 300,000 or 2,000,000 is in a sense irrelevant and distasteful, however, since both numbers are great enough to be equally distressing, and the suffering individual victims in their trajectory towards death is in both cases immeasurable."
I have always said that about the deaths in any war but particularly in World War II, people start discussing how many Jews were really killed. Even if we knew the exact number, we would never know about the amount of grief behind that number. Any number is too much, even one person being killed through a war is not worth whatever the people who started the war think it is for. And it is true, whether there are a thousand or a million, it just means there are more people grieving about their loved ones. Too many in every case.
In "Bird Without Wings", a lot of those numbers get faces. And that's what I love most about reading novels like that, it is so much easier to imagine what people suffered if you hear about individual cases, you can never imagine it really before you haven't heard someone's story.
The characters are completely remarkable, most of them quite lovable. We learn of wonderful friendships and love that lasts forever. We learn about heroism and senseless fighting. We hear about the good and the bad in people. And we can still learn a lot from them today.
In the end, we even see a link to his earlier book, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin".
A wonderful book, one of my favourites.
And this is what the title means: "Man is a bird without wings, [...] and a bird is a man without sorrows".
From the back cover:
"In his first novel since Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières creates a world, populates it with characters as real as our best friends, and launches it into the maelstrom of twentieth-century history. The setting is a small village in southwestern Anatolia in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Everyone there speaks Turkish, though they write it in Greek letters. It’s a place that has room for a professional blasphemer; where a brokenhearted aga finds solace in the arms of a Circassian courtesan who isn’t Circassian at all; where a beautiful Christian girl named Philothei is engaged to a Muslim boy named Ibrahim. But all of this will change when Turkey enters the modern world. Epic in sweep, intoxicating in its sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is an enchantment."