Birds Without Wings

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Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Astonishing, and compulsively readable.” — Los Angeles Times Book Review"Fascinating, evocative. . . . Rich and compelling. . . . A thrilling ride through a whirlwind of history. . . . De Bernifires has reached heights that few modern novelists ever attempt." —The Washington Post"Engrossing. . . . The prose is gorgeous. . . . Everyone in this cast of characters is someone memorable, and their lives and fates intertwine to make a marvelously engaging story of a village." —Chicago Tribune"Marvelous. . . . Breathtaking. . . . Heartbreaking yet resplendent. . . . De Bernières masterfully explores the terrible price of love, politics and war. . . . [He is] a magnificent storyteller." —The Miami Herald"A masterpiece. . . . Display[s] de Bernières' remarkable literary voice: erudite, compelling, witty." —USA Today"An absorbing epic. . . . De Bernifires [is] adept at juxtaposing brutality with episodes of high comedy or romance." —The New York Times Book Review"A sweeping account of the rise of modern Turkey and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. In an intensely personal way, [de Bernifires] shows how these historic changes affected the inhabitants of Eskibahçe . . . and in a more global way . . . how misplaced imperial aspirations and gratuitous war can devastate ordinary people." —Newsday"Beguiling. . . . Startlingly unique. . . . De Bernières is so inventive—celebratory but never sentimental." —Newsweek"A literary triumph. . . . Louis de Bernières [may be] the next Leo Tolstoy." —Seattle Post-Intelligencer"Lovely. . . . Epic in scope and with a clear message: Peace is a more livable climate than war, and the political aspirations of power mongers waste the lives of the humble populace." —Oregonian"The most eagerly awaited novel of the year . . . . A mesmerizing patchwork of horror, humor and humanity." —Independent (UK)"De Bernières is at his finest when he allows us to experience the hardships and horrors through the lives of the villagers. He writes movingly of the battle of Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view, and the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of trench warfare." —The Seattle Times"Fine-grained prose that moves with the measured grace of a 19th century novel." —San Francisco Chronicle"A rich, mottled chorus, an amalgam of subplots that weave and complement each other in such a way that the town itself might be better called the central character. . . . Do read it before you die. It would be a terrible thing to have missed a work of such importance, beauty and compassion." —The Globe and Mail"An absorbing read about a remote but captivating time. The Ottoman world's break-up is a rich, poignant story, and Mr. de Bernifires is a good storyteller." —The Economist"De Bernières has a gift for irony, a sure hand for fast-moving plots . . . a talent for bringing the written word to life, and a delicious sense of the absurd." —Washington Times "Rich prose and vivid descriptions. . . . De Bernières writes powerfully of the savagery of war." —Pittsburg Tribune-Review"A magnificent, poetic, colossal novel, filled with wry, poignant stories. . . . Louis de Bernières' rapaciously sensuous writing makes the pages of this book crackle with heat and resonate with birdsong. . . . Birds Without Wings is superbly written, gathering people and their hearts and souls and all their baggage of loss and hope together in one place and giving a point to life. It is, in every sense, a sublime book." —The Irish Times"A vast book, told in de Bernières' signature style . . . . We feel everything through a host of vivid, moving, and often amusing characters." —San Jose Mercury News “Unites the chimerical poetry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the fine-grained domesticity of Trollope. . . . de Bernières . . . can move seamlessly from humor to poignancy and from easy charm to a searing anger.” —Financial Times"Enchanting. . . . At once intimate and sweeping. . . . At a time when the hypocrisy of modern invasions and of simplistic caricatures of other faiths circulates all too easily, this book offers a timely message to us all." —The Sydney Morning Herald"Bears de Bernières' literary hallmarks—vast emotional breadth, dazzling characterization, [and] rich historical detail . . . swerving between languid sensuality and horror, humor and choking despair." —Scotland on Sunday"Rendered in greater detail and with greater emotional impact than the prize-winning author has accomplished in any of his previous work." —Richmond Times-Dispatch"Operatic. . . . Splendid, lyrical. . . . De Bernières is a writer who can make you want to turn the page to find out what happens. . . . He has a blockbuster audacity in bringing together elements that work." —The Age
"Stunning. . . . Haunting. . . . Both exotically remote and tragically relevant. . . . So much is remarkable about this novel, from the heft of its history to the power of its legends. . . . A deeply rewarding work." —The Anchorage Press"Armies march, populations flee, and mountains of corpses lie rotting, the landscapes of horror brought fully to our imaginations in terms so visceral we could weep. . . . One of the most profound and moving books you're likely to read." —The New Zealand Herald
The New Yorker
“Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many,” a proverb-prone narrator reflects as he begins the story of Eskibahçe, a small town in Anatolia, and of its inhabitants’ fate in the turmoil of the early twentieth century. After generations of cheerful intermingling, the town’s Muslim Turks, Christian Greeks, and Armenians are divided by the First World War and then by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. De Bernières gamely tries to illustrate the human cost—a complex series of migrations and persecutions—through a cast of endearing, folksy characters. He interleaves the narratives with the biography of Kemal Atatürk. But history, in this case, may be too vast for his approach; despite many affecting moments, both the big picture and the small stories are lost in an overwhelming sprawl.
Nicholas Gage
… in his compassionate portrayal of simple people struggling against sweeping historical forces and his vivid descriptions of the cruelties of war, de Bernières has reached heights that few modern novelists ever attempt. While Birds Without Wings can be confusing and meandering at times, it offers a thrilling ride through a whirlwind of history that changed forever a pivotal part of our world.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
It's been nearly a decade since Captain Corelli's Mandolin became a word-of-mouth bestseller (and then a major feature film), and devotees will eagerly dig into de Bernieres' sweeping historical follow-up. This time the setting is the small Anatolian town of Eskibah e, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. The large cast of characters of intermixed Turkish, Greek and Armenian descent includes breathtakingly lovely Philothei, a Christian girl, and her beloved Ibrahim, the childhood friend and Muslim to whom she is betrothed. The narrative immediately sets up Philothei's death and Ibrahim's madness as the focal tragedy caused by the sweep of history-but this is a bit of a red herring. Various first-person voices alternate in brief chapters with an authorial perspective that details the interactions of the town's residents as the region is torn apart by war; a parallel set of chapters follows the life of Kemal Ataterk, who established Turkey as a modern, secular country. The necessary historical information can be tedious, and stilted prose renders some key characters (like Philothei) one-dimensional. But when de Bernieres relaxes his grip on the grand sweep of history-as he does with the lively and affecting anecdotes involving the Muslim landlord Rustem Bey and his wife and mistress-the results resonate with the very personal consequences that large-scale change can effect. Though some readers may balk at the novel's sheer heft, the reward is an effective and moving portrayal of a way of life-and lives-that might, if not for Bernieres's careful exposition and imagination, be lost to memory forever. Agent, Lavinia Trevor. (Aug.) Forecast: Corelli had the advantage of WWII, a prominent love story and a movie tie-in; this book's period and setting are less familiar. Still, readers who enjoyed Corelli will be likely to give it a chance. 10-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the ten years since his international best seller Corelli's Mandolin, English novelist de Berni res has truly steeped himself in the culture and history of southwestern Turkey. The result is an absorbing, polyvocal epic centered on a charming coastal Anatolian village where religious and ethnic harmony is shattered by World War I and the subsequent internecine slaughter during which Ottomans become Turks; Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians become forced exiles, replaced by Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete; and Armenians become victims. This novel emphasizes the brutalities and stupidities of modern warfare (notably at the battle of Gallipoli) even more emphatically than de Berni res's magic realist debut, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts. About a dozen characters tell their quasi-picaresque stories in short chapters interpolated by an amusing, highly anecdotal sketch of the brilliant career of Mustapha Kemal, later called Atat rk, founder of the modern Turkish nation, who, in abolishing the fez "becomes the only dictator in the history of the world with a profound grasp of the semiotics of headwear." Vivid characterization, wry humor, believable bawdiness, pathos, and trenchant observations of the perils of empire and nation building make this a strongly recommended selection for all historical fiction collections. Mark Andr Singer, Mechanics' Inst. Lib., San Francisco Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The popular British author's first since the huge international success of Corelli's Mandolin (1994) is an epic chronicle of the making of modern Turkey. And it's the story of the destruction of an ethnically mixed population (including Greek, Armenian, and Turkish Christians and Muslims) who had coexisted harmoniously until the militant nationalism of warrior-politician Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. "Ataturk" (whose history is nestled among several brother narratives), triggered wholesale atrocities and mass deportations. The novel ranges from the late-19th-century Ottoman Empire to the early 1920s and the memories of those who survive beyond them, and is centered in the village of Eskibahce in southwestern Anatolia. The lack of a central plot, frustrating in itself, is somewhat assuaged by the varied, colorful voices of de Bernieres' several narrators. Prominent among them are stoical Iskander the Potter, a repository of indigenous folklore and wisdom; impossibly beautiful Greek girl Philothei, whose thwarted love for Muslim goatherd Ibrahim forms a paradigm for their cultures' struggles; wealthy merchant Rustum Bey, who kills his faithless wife Tamara's lover and consigns her to public stoning, before embarking on a voyage to Istanbul that culminates in a complex relationship with his Circassian mistress Leyla; and Iskander's son Karavatuk, who forms an unlikely friendship with Philothei's brother Mehmetcik, and later narrates an enthralling (if overlong) account of his wartime experiences, notably the historic carnage of Gallipoli. Birds Without Wings also features beguiling interpolated stories, notably that of Yusuf the Tall, who commands his son to kill his promiscuous daughter, thendeclares himself a murderer. Unfortunately, it also contains numerous passages of authorial moralizing about "nationalism and religion . . . [and the] evil . . . " they produce, as well as interminable variations on the metaphors of men as wingless birds and birds as frail, defenseless victims. It would be foolish to deny that there are great things herein, but their author's laboriously shouldered agenda goes a long way toward undermining them. Enormously readable, intermittently brilliant, honorably conceived and felt-and very deeply flawed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400079322
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 576
  • Sales rank: 122,854
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Louis de Bernières’s first three novels are The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Eurasia Region, 1991), Se–or Vivo and the Coca Lord (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book Eurasia Region, 1992), and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. The author was selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Corelli’s Mandolin won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book, in 1995. His last book was Red Dog, published in 2001.
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Read an Excerpt

Editor's Note: At this point in the novel, Yusuf's daughter is pregnant by a Christian, leaving him with only one, terrible course of action...

The Tyranny of Honour

Yusuf the Tall loved all his children equally, with a passionate adoration that, when he thought about it, sometimes made him lachrymose. If his life were like a garden, then his daughters would be like the roses growing alongside its walls, and his sons would be like young trees that formed a palisade against the world. When they were small he devoted happy hours to their entertainment, and when they grew older he hugged them until their eyes bulged and they thought that their ribs would crack. He had grown to love his wife too, partly because this is what happens when a wife is well chosen, and partly because from her loins had sprung these brooks and becks of happiness.

But now Yusuf the Tall did not know what to do with his hands. It seemed as though they were behaving on their own. The thumb and middle finger of his left hand stroked across his eyeballs, meeting at the bridge of his nose. It was comforting, perhaps, for a scintilla of time. There was no comfort longer than that in this terrible situation. Sometimes his hands lay side by side on his face, the tips of his thumbs touching the lobes of his ears. He had thrown off his fez so that they could stroke his hair backwards, coming to rest on the back of his neck. The maroon fez lay in a corner on its side, so that his wife Kaya kept glancing at it. Despite this awful emergency, and the drama in which she was caught up, her instinct was to tidy it away, even if it were only to set it upright. She sat on the low divan, kneading her fingers, biting her lip and looking up at her husband. She was as helpless as one who stands before the throne of God.

Yusuf the Tall strode up and down the room, waving his hands, protesting and expostulating, sometimes burying his face in his hands. Kaya had not seen him so anguished and begrieved since the death of his mother three years before. He had painted the tulip on the headstone with his own hands, and had taken bread and olives so that he could eat at the graveside, imagining his mother underneath the stones, but unable to picture her as anything but living and intact.

Yusuf had passed the stage of anger. The time had gone when these patrollings of the room had been accompanied by obscenities so fearful that Kaya and her children had had to flee the house with their hands over their ears, their heads ringing with his curses against his daughter and the Christian:"Orospu çocu¢gu! Orospu çocu¢gu! Piç!"

By now, however,Yusuf the Tall was in that state of grief which foreknew in its full import the horror of what was inescapably to come. His face glistened with anticipatory tears, and when he threw his head back and opened his mouth to groan, thick saliva strung itself across his teeth.

Overtaken, finally, by weariness, Kaya had given up pleading with him, partly because she herself could see no other way to deal with what had occurred. If it had been a Muslim, perhaps they could have married her to him, or perhaps they could have repeated what had been done with Tamara Hanim. Perhaps they could have kept her concealed in the house, unmarried for ever, and perhaps the child could have been given away. Perhaps they could have left it at the gates of a monastery. Perhaps they could have sent her away in disgrace, to fend for herself and suffer whatever indignities fate and divine malice should rain upon her head. It had not been a Muslim, however, it had been an infidel.

Yusuf was an implacable and undeviating adherent to his faith. Originally from Konya, he was not like the other Muslims of this mongrel town who seemed to be neither one thing nor the other, getting converted when they married, drinking wine with Christians either overtly or in secret, begging favours in their prayers from Mary Mother of Jesus, not asking what the white meat was when they shared a meal, and being buried with a silver cross wrapped in a scrap of the Koran enfolded in their hands, just because it was wise to back both camels in salvation’s race. Yusuf the Tall regarded such people with disdain. Moreover, it is one of the greatest curses of religion that it takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbours who have loved each other into bitter enemies. He had lived serenely among Christians for most of his life, but now that she had despoiled and defiled herself with an infidel, this was the worst in all that tormented him.

Yusuf stopped pacing the room, and at last called his sons together. His other daughters assembled too, standing silent and cowed at the back of the darkened room.

When his sons were before him, Yusuf took his pistol from his sash, weighed it in his hand, took it by the barrel, and handed it to his second son, Sadettin. Sadettin took it by the butt, and looked at it in disbelief. At first his voice seemed to fail him. "Baba, not me," he said.

"I have tried," said Yusuf,"and I can’t. I am ashamed, but I can’t."

"Not me, Baba. Why me?"

"You have courage. Great courage. And you are obedient. This is my command."

"Baba!"

Yusuf beheld the spiritual and moral agony of his second son, and the surprise, but he would not relent.

"It should be Ekrem," pleaded his second son, gesturing towards the first-born. "Ekrem is oldest." Ekrem held out his hands as if to push his brother away, shaking his head vigorously.

"Ekrem will take my place when your mother dies," said Yusuf. "He is the first-born. You are all used to obeying him. He will be head of the family. It is you who must do this thing." He paused. "I command it."

Father and second son looked at each other for a long moment. "I command it," repeated Yusuf the Tall.

"I would rather kill myself," said Sadettin at last.

"I have other sons." Yusuf placed his hand on Sadettin’s shoulder.

"I am your father."

"I will never forgive you," replied his second son.

"I know. Nonetheless, it is my decision. Sometimes . . ." and here he hesitated, trying to name whatever it is that takes our choices away, ". . . sometimes we are defeated."

Yusuf and Sadettin stood facing each other silently, and at the back of the room one of the girls began to sob. Sadettin appealed to his mother; kneeling before her and taking her hands in his, "Anneci¢gim! Annece¢gim!"

Kaya removed her hands from his grasp, and raised them in a small gesture of impotence. She seemed suddenly like an old woman who has turned her back on life.

"I command you," said Yusuf the Tall.

"It will be on your head," exclaimed Sadettin angrily, rising to his feet.

"On my head," repeated Yusuf.

Sadettin entered the haremlik. It was dark because the shutters were closed, and it smelled comfortingly of things feminine and mysterious. In the corner, glowing and glittering with terror in the half-light, he saw the eyes of his sweet sister, Bezmialem, of all his sisters the most gentle, and the one he loved the best.

"Sadettin," she murmured, her soft voice full of resignation. "I thought it would be Ekrem."

"I thought it would be him," said Sadettin.

She glanced at the pistol, placed her hand on her stomach and looked down. "You will kill both of us."

"Yes."

"The child is innocent."

Sadettin felt the pistol grow heavier in his hand. To himself he thought, "I won’t defile my right hand" and he transferred it to his left.

"I am innocent," said Sadettin.

"We are all innocent," replied Bezmialem.

"You are not." He felt a sudden surge of anger. He blamed her for bringing down the shame, and for shutting him in this trap.

"I found something better than honour," she said, her eyes momentarily shining with happy remembrance.

"What is better than honour?"

"I don’t know the name of it. But it is better. It makes me innocent."

Sadettin took his sister’s right hand in his, knelt before her, and touched it to his heart, his lips and his forehead. He kissed it. He tried to suppress his pain, and he bowed his head. "It is not me who does this thing," he managed to say at last. He said it as quickly as he could, so that the words would not be throttled by sorrow and die in his throat.

"It is our father who does this," said his sister. "The injustice isn’t yours."

"May God receive you in paradise," said Sadettin.

"May I see you there," replied Bezmialem.

"May the angels carry you."

"And you when the time comes."

Sadettin raised himself up and realised that after all he would have to defile his right hand. He transferred the pistol, threw his left arm around his sister’s neck and embraced her. They stood together, trembling. Softly she put her arms around him, as if he were a lover. He felt the soft pulse of her breath on his neck. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against her heart, clenched his eyes shut, muttered, "In the name of God . . ." and fired. He held Bezmialem to him as she choked and the spasms and convulsions overcame her. He thought that they would never end, and the dread came over him that he might have to go out, reload the pistol and shoot her again. For a desperate few seconds he wondered if it might not be possible to take her to a surgeon and save her. At last her head fell on his shoulder, and finally he let her down gently to the floor. He knelt and kissed her, the arc of his motion so familiar because so akin to the rituals of the mosque, and then he rested his forehead on hers.

When Sadettin emerged into the selamlik, his shirt was glistening with the dark blood that his sister had coughed up, and it was as if he had become another man. He threw the gun down at his father’s feet in a brutal gesture of contempt, held his father’s gaze, and wiped his hands so roughly together that they made a sound like clapping. "I have defiled my right hand because of you. I am finished with you all," he said.

"Where will you go?" asked his father.

"Where do the birds go?" asked Sadettin. He gestured in the direction of the Taurus Mountains, rising up from the Elysian coastal plain like a vast and sombre fortress. Behind them stretched the grim plains of the east, where a hard and uncouth people sat silently in the dark for months, doing nothing whilst they waited for the winter snows to melt.

"I am an outlaw," he said. "That is where I will be.With God’s help, I shall not live long."

Sadettin left, taking nothing with him but a musket, and without kissing his father’s hand, or touching it to his forehead, or to his heart.

Shortly afterwards Yusuf the Tall emerged from the house with the pistol restored to his sash, his fez brushed and restored to his head. A small and anxious crowd of people had gathered outside,wondering about the meaning of the shot. They had seen Sadettin leave in a fury, with his musket over his shoulder and the blood on his shirt, and his air of one who would never be able to bear a human touch again.

Ignoring these people,Yusuf set off down the steep and teeming alleyways.

He was affronted by the normality of the town. He stepped over the sleeping dogs, and skirted the kneeling camels. In the distance he could hear the Blasphemer railing against the priest. Little Philothei was being followed as usual by Ibrahim. Her friend Drosoula, as usual, had the devoted Gerasimos in tow. Abdulhamid Hodja rode by on Nilufer, her bells tinkling and her ribbons fluttering. Under his awning, Iskander the Potter worked at his wheel, and raised a lazy clay-caked hand in greeting. The goldfinch of Leonidas twittered in its cage outside the teacher’s door. Ali the Snowbringer led his donkey by, its flanks wet and glistening from the melting packs of ice. Karatavuk in his black shirt, and Mehmetçik in his red, played with stones under a fig tree. To Yusuf, all this ordinariness was like the mockery of God.

He found the two gendarmes playing backgammon together on a table in the shade of the plane trees of the meydan. As the day had grown warmer, so more of the buttons of their tunics had become undone. Both of them were in urgent need of the weekly shave that they would take that evening before Friday began. They looked up, not unduly pleased to be interrupted in their duty to the holy game of backgammon, and pronounced "Hos. geldiniz" in reluctant unison.

"Hos. bulduk," replied Yusuf, adding,"I am sorry to disturb you."

He drew the pistol from his sash, and laid it down gently on the board, so that he would not disturb the pieces. The gendarmes looked up at him in puzzlement and expectation.

"I am a murderer," declared Yusuf gently, "and I have come to offer myself for arrest."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Introduction

WHITBREAD AWARD FINALIST
A Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller

“A quite astonishing, and compulsively readable, tour de force. . . . De Bernières’s subtly differentiated characters attach themselves to us and won’t let go.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernières’s eagerly awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Corelli’s Mandolin. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Birds Without Wings is a hugely ambitious novel about the pleasures of peace, the meaning of home, and the foolishness and fratricide of war. In its rich tapestry of scenes and characters, it encompasses the whole range of human emotions and behaviors, from the most savagely cruel to the most selflessly compassionate.

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Foreword

1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel, “We were birds without wings. . . . Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” [p. 550–551]?

2. The setting of Birds Without Wings is an early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what way is the world of the novel vastly different from the world today?

3. In his prologue, Iskander the Potter says that he misses the Christians after they were removed from Eskibahçe: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves” [p. 7]. Why does he feel that the presence of “others” allowed the villagers to see themselves? Why is the loss of variety so important? Why were so many different kinds of people able to live together in Eskibahçe so peacefully?

4. What makes Eskibahçe such a marvelously colorful village? Who are some of its most eccentric and engaging characters? How does the village change over the course of the novel?

5. The novel vividly describes the nationalist fervor that swept the world in the early twentieth century: “Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece for the Greeks, Turks and Jews out!” [p. 16] What causes these feelings? What are their ultimate consequences?

6. After Ayse and Polyxeni convince the reluctant Daskalos Leonidas to write a message in tears on the wings of a dove,which they hope will fly to Polyxeni’s dead mother, Ayse exclaims, “It’s incredible! A man with that much education, and he didn’t even know about how to get a message to the dead” [p. 77]. What does this scene suggest about the gulf between traditional and modern ways of understanding the world?

7. On the way to Smyrna, Iskander prefaces his story by saying, “The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole” [p. 128]. Is what Iskander says here true of the novel itself? How does the story line “creep all over the place”?

8. What kind of man is Mustafa Kemal? How does he achieve his great military success? What are the ultimate consequences of his actions?

9. Leyla tells Rustem Bey that the women in town are saying he is a bad master because he doesn’t beat her [p. 228]. What does this passage suggest about the relationship between women and men in the novel? What roles are women expected to play? In what ways are they oppressed by their culture?

10. What are the most horrific aspects of war as they are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for one another and even for their enemies? How does war affect the village of Eskibahçe?

11. Why does de Bernières use different narrators and different points of view in the novel? Does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novel’s main themes?

12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?

13. Can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why has Louis de Bernières chosen Birds Without Wings as his title? What actual and symbolic roles do birds play in the book? What does Karatavuk mean when he writes at the end of the novel, “We were birds without wings. . . . Because we cannot fly we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us” [p. 550–551]?

2. The setting of Birds Without Wings is an early twentieth-century Turkish village. How, despite its distant setting, does the novel mirror the contemporary world? In what way is the world of the novel vastly different from the world today?

3. In his prologue, Iskander the Potter says that he misses the Christians after they were removed from Eskibahçe: “Without them our life has less variety, and we are forgetting how to look at others and see ourselves” [p. 7]. Why does he feel that the presence of “others” allowed the villagers to see themselves? Why is the loss of variety so important? Why were so many different kinds of people able to live together in Eskibahçe so peacefully?

4. What makes Eskibahçe such a marvelously colorful village? Who are some of its most eccentric and engaging characters? How does the village change over the course of the novel?

5. The novel vividly describes the nationalist fervor that swept the world in the early twentieth century: “Serbia for the Serbs, Bulgaria for the Bulgarians, Greece for the Greeks, Turks and Jews out!” [p. 16] What causes these feelings? What are their ultimate consequences?

6. After Ayse and Polyxeni convince the reluctant Daskalos Leonidas to write a message in tears on the wings of a dove, which they hope will fly to Polyxeni’s dead mother, Ayse exclaims, “It’s incredible! A man with that much education, and he didn’t even know about how to get a message to the dead” [p. 77]. What does this scene suggest about the gulf between traditional and modern ways of understanding the world?

7. On the way to Smyrna, Iskander prefaces his story by saying, “The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole” [p. 128]. Is what Iskander says here true of the novel itself? How does the story line “creep all over the place”?

8. What kind of man is Mustafa Kemal? How does he achieve his great military success? What are the ultimate consequences of his actions?

9. Leyla tells Rustem Bey that the women in town are saying he is a bad master because he doesn’t beat her [p. 228]. What does this passage suggest about the relationship between women and men in the novel? What roles are women expected to play? In what ways are they oppressed by their culture?

10. What are the most horrific aspects of war as they are described in Birds Without Wings? What are its greatest cruelties? What surprising acts of compassion do the soldiers perform for one another and even for their enemies? How does war affect the village of Eskibahçe?

11. Why does de Bernières use different narrators and different points of view in the novel? Does this multiplicity of voices mirror some of the novel’s main themes?

12. What is the significance of the relationships between Philothei and Ibrahim and between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik? Why are these young people so drawn to each other despite their religious differences?

13. Can Birds Without Wings be read as a cautionary tale for our own times? What does the novel say about the larger themes of love and war, revenge and forgiveness, both toward oneself and others?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 1, 2009

    Superb telling of a forgotten period of history, except by those who actively experienced it.

    This book tells the story of the Smyrna inhabitants and the population exchange which forged the new Turkish and Greek nations. It should be read by people who are deeply interested in the lessons of history. The characters live forever.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2007

    Never enjoyed a book more.

    The most ambitious in its effort to sort out a hundred years of the history of a region that has seen the tides of history for 6000 years. It will be hard for me ever to use the word, Epic, ever again with having this book in mind. Through the eyes a dozen simple yet exquisitely drawn characters we come to grasp the political ambitions of wannabe expansionist countries (leadership), the unabashed imperialism of others, their manipulation of religious movements whose differences are felt by leaders if never by their followers. The entire range of human emotion are wrenched from the characters as they are conscripted into wars most horrible and struggles of juxtaposed cultures. The culture clashes are depicted to be convenient to the propaganda of national leaders if not felt by the people themselves. Awesome to attempt such an ambitious task. Even more to accomplish it. The book¿s greatest lesson, not to blame generations of people for the egotistic stupidity of a few of its leaders. Even as the political leaders of today repeat the mistakes of history.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful yet sad

    This novel of epic proportions is set in a small village in the Ottoman empire, on the brink of civil war. For generations, the peoples of the village have intermingled and intermarried. Even their religions have somewhat blended, with Muslims praying to the Christian saints, and Christians upholding some of the Muslims beliefs. It's a peaceful and quaint town that time has forgotten.

    Soon great changes come to the region, in the way of war and destruction. The village and it's occupants realize that life, unfortunately, often changes even when you don't want it to.

    I thought this book was extremely well written, and that the story very moving and sad. It's one of those books that really make you ponder just how unfair and random life can be.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2011

    Fascinating View of a Complex Period of History

    I read this book because we are soon traveling to Greece and Turkey. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Though there is not the usual cast of main characters, I became completely and emotionally involved in the story of what happens in the village while being quite informed about this very complex period of history. At first, I wasn't sure I could keep the historical events straight as they are so complicated. But through masterful writing, Mr. De Bernieres draws you into the political machinations of the various groups involved and the tragic results for everyone who had to "wade in lakes of blood" A fine book indeed!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2011

    Awesome book

    The author has painted a beautiful picture of turkey!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2007

    Birds Without Wings

    Though it is a long read, more like an epic tome, you will come to love each of the characters like they were your own family. No one can fully write a character better than LdB, that's what makes his novels extraordinary and worth the investment in reading. LdB must have experienced some sort of loss in his life to write about it so well, so complete. He nails it. I do agree that the plot could be a bit more developed, but I think that adds to its charm. It doesn't come across as just a story 'not quite as fantastic', but more like a real history. I recommend you read Captain Corelli's Mandolin first and then read this one. Corelli is a bit more light-hearted, and he links the two books together 'very clever'.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2005

    Destined to be one of the great books about the early twentieth century

    I simply implore you to read this epic masterpiece. Its story details in both a grand and small way how a small village must cope with the coming of the ¿modern¿ world and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. De Bernieres last book, CORNELLIS MANDOLIN was also a masterpiece (forget about the movie please), and I think this new volume is even more powerful Filled as it is with lush language, a multitiude of fully developed characters all as vivid as your best friend. This is a bit of history each of us must and should know about as it is a disaster caused by outsiders and an emerging new world order. Like Dr. Zhivargo, these villagers just wish to live their lives, worship, and work and enjoy the beauty that is this are of the Empire. They all get along and our tolerant of each other, Christian and Muslim, Greek and Armenian. Only a few dream dreams of old empires lost. The narrative drive is all Mr. De Bernieres but he does it though many voices as most chapters are told by characters in the story. One even told by a drowning man while he is drowning quite effective, inventive and marvelously readable. And yes, like real life, there are frustrations as character come and go and sometimes you never do learn their fates. I would venture to say this book has to be destined to be one of the great books about the early twentieth century. (It reminded me, in part, of a cross between Sebastian Faulks masterful BIRDSONG and Ursula Heigi¿s excellent STONES FROM THE RIVER.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2004

    An enchanting lesson about history and the world

    While BWW starts off rather slowly, it soon becomes one of those books that the one cannot put down. Though I'd agree with some critics that it is not plot driven, I think this is part of the book's strength, rather than a flaw. BWW weaves its way through the years preceding and following WWI via many smaller, engaging stories. Like in the writer's other books, there is a myriad of vibrant characters and through them reader is able to more genuinely connect with the tragedy that befalls this Ottoman community as its world vanishes. This is a really wonderful and informative book. I was very sad when it was over.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2004

    Ambitious, Sprawling, Almost Great

    Like Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Birds Without Wings is an almost great novel. In Corelli, de Bernieres kept his head until the last 80 pages. Here, his ambition gets the best of him early. There are so many threads, such a dizzying array of characters and storylines, that it's easy to get lost in the sprawl. This is not so much a novel as a platter of delicious vignettes -- but delicious they are. de Bernieres is a fabulous writer, and a master at interpreting history into human terms. In this case, it's the death of an empire and the birth of a nation that comes to life -- and all of the people in between.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2004

    A truly great novel.

    This is the best novel I've read this year by far. Both intimate and epic, sad, touching and funny. It's extremely rare that a novel makes me cry, but this one did. I also felt a sense of loss at the end. I liked Correlli's Mandolin, but this is several orders of magnitude better. The plot deals with a part of history that most westerners know little about, as well as the rise of one of history's true revolutionaries, Kemal Ataturk. The intimate part of the novel is how the actions of those in power affect the lives of those living in a small Turkish village. The writing in this novel is so fine, luminous even, that I would highly recommend it even to someone completely uninterested in Turkey or Greece. Please read this novel. I PROMISE you'll be glad you did.

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    Posted January 19, 2010

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    Posted October 25, 2012

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    Posted November 20, 2008

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