Details: (c) Louis de Bernières 2004; Pub Secker & Warburg 2004; ISBN 0-436-20549-1
Verdict: Birds without wings has moments, but is rambly and preachy more of the time than it's successful.
Reasons for reading it: I enjoyed Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
How it came into my hands: Libary.
Birds without wings spends over 600 hundred pages informing the reader that war is bad and genocide is bad too. And it's sort of attempting to educate the world about some of the horrific things that happened in Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean in the early years of the 20th century. I do agree with de Bernières that this stuff isn't nearly as well known as it should be in western Europe, and it is important. And it is true that people are more likely to read an undoubtedly well-written novel than a purely factual history. The trouble is, the moral message gets in the way of the story.
The best thing about BWW is the vivid descriptions. De Bernières does some pretty impressive things with language, and he really evokes both the beauty and joy of peacetime life in his rural Mediterranean communities, as well as the utter horror of trench warfare (without descending into pornagraphy of violence). The book succeeds in being both humourous and moving in appropriate places. And it's a really interesting portrayal of a very rural, almost peasant community, showing people just getting on with their lives without a lot of intellectualism or cultural sophistication, but not patronizing the people who live just above subsistence level.
There are some delightfully memorable characters, and the multiple viewpoints with the characters directly addressing the reader or switching into ordinary third person work well. But there are too many characters and none of them is developed in any great depth. And there is absolutely no plot; the book is far too long to sustain itself, and there's no clear narrative thread. Lots of random incidents happen, and generally the Great War and the Turkish war of independence make everybody's lives much worse than they were at the start of the book, and leave a fair proportion dead or mad. But that's not a plot, and the lack of such, plus the rather depressing subject material, made it hard to be motivated to keep reading. Even the flights of poetic language are a bit patchy compared to Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
BWW would be improved with a much tighter structure. It would also be improved with fewer snarky remarks about
banal, ordinary little genocidesand the way the massacre of millions of Jews by the Nazis gets far more historical attention than all the mutual massacres of Greeks, Turks, Kurds, Armenians and various Baltic ethnicities. The conclusion that nationalism and religious fundamentalism are baaaaad because they lead to war and war leads to atrocities and the ordinary people who have nothing to do with grand political theories get hurt, seems, well, facile.
hatam_soferet makes the point a lot better in about 200 words. Please read her post if you are Jewish, and read it if you consider yourself a moral person. In fact, even if you read nothing else on LJ all month, read that post. Thank you, hatam_soferet.