Flies on the Butter, by Denise Hildreth, is the story of Rose Fletcher, who came from South Carolina, and is now going back. She has become a high-powered children's advocate in Washington D.C. but can't forget the pain of her childhood. The book describes her ten hour drive and all the things that happen to her along the way. I really wanted to like this book, especially because it was a gift from a student. I found it as relentlessly charming as an episode of "Touched by an Angel." I couldn't believe in the characters, who all seemed to be stereotypes. For example, Rose orders a salad in a diner and is brought, instead, a plate of fried chicken with all the fixings by a waitress who knows in her heart that that is what Rose needs. Rose, a committed vegetarian, obediently cleans her plate.
By contrast, Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières, doesn't have a stereotype in it. I read de Bernières' previous book, Corelli's Mandolin, a long time ago, and it made a huge impression on me. Although the movie was mediocre, the book is brilliant, and after the Haitian earthquake I thought many times of the earthquake scenes in that novel. De Bernières' writing reminds me a little bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it's hard to read for many of the same reasons - the cruelty, the unflinching descriptions of horrible sights, the profanity, the suffering. However, it's wonderful to read, too - because of the humanity, the love, the tragic characters caught in history and doing their best to live their lives in spite of the currents around them which they can't control.
Birds Without Wings is really the story of Turkey. Like Corelli's Mandolin, the story is told from many different points of view. We see the development of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern-day Turkey, but mostly we are in the village of Telmessos, among the colorful characters, Christian and Muslim, who live there. Iskander the Potter, one of these people, tells us:
"I blame these Frankish peoples, and I blame potentates and pashas whose names I will probably never know, and I blame men of God of both faiths, and I blame all those who gave their soldiers permission to behave like wolves and told them it was necessary and noble....I wonder sometimes whether there are times when God sleeps or averts His eyes, or if there is a divine perversity. Who knows why one day a man drowns because a deep hole has been carved in the fording place of a river, where men have passed safely for centuries, and there was no hole before?"Iskander is known as a maker of proverbs, and the title of the book comes from one of these proverbs: "Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows." I learned a lot about Turkey by reading this; I had no idea of the forced migrations of Christians to Greece and Muslims to Turkey, for example. It was difficult to read the descriptions of war, and death, and torture, but this book was rewarding enough that I was willing to do it.
This post is linked to the June 11th Saturday Review of Books.