'Corelli' Author Returns with an Ottoman Romance
In its waning days, at the turn of the last century, the Ottoman Empire was a cosmopolitan sprawl of ethnicities and religions, stretching from Albania all the way to Baghdad. In many villages, Muslims and Christians, Turks, Greeks and Armenians lived side-by-side, borrowing from each other's language and religion. Author Louis de Bernières has chosen this world for the setting of his new novel, Birds Without Wings.
Fans have waited a decade for a follow-up from the author, best known for his last book, Corelli's Mandolin. NPR's Jennifer Ludden talks with de Bernières about his latest novel.
Book Excerpt: Birds Without Wings
Editor's Note: At this point in the novel, Yusuf's daughter is pregnant by a Christian, leaving him with only one, terrible course of action...
The Tyranny of Honour
Yusuf the Tall loved all his children equally, with a passionate adoration that, when he thought about it, sometimes made him lachrymose. If his life were like a garden, then his daughters would be like the roses growing alongside its walls, and his sons would be like young trees that formed a palisade against the world. When they were small he devoted happy hours to their entertainment, and when they grew older he hugged them until their eyes bulged and they thought that their ribs would crack. He had grown to love his wife too, partly because this is what happens when a wife is well chosen, and partly because from her loins had sprung these brooks and becks of happiness.
But now Yusuf the Tall did not know what to do with his hands. It seemed as though they were behaving on their own. The thumb and middle finger of his left hand stroked across his eyeballs, meeting at the bridge of his nose. It was comforting, perhaps, for a scintilla of time. There was no comfort longer than that in this terrible situation. Sometimes his hands lay side by side on his face, the tips of his thumbs touching the lobes of his ears. He had thrown off his fez so that they could stroke his hair backwards, coming to rest on the back of his neck. The maroon fez lay in a corner on its side, so that his wife Kaya kept glancing at it. Despite this awful emergency, and the drama in which she was caught up, her instinct was to tidy it away, even if it were only to set it upright. She sat on the low divan, kneading her fingers, biting her lip and looking up at her husband. She was as helpless as one who stands before the throne of God.
Yusuf the Tall strode up and down the room, waving his hands, protesting and expostulating, sometimes burying his face in his hands. Kaya had not seen him so anguished and begrieved since the death of his mother three years before. He had painted the tulip on the headstone with his own hands, and had taken bread and olives so that he could eat at the graveside, imagining his mother underneath the stones, but unable to picture her as anything but living and intact.
Yusuf had passed the stage of anger. The time had gone when these patrollings of the room had been accompanied by obscenities so fearful that Kaya and her children had had to flee the house with their hands over their ears, their heads ringing with his curses against his daughter and the Christian: "Orospu çocu¢gu! Orospu çocu¢gu! Piç!"
By now, however, Yusuf the Tall was in that state of grief which foreknew in its full import the horror of what was inescapably to come. His face glistened with anticipatory tears, and when he threw his head back and opened his mouth to groan, thick saliva strung itself across his teeth.
Overtaken, finally, by weariness, Kaya had given up pleading with him, partly because she herself could see no other way to deal with what had occurred. If it had been a Muslim, perhaps they could have married her to him, or perhaps they could have repeated what had been done with Tamara Hanim. Perhaps they could have kept her concealed in the house, unmarried forever, and perhaps the child could have been given away. Perhaps they could have left it at the gates of a monastery. Perhaps they could have sent her away in disgrace, to fend for herself and suffer whatever indignities fate and divine malice should rain upon her head. It had not been a Muslim, however, it had been an infidel.
Yusuf was an implacable and undeviating adherent to his faith. Originally from Konya, he was not like the other Muslims of this mongrel town who seemed to be neither one thing nor the other, getting converted when they married, drinking wine with Christians either overtly or in secret, begging favours in their prayers from Mary Mother of Jesus, not asking what the white meat was when they shared a meal, and being buried with a silver cross wrapped in a scrap of the Koran enfolded in their hands, just because it was wise to back both camels in salvation’s race. Yusuf the Tall regarded such people with disdain. Moreover, it is one of the greatest curses of religion that it takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbours who have loved each other into bitter enemies. He had lived serenely among Christians for most of his life, but now that she had despoiled and defiled herself with an infidel, this was the worst in all that tormented him.
Yusuf stopped pacing the room, and at last called his sons together. His other daughters assembled too, standing silent and cowed at the back of the darkened room.
When his sons were before him, Yusuf took his pistol from his sash, weighed it in his hand, took it by the barrel, and handed it to his second son, Sadettin. Sadettin took it by the butt, and looked at it in disbelief. At first his voice seemed to fail him. "Baba, not me," he said.
"I have tried," said Yusuf, "and I can't. I am ashamed, but I can't."
"Not me, Baba. Why me?"
"You have courage. Great courage. And you are obedient. This is my command."
Yusuf beheld the spiritual and moral agony of his second son, and the surprise, but he would not relent.
"It should be Ekrem," pleaded his second son, gesturing towards the first-born. "Ekrem is oldest." Ekrem held out his hands as if to push his brother away, shaking his head vigorously.
"Ekrem will take my place when your mother dies," said Yusuf. "He is the first-born. You are all used to obeying him. He will be head of the family. It is you who must do this thing." He paused. "I command it."
Father and second son looked at each other for a long moment. "I command it," repeated Yusuf the Tall.
"I would rather kill myself," said Sadettin at last.
"I have other sons." Yusuf placed his hand on Sadettin’s shoulder.
"I am your father."
"I will never forgive you," replied his second son.
"I know. Nonetheless, it is my decision. Sometimes..." and here he hesitated, trying to name whatever it is that takes our choices away, "...sometimes we are defeated."
Yusuf and Sadettin stood facing each other silently, and at the back of the room one of the girls began to sob. Sadettin appealed to his mother; kneeling before her and taking her hands in his, "Anneci¢gim! Annece¢gim!"
Kaya removed her hands from his grasp, and raised them in a small gesture of impotence. She seemed suddenly like an old woman who has turned her back on life.
"I command you," said Yusuf the Tall.
"It will be on your head," exclaimed Sadettin angrily, rising to his feet.
"On my head," repeated Yusuf.
Sadettin entered the haremlik. It was dark because the shutters were closed, and it smelled comfortingly of things feminine and mysterious. In the corner, glowing and glittering with terror in the half-light, he saw the eyes of his sweet sister, Bezmialem, of all his sisters the most gentle, and the one he loved the best.
"Sadettin," she murmured, her soft voice full of resignation. "I thought it would be Ekrem."
"I thought it would be him," said Sadettin.
She glanced at the pistol, placed her hand on her stomach and looked down. "You will kill both of us."
"The child is innocent."
Sadettin felt the pistol grow heavier in his hand. To himself he thought, "I won’t defile my right hand" and he transferred it to his left.
"I am innocent," said Sadettin.
"We are all innocent," replied Bezmialem.
"You are not." He felt a sudden surge of anger. He blamed her for bringing down the shame, and for shutting him in this trap.
"I found something better than honour," she said, her eyes momentarily shining with happy remembrance.
"What is better than honour?"
"I don’t know the name of it. But it is better. It makes me innocent."
Sadettin took his sister’s right hand in his, knelt before her, and touched it to his heart, his lips and his forehead. He kissed it. He tried to suppress his pain, and he bowed his head. "It is not me who does this thing," he managed to say at last. He said it as quickly as he could, so that the words would not be throttled by sorrow and die in his throat.
"It is our father who does this," said his sister. "The injustice isn’t yours."
"May God receive you in paradise," said Sadettin.
"May I see you there," replied Bezmialem.
"May the angels carry you."
"And you when the time comes."
Sadettin raised himself up and realised that after all he would have to defile his right hand. He transferred the pistol, threw his left arm around his sister’s neck and embraced her. They stood together, trembling. Softly she put her arms around him, as if he were a lover. He felt the soft pulse of her breath on his neck. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against her heart, clenched his eyes shut, muttered, "In the name of God..." and fired. He held Bezmialem to him as she choked and the spasms and convulsions overcame her. He thought that they would never end, and the dread came over him that he might have to go out, reload the pistol and shoot her again. For a desperate few seconds he wondered if it might not be possible to take her to a surgeon and save her. At last her head fell on his shoulder, and finally he let her down gently to the floor. He knelt and kissed her, the arc of his motion so familiar because so akin to the rituals of the mosque, and then he rested his forehead on hers.
When Sadettin emerged into the selamlik, his shirt was glistening with the dark blood that his sister had coughed up, and it was as if he had become another man. He threw the gun down at his father’s feet in a brutal gesture of contempt, held his father’s gaze, and wiped his hands so roughly together that they made a sound like clapping. "I have defiled my right hand because of you. I am finished with you all," he said.
"Where will you go?" asked his father.
"Where do the birds go?" asked Sadettin. He gestured in the direction of the Taurus Mountains, rising up from the Elysian coastal plain like a vast and sombre fortress. Behind them stretched the grim plains of the east, where a hard and uncouth people sat silently in the dark for months, doing nothing whilst they waited for the winter snows to melt.
"I am an outlaw," he said. "That is where I will be. With God’s help, I shall not live long."
Sadettin left, taking nothing with him but a musket, and without kissing his father’s hand, or touching it to his forehead, or to his heart.
Shortly afterwards Yusuf the Tall emerged from the house with the pistol restored to his sash, his fez brushed and restored to his head. A small and anxious crowd of people had gathered outside, wondering about the meaning of the shot. They had seen Sadettin leave in a fury, with his musket over his shoulder and the blood on his shirt, and his air of one who would never be able to bear a human touch again.
Ignoring these people, Yusuf set off down the steep and teeming alleyways.
He was affronted by the normality of the town. He stepped over the sleeping dogs, and skirted the kneeling camels. In the distance he could hear the Blasphemer railing against the priest. Little Philothei was being followed as usual by Ibrahim. Her friend Drosoula, as usual, had the devoted Gerasimos in tow. Abdulhamid Hodja rode by on Nilufer, her bells tinkling and her ribbons fluttering. Under his awning, Iskander the Potter worked at his wheel, and raised a lazy clay-caked hand in greeting. The goldfinch of Leonidas twittered in its cage outside the teacher’s door. Ali the Snowbringer led his donkey by, its flanks wet and glistening from the melting packs of ice. Karatavuk in his black shirt, and Mehmetçik in his red, played with stones under a fig tree. To Yusuf, all this ordinariness was like the mockery of God.
He found the two gendarmes playing backgammon together on a table in the shade of the plane trees of the meydan. As the day had grown warmer, so more of the buttons of their tunics had become undone. Both of them were in urgent need of the weekly shave that they would take that evening before Friday began. They looked up, not unduly pleased to be interrupted in their duty to the holy game of backgammon, and pronounced "Hos. geldiniz" in reluctant unison.
"Hos. bulduk," replied Yusuf, adding, "I am sorry to disturb you."
He drew the pistol from his sash, and laid it down gently on the board, so that he would not disturb the pieces. The gendarmes looked up at him in puzzlement and expectation.
"I am a murderer," declared Yusuf gently, "and I have come to offer myself for arrest."
Excerpted from Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières, 2004. Used by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
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