And yet it is delightfully written. It tells the story of a village in south west Turkey. The story starts in about 1900. The Ottomans rule Turkey but the Young Turks are about to take over and Kemal Ataturk is beginning his career. The village is a delightful mixture of Christians and Moslems who share each others' loves and houses and even religious ceremonies. The story is told by the villagers (and Ataturk). We are told from the outset that we will discover about how Iskander the Potter maimed his favourite son and how Philothei the Christian girl who is a legendary beauty died. We also learn about Drousola who appears later in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The story progresses through the first world war and the birth of modern Turkey when the Armenians and Greeks are ethnically cleansed. The wonderful world of the village is forever destroyed.
There are loads of wonderful characters:
- Iskander the Potter makes up proverbs including 'Man is a bird without winds and a bird is a man without sorrows'. He makes bird whistles for his favourite son Karatavuk (Blackbird) and his son's best friend Mehmetcik (Red Robin).
- Karatavuk who fights at Gallipoli
- Rustum Bey the town's agha who puts aside his first wife for her adultery and takes as a concubine a prostitute called Leyla; they fall in love
The ethnic wars between the Greeks and the Turks and the Armenians and the Russians and the Bulgarians and the Serbians and the ... in short of the peoples who once lived in the Ottoman empire and the ethnic violence that accompanied its slow disintegration is chronicled with brutal effect particularly on pages 286-7
Rustum Bey says "if a war can be holy, then God cannot" on p299
"In the case of the Armenians there was the strong belief that they were the descendants of Noah, and that this made them special. A reasonably attentive reading of the Bible would have revealed the obvious fact that if its account is true, then absolutely everyone is a descendant of Noah." (p303)
I thought it was a boring book but on reflection I think it is a great book. The critics suggest the book is too big. Clearly the attempt has been to include as many characters as possible and when you do that you have to reduce each character's complexities. Obviously I felt in the middle that it was too long and too meandering. But actually there are moments of delight and the complexities of the true character, the village, are beautifully underlined. Many things are idyllic: each house has a song-bird outside it (the bird theme is omnipresent throughout the novel). But there are instances of idyllic violence as well: Rustum Bey kills his wife's adulterous lover and then drags his wife to the village square to be stoned, a father forces his son to kill his sister because of her infidelity. And there are lovely cross-cultural bits as well: because Philothei is so beautiful she is persuaded to wear a veil even though she is a Christian so that she will not distract too many men; this makes veils fashionable because uglier women want to be thought more beautiful. When Rustum's adulterous wife is stoned she is saved by the imam in a clear reference to Jesus.
A long but beautiful book.
Looking back in April 2016, I realise that I think about this book far more than Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the book that made de Bernieres famous. It is a deeper book, with more characters and, perhaps, more bitterness. Perhaps the Nazis are too easy as enemies.
August 2010; 625 pages