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Goodbye to all that

Birds Without Wings A Novel Louis de Bernieres Alfred A. Knopf: 560 pp., $25.95

August 22, 2004|Peter Green | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph and the author of many books, including "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age," "The Laughter of Aphrodite" and "The Sword of Pleasure."

On Tuesday, May 29, 1453, the great Byzantine capital of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II, understandably known thereafter as "The Conqueror." Christendom at large was shocked by Islam's breaching of so famous a bastion of Christian civilization. (Many Greeks still avoid making business deals on a Tuesday.) The Orthodox inhabitants of Anatolia, however, many of whom had already passed under the easygoing Ottoman yoke, were more ambivalent. One Byzantine aristocrat remarked, sourly, that the Turkish turban was preferable to the Catholic miter (the Fourth Crusade had treated Constantinople a good deal worse than Mehmet II ever did). To the Turks, Christians might be rayim (cattle) and legally second-class citizens, but they remained People of the Book, who were allowed to practice their religion freely and, to a great extent, governed themselves.

For four centuries, while Greek irredentists dreamed of recovering Constantinople and Greek Anatolia, of reconsecrating the Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia -- a dream known as the Great Idea, to which the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s gave a tremendous boost -- many Greeks of Asia Minor steadily acclimatized themselves to coexistence within an Islamic society. Known as Karamanli Christians, they spoke Turkish rather than Greek, though still, improbably, using the Greek alphabet to write it. Their comparatively peaceful, exotically multicultural enclaves became the victims of and finally were destroyed by the various rabid nationalist forces of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Greek advocates of the Great Idea, Enver Pasha and his Young Turks, the ruthless modernizing carried out by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

This is the essential background to "Birds Without Wings," Louis de Bernieres' first major novel since "Corelli's Mandolin," and it serves as a preface to this review for two good reasons. First, because it is an aspect of European history about which most people will know little, if anything, and this (coupled with the author's neglect to gloss the numerous Greek and Turkish terms that spatter his pages) may well cause readers some confusion. Second, because De Bernieres -- very properly, given his setting -- provides only, for the most part, the views of his Greco-Turkish victims, complete with all their propaganda and myths.

Let one example suffice. The horrific public climax of De Bernieres' polyphonic narrative is the destruction of Smyrna (modern Izmir) by the Turks in 1922, after the ignominious rout and evacuation of a Greek expeditionary force -- a catastrophe that led to a brutally nationalist solution: the forced exchange and relocation of more than a million minority inhabitants of both Greece and Anatolia. When Smyrna fell, 30,000 Christians were massacred; the Greek, Armenian and Frankish quarters were burned to the ground. Yet what the reader is presented with, rather than this, is a harrowing account of alleged atrocities committed by the retreating Greeks (who might be thought to have had other priorities just then), clearly put out by the Turks ex post facto to offer some justification for the slaughter of Greeks and torching of the city. From a dramatic and fictional viewpoint, this presentation is exactly right, but readers shouldn't assume that what they're getting is balanced history.

De Bernieres' setting is the (fictional) small coastal town of Eskibahce, near Fethiye (ancient Telmessos) in southwest Anatolia. Before the troubles start, everything is presented, one realizes in retrospect, as just a shade too Edenic, with multiple narrative voices producing a kind of yogurt-and-shish-kebab version of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood." Characters include Iskander the Potter, who produces as many aphorisms as pots; the beautiful but empty-headed Christian adolescent Philothei (worshipped from afar by the dumbly adoring Islamic adolescent Ibrahim); and her ugly girlfriend Drosoula (who is exiled on Kephalonia, scene of "Corelli's Mandolin," to which those in the know will catch a quick allusion).

The large cast also includes two teenage pals, Abdul and Niko, better known by their nicknames of Karatavuk (blackbird) and Mehmetcik (robin) from the clay water-whistles, imitating birdsong, that they carry everywhere; Rustem Bey, the local landowner, with his shining boots and mustache and private sexual misery; and the Bey's mistress, Leyla, sold to him as a Circassian concubine but who, in fact, is an educated Greek from Ithaca. Unlike the rest of the Christian community (even the priest, who knows only the Greek of the liturgy), she actually speaks her own language but wisely keeps the fact to herself.

Threaded between these and other reminiscent voices, as they create their nostalgic pointillistic tapestry of a remote rural society, are the sections chronicling the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal. Unlike the rest of the book, they are all -- heavy symbolism here -- written in the present tense.

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