I first encountered Louis de Bernières through his novel “War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts”; a playful romp through revolutionary Colombia – with magic. I read this, Bernières first novel a long time ago – while I was still an adolescent. But decades later, as a magical realist novelist myself, I hearkened back to Don Emmanuel as I sought some of the tools I would use to write my own two-part “San Porfirio” series on socialist Venezuela. To a certain extent I identify with Bernières; who also was first inspired to write by what he saw in his time living in Latin America and processing the juxtaposition of the bizarre with the macabre up against the truly hopeful.
For this reason I set about the process of reading “Birds Without Wings”, Bernières 2004 novel with a certain amount of expectation. Bernières did not disappoint. “Birds Without Wings” is a true epic – taking us through the life of a Turkish/Greek village in the early 1900s as the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man of Europe” is in the final stages of its spectacular demise. There are myriad characters – a potter, a harlot, a crazy man they call “The Dog”. Above it all, interjected evenly throughout the narrative is the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; the man who would mark the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of modern Turkey.
The story is not a good one – because it cannot be. The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire was extraordinarily bloody. Bernières plunges into the trench-war in great, gory detail. He does not polish over the agony and heartache that is heralded by the end of a world order. Genocide, fratricide, inter-religious strife. The mass-movements of people hither and thither at the whims of sultans and dictators; crusaders and jihadists.
The world is a terrible place; politics is often winner-take-all and does not consider the poor, the peasants. Armies march across lands friendly and unfriendly; and the expulsion of Christians and Muslims from ancestral homes does not contemplate old relationships and connections that go beyond faith, to the land and the trees and the waters in which are nestled people’s ideas of “home”.
Americans increasingly tend to see the world as a history-less place; a past too bloody to visit, heroes too flawed to know, stories too complex that do not fit into our clean vacuous narratives. I don’t know if it has always been thus; but it seems nowadays that we prefer to live in a world without a past, not recognizing the currents that brought us to where we are and therefore expecting people near and far to live up to our own nouveau-prejudices regarding race and religion and correctness. Reminding ourselves that history is an edifice built deep, layer upon layer upon layer of the stories of strife and blood and suffering helps remind us of what it means to be human; and to make common cause with the worries and fears – the plight – of civilizations that came before.
This book will help us do that; and that is why we should read it.