A Review of Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres

This is a touching book describing beautifully how multiethnic communities used to live in peace with each other and the events that destroyed that life and led to unspeakable bloodshed, cruelties and suffering for all. The story takes place mainly in what is now southwestern Turkey, in a town inhabited by Greek Christians, Moslems, and Armenians and the catastrophic events took place 80-90 years ago during World War I and the subsequent Greek-Turkish war. It was difficult for me to finish the book because the tragic events described in the most of the last chapters were too close to home. Both of my parents were born in what is now Turkey and my mother's family had to flee their homes with only a few hours notice, following the retreating Greek Army. I grew up hearing stories how well Christians and Moslems lived together and how that life was destroyed and the enormous suffering that followed. I can attest that what described in the book is fairly accurate in the sense that it fits with what I have heard from my parents and grandparents and with what I have read in several books in Greek. Because such ethnic strife and atrocities continue throughout the world today the story of the book should be of interest to everybody and just to Greeks, Turks, or Armenians.

There are several minor historical errors in the book but these do not detract from the overall story. Also the description of the communal life before the disasters is a bit too idyllic. For example, intermarriage between Christians and Moslems was not as common as the book describes and in cases when it occurred the Christian partner would be the one converting to Islam and not the other way around. The book is also weak in its explanations for the deep causes of the change. Certainly, nationalism is the direct culprit, but what stirred up nationalism? The proximate causes offered in the book do not seem valid because ethnic strife and ethnic cleaning are occurring repeatedly to his day and in lands quite far from Greece and Turkey (or the Balkans). I suspect that we deal with maladaptive human behavior. Instincts that helped hunter gatherer groups survive 50,000 years ago have no place in an era of relatively abundant resources and when the spear has been replaced by machine guns and bombs. I suppose rather than fanning the flames of "ethnic identity" we should try to suppress them. It will be difficult to disagree with the last statement after you have read this book.

February 2006