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Book Corner Oct 4, 2004

Birds Without Wings
by Louis De Bernieres

Albert A. Knopf Publishers, 2004, pp. 554

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl

              For those members of the seminary community who visited Turkey this past January, this superlative work of fiction will have significant appeal.  Exquisitely written with humor, elegance and insight, the novel is set in the region of Southwest Anatolia just prior to World War I, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrates.  The primary characters are a host of small-village people who are both Christian and Muslim.  Their customs, friendships and relationships cross and criss-cross over a period of almost forty years.

  The encompassing forces of nationalism, which grow with WWI and the ascent of the liberal figure Mustafa Kemal as leader of the new Turkey, provide the backdrop of the story.

            Friendships cross many borders.  The Muslim women pray before the Greek icon of the Virgin Mary in the local church.  Christian and Muslim men share the Turkish liquor 'raki.'   The insane and the outcast live in the old tombs around the city and are also part of the village's life.  Descriptions of WW I and its battlefields are detailed and based on actual records.

            Stories of human deceit, mystery, betrayal and loyalty fill these chapters.  There are surprises:  the Christian woman stoned for adultery is rescued by the local Muslim imam;

the lifelong betrothal of a Christian girl and Muslim boy ends in the supposed murder of one of them; unexpected acts of generosity  on the part of the poorest and acts of arrogance on the part of the powerful emerge.

            You know you are in for quite a read when the first sentence of the first chapter, "The Prologue of Iskander the Potter," begins:  "The people who remained in this place have often asked themselves why it was that Ibrahim went mad." (p.3)

            de Berineres has an encyclopedic, historical mind and a compassionate and witty heart. Birds Without Wings would make a superlative book for discussion about life in a deeply pluralistic, multi-cultural community.  You will probably have the same reaction I had on reading this book: I want to read the other books he has written!

The range of people represented is broad.  There is the young, Chinese immigrant who is killed in the schoolyard by the well-aimed fist of the pastor's son.  A man, who was sent to clean the town's water tower, falls in and dies.  One wealthy citizen, a woman who had fame and recognition in Europe, returns home to die ignored and forgotten.  The varied personages reflect on incidents, which caused them to die of abandonment, war, life abroad, heartbreak or rage.  An overall reading of this collection also reveals Spoon River's power structures: the people who led and those who deceived and manipulated with power and money.

            Reading these poems is akin to reflecting on the lives - sometimes very hidden - of those who make up our congregations. What kind of an anthology would each of us write? About others? about our own life?  These poems are quotable, touched with pain, reality, beauty and thoughts of God.