A shattered peace between Muslims and Christians
De Bernières returns 10 years after 'Corelli's Mandolin'
That rumbling sound just over the horizon is a stampede of giant novels set to arrive in a cloud of publicity. Pity the midlist author who pushes a new book into the path of this horde next month. To the extent Hollywood rises or falls on Thanksgiving weekend, publishers are concentrating more and more of their big literary novels in the fall, a self-destructive tendency sure to overwhelm the nation's shrinking body of readers (and newspaper book sections). If, as Calvin Trillin observed, the average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt, we're about to see some major spoilage.
That would be a shame because from the first novel to arrive this looks like a particularly good season. "Birds Without Wings," by Louis de Bernières, is a deeply rewarding work about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It's both exotically remote and tragically relevant in our age of confident nation-building.
As he did in his bestselling "Corelli's Mandolin" (1994), de Bernières roots his examination of the byzantine complexity of history in the life of a small town. For generations, Christians and Muslims have lived harmoniously in Eskibahçe, a fictional coastal village carved into a hillside in what we now call Turkey. The novel opens in 1900, on the eve of political and social calamities that no one could possibly imagine, least of all these simple folk, whose lives have more in common with 1500 than 1950.
One by one, they tell their stories - short, simple scenes that gradually cut new facets in the hard substance of world history. "With us there has been so much blood," Iskander the Potter says in the first paragraph, but it's easy to ignore that warning as he and his neighbors describe the everyday joys and trials of their lives as though these were the riffs of some Ottoman Garrison Keillor.
There's young Philothei, a Christian girl so beautiful she must wear a veil to quell quarrels in the town. And Ibrahim, her betrothed, who can "mimic the stupid comments of a goat in all its various states of mind." Karatavuk and Mehmetçik play among the hills, endlessly blowing their bird whistles and flapping their arms. The proud Christian priest accepts "offerings from Muslims who were anxious to hedge their bets with God by backing both camels." Ali the Snowbringer lives with his asthmatic donkey in the trunk of a tree. And Levon, the Armenian pharmacist, graciously helps the Muslim drunk who once assaulted him in the street.
These are often charming, even comic stories, but they're quickly forced to contend with stunning scenes of violence. "It is one of the greatest curses of religion," de Bernières writes, "that it takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbors who have loved each other into bitter enemies."
That twist turns fathers against daughters and husbands against wives, slicing through ligaments of affection in one haunting chapter after another. With his presentation of this ecumenical community, de Bernières suggests that these eruptions of domestic violence - tragic as they are, motivated by pride and religious absolutism - can be controlled and minimized by the essential goodwill of reasonable people who know one another well.
But "Birds Without Wings" maintains a bifocal vision. One eye stays focused on the village, while the other sees nations foolishly slipping toward World War I. Among the scenes of life in little Eskibahçe, de Bernières interjects blood-soaked snapshots of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the chaotic ascension of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey. With wry disgust, he races through revolutions and counterrevolutions, massacres and deportations, the craven interference of European powers and their disastrous passivity, atrocities reflected endlessly in the mirror of revenge.
It's often difficult to follow the swift crosscurrents of this complex period, but de Bernières's thesis is strikingly clear: "History," he writes, "is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas."
Eventually, of course, obscurity can protect Eskibahçe no longer. The rabid demands of fanatics who know nothing of this delicate town rain down upon it, fertilizing sectarian strife that these people had managed to hold in check for centuries. Again and again, we see the way reckless acts by vain leaders function as the flutterings of that proverbial butterfly that incites a hurricane far away. Friend is set against friend, neighbor against neighbor, always against their true will. With his unfailingly wise perspective, de Bernières notes, "The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race."
Karatavuk, one of the Muslim boys who played so happily with his Christian friend, takes us into the smoke of trench warfare with all its ghastly farce and startling moments of compassion. His burning faith in the jihad is slowly smothered by the senseless horrors he witnesses and commits. "It is only people like me," he writes, "who wonder why God does not do just one good miracle, and make the world perfect in an instant."
So much is remarkable about this novel, from the heft of its history to the power of its legends. In this great bazaar of family life and international politics, the bittersweet metaphor of "birds without wings" grows deeper and richer. The people of Eskibahçe are blessed with soaring aspirations, but like all of us they must live firmly on the ground, forced to cope with one another and the earthquakes of history. This epic about the tragedy of borders is likely to cross all borders, moving readers everywhere as it describes the harrowing cost of remaking faraway places in the image of our dreams.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.