Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Flightless Turkey

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Flightless Turkey

Article excerpt


Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernieres

(Secker, [pounds sterling]17.99)

IT IS 10 years since Captain Corelli's Mandolin crept its way into the nation's imagination.

Louis de Bernieres's tale of love in a time of war on the Greek island of Cephallonia has sold more than 2.5 million copies and in 2001 spawned the cheesy film starring Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz.

Now here comes another Mediterranean blockbuster, Birds Without Wings. The setting this time is the small town of Eskibahce, on the south-west coast of Turkey, at the end of the 19th century.

The Ottoman Empire, with Istanbul its exotic capital poised on the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia Minor, is degenerating and the great powers of Britain, France, Germany and Russia are lining up like vultures to pick over the remains.

De Bernieres tells the story of the "heirs of Alexander and Constantine, and Socrates" who are sent off to fight at Gallipoli, and also of Mustafa Kemal, aka Ataturk, who in 1923 became first president of the newly created state of Turkey.

Once again a rural idyll is punctured by the catastrophe of war. Once again we find ourselves in the company of ingenious characters, such as Rustem Bey, the "aga" or headman, a typical Turk with his red fez and pomaded moustache; his oud-playing mistress, Leyla; Iskander the potter and his son Karatavuk, who reports back from Gallipoli; the heart-stopping Philothei and her childhood sweetheart Ibrahim.

Telltale signs that this is a De Bernieres novel are dotted throughout: Mustafa Kemal is one of "Destiny's men"; Philothei's beauty is so entrancing that those who succumb to it "receive a lesson in fate"; in the midst of war it is possible to find something to prove that "out of all the vileness, a small light still shines".

In Captain Corelli such bouts of cod philosophy were offset by the sharpness of observation; in Birds Without Wings there is not enough fleshy reality to soak up the syrup.

We are introduced to so many characters in the first 100 pages or so that it is difficult to remember who they all are or to care about what happens to them. …

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