***Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres (2004)

I haven’t read a book this good in a very long time.  Ironically, it took me nearly a month to read it, though.  I think it’s because there’s so much to it.  The writing is beautiful, and though it’s fiction, the subject matter is dense with history and detail.  So, trying to soak up all the historical aspects of the story as well appreciating the prose (sometimes reading sentences several times), I sort of meandered through this one.  It’s essentially the story of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Turkey, and having just returned from a trip to Greece and Turkey, I was fascinated by the details of this period in history.  I found myself constantly flashing back to our trip as so many of the cultural, historical, and religious details of the book are so evident today.  The story is told in several voices, most of them in first person from a number of different characters, and some of them by a third person narrator.  I’m always impressed with an author can pull off that many voices and make each compelling and believable.  We get a cast of characters–Christian and Muslim of Turkish, Greek, and Armenian descent–who once lived in harmony, but as the Ottoman Empire falls apart, the Turks get enmeshed in WWI, and Turkey fights for its independence under Ataturk’s leadership and modernization, the Christian Armenians and Greeks are kicked out.  In the opening chapter, Iskander the Potter tells us: We knew that our Christians were sometimes called “Greeks” although we often called them “dogs” or “infidels,” but in a manner that was a formality, or said with a smile, just as were their deprecatory terms for us.  They would call us “Turks” in order to insult us, at the time when we called ourselves “Ottomans” or “Osmanlis.”  Later on it turned out that we really are “Turks,” and we became proud of it, as one does of new boots that are uncomfortable at first, but then settle into the feet and look exceedingly smart.” (fiction).

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