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December 28, 2005

Birds Without Wings

Book front cover
Birds Without Wings
Louis de Bernieres
3 out of 5 stars

A historic novel which considers the fall of the Ottoman empire from various persepctives. It begins in the village of Iskibance and captures the rustic life of the rural peoples, their beliefs and traditions, and particularly the inter-religious relationship of the Christans and Muslims that lived along side each other before the forced mass rehabilitation that came at the beginning of the 20th century. The picturesque village life is pieced together by De Bernieres' 3rd person narrative and the first person voices of various characters looking back on the time that De Berniers writes about, recounting the events in a past tense, relying on their memory and emotional anecdotes to give life to the story. At the centre of the village's narrative it the story of Pilothei, the village beauty who, as hinted from the start, is in some way doomed.
De Bernieres then provides the military and political perspective of the Ottoman wars through the character of Mustafa Kemal, a determined revolutionary general who works his way into a position of crucial importance in the wars. De Bernieres uses Kemal's life story as a springboard for the statistics of horrendous genocides that occured and are forgotten today. Genocides that were as devistating to the muslims as the holocaust was to the jews, carried out on the basis of religious belief, but are barely acknowledged today.
The result is a novel which invites the reader to develop an emotional relationship with the inhabitants of Iskibance, accepting their religious harmony, a relationship which is then heartbroken by the devistation of war and the destruction of Iskibance as a result.
The novel gives a fairly comprehensive introduction to the later stages of the Ottoman Empire and how life changed with the wars and the reformation of the Middle East after the Empire's destruction. It is a great read, a bit slow to work through, but a beautiful work that would especially appeal to historic novel lovers, or anyone with an interest in the history of the Middle East.

This isn't a comprehensive review because what I really intended to do was post my favourite quotes from the book. De Bernieres writes with such eloquence and some of his politically charged paragraphs are wonderfully poetic. Here are some of my favourite bits which I remembered to make note of:

…history is finally nothing but a sorry edifice contructed from flesh in the name of great ideas

This next quote is in reference to the Russian Christian massacres of hunderds of thousands of Muslims in Eastern Europe. Could be the start of an interesting debate…feel free to comment:

Christians throughout history, took no notice of the key parable of Jesus Christ himself which taught that you should love your neighbour as yourself…This has never made any difference to Christians since the primary epiphenomena of any religious foundation are the production and flourishment of hypocrisy, megalomania and psycholpathy, and the first casulaty of a religious establishment are the intentions of its founder…
…they played abstractly at backgammon, that game which mirrors life by being composed half of calculation and half of luck…

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