Friday, 14 February 2014

What I did on my holidays - Dennis Hamley

A large part of my reading now is of Indie books, with those from Electric Authors at the top of the list. But I do often revert to the old ways. The Luminaries awaits: quite apart from its obvious huge qualities, it's set in the town Kay grew up in. But I've just read a book which really stopped me in my tracks.

We were in Turkey in November and had a brilliant time. We were on a tour of the south west, starting in Antalya and taking us round all the great sights - St Nicholas's own cathedral, Ephesus, Aphrodisias, the rock tombs at Kaunos, the white terraces of Pamukkale. Staggering, all of it. Never to be forgotten.

Celsus Library, Ephesus

One day at a lunch stop, we went into an ordinary tourist shop to look round.  There were a few books there, mainly Turkish. But one, prominently displayed cover-out, took my eye. It was the only copy. What was it doing here? Waiting for me?

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I'm quite fond of de Bernieres. Captain Corelli was very enjoyable, though I don't think it altogether deserved all the hype. I'd read a few others of his and thought I should be admiring them a lot more than I actually was. Birds Without Wings was, I knew, about Turkey. Even so, to find it staring at me, pretty well the only book in English in an obscure shop deep in the country, seemed strange enough to be significant. Read me and understand who we are, it seemed to be saying. So I bought it for 32 Turkish lira.

Our week wasn't entirely an orgy of sight-seeing interspersed with long drives in a coach and having to get up each morning incredibly early. We learnt quite a lot about Turks and Turkish society. I had a reasonable outline history in my mind of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, a broad notion that it was a matter of 'Ottoman bad, Ataturk good.' What we saw seemed to bear this out. We saw evidence of a more traditonal way of life inland. But out here by the coast at least, we saw confident people, cosmopolitan, westernised, with their backs to the east and looking towards Europe, wearing Islam lightly, valuing education and proud of what they were making of it.  Our tour guide, Derya, typified them.  Highly articulate, even eloquent, deeply knowledgeable and witty, with a quality I admire so much - to be able to laugh in someone-else's  language. And a stand-up comedian's sense of timing as well.  All this together with being something we are told doesn't exist. A sceptical Muslim. The survey of Islam that he gave us  on a particularly long stretch between monuments was wonderful: a display of tact and empathy but deeply critical. And at the centre of his critique was the liberal education the Ataturk revolution brought which differentiated Turkey from the rest of Islam.

Yes, I know there's trouble in Turkey: name me somewhere where there isn't. But at the moment anyway, it's pretty puny compared with the mayhem going on round it, so I was disposed to continue regarding the coming of the modern Turkey and the role of Kemal Ataturk as a generally good thing.

Then, when we came home, I started reading Birds Without Wings. First of all, I have to say it's the sort of book which makes me wonder why on earth I even bother.  It has a sweeping yet intricate construction. It has a deep understanding of a society which an exterior observer has almost no right to possess: as readers we happily embrace the dramatisation of conduct and ways of thought which to us are bizarre if we can detect the author's empathy, sense of the 'felt life', instinctive understanding. In this novel I seemed to detect them with every word. It pulls no punches and avoids  no difficulties. It is both profoundly tragic and savagely funny. It is among the most ambitious novels I have ever read because it depicts the break-up and supplanting of a whole society. The only writer I know of who has done this better is Chinua Achebe.

But there's more - an ironic counterpoint chronicling the process which causes its downfall: the decay of the Ottoman Empire, the first world war and Gallipoli, the supplanting by Mustafa Kemal of Enver Pasha, the ambiguous German general, Liman von Sanders, the deadly but blind efficiency of the Germans, the cunning of the French, the hopeless bungling of the British, the futility of the whole Dardanelles campaign and the piles of rotting dead it produced. And behind it is the irresistible rise of Kemal Ataturk himself and with it the deadly nationalism which cursed the twentieth century and still does.

The old society was medieval. It was Turkish and Greek, Muslim and Christian, in equal measure. Yet it was peaceful, co-operative, depending on a delicately balanced notion of the division of labour. In  a strange way it worked because everybody wanted it to work. The two communities depended on each other. But 'Untune that string and hark what discord follows', was succeeded by 'Mischief, thou art afoot. Take what course thou wilt.'

In this new nationalist world, Turkey was for the Turks so Greece had to be only for the Greeks. Thus started yet another appalling population exchange with its dismal succession of summary expulsion, death marches, the zeal of the enforcers and the impotence of the forced. Ruined soldiers from Gallipoli crept home still not distinguishing between their British, French and Anzac enemies who they lumped together - along with their German allies - as Franks and wondering what on earth they had gone through all that for. Turks left bereft and helpless: even the village letter-writer had been deported so they were isolated and ignorant. Something which had worked for centuries had been swept away. We're in Arnold's Dover Beach country.' But now I only hear its melancholy long withdrawing roar.'

Birds Without Wings, however, is far from being a reactionary novel.  Whatever the enormity of the action, whatever the insensate cruelty, the bemused acceptance, the hideous serendipity of evil which is depicted, the novel is actually very funny. So many characters stay in the mind in the round: I believed in them.  There's a balance here: a detachment which can be both appalled and amused but never tells us what to think. Bernieres is not asking us to take sides - he's saying, 'This is how it was.'  And at the end, he briefly says 'And this is how it is.' A short portrait of Fetihye, a town close to the novel's main action, which we visited. And what do we find? Something happy, lively, cosmopolitan but even so remarkably like what the reader found before. Except for the final telling sentence  - There are no Greeks. Is this contentious, a political statement? No - there's neither regret nor approval: it's just a fact and is a stage in a historical process still to be played out. The process in all its terrible enormity had been depicted but there's no tendentious judgement.

Reading Birds Without Wings was for me a good experience because it reinforced what we as authors try to do - to be involved in deep and contentious issues whatever genre we write in, have strong feelings about them, look deep into them, try to tease out their complexities and then  say what I think the novelist's motto should always be - 'Yes, but...'  There's always a but and story is the best way to find it. Few books that I've read have the 'yes, but' quality I look for more than Birds Without Wings does.

That's why our week in Turkey was so good: a beautiful country with a breathtakingly long history which makes a Gothic cathedral look positively state of the art, a still young society which has emerged from a past with a horror which we can only half-comprehend into a future which I, from our clapped-out old country, can frankly only envy and, to top it all, a literary experience made sharper now I had seen what had brought this wonderful book into being.

All this on a £550 voucher just for being in the National Trust. Can't be bad!


JO said...

I always try to read something by local writers, or set in the country I'm visiting, when I travel. I enriches both my travelling and my reading. But I've not been to Turkey (which might not be a good enough reason not to have read Bird Without Wings).

Dan Holloway said...

fascinating. I've only been to Istanbul and it was truly magical. I do agree about the importance of writers of all genres getting involved in those things about which they are passionate

Kathleen Jones said...

Fantastic Dennis. I'd become rather tired of de Bernieres, maybe because of all the incessant hype. But this sounds like a book I want to read. Lovely to read such a passionate exposition!

Lydia Bennet said...

lovely stuff Dennis, you know how to get the most out of a trip! I did love Captain Corelli though it has the worst ending EVER in a novel! At the end of my play about Gallipolli, The Man and The Donkey, the director added a final speech by Attaturk about the fallen, which is a really beautiful one - telling the mothers of the Western fallen that he considered their sons, buried at Hell Spit, to now be also his sons and his people's.