Turkey is a novelist's dream, or perhaps a land dreamed by a novelist. A border country between Europe and the Middle East, it has for centuries been so many things to so many people--Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and, of course, Turks--that it has become a place where fantasies and realities collide like tectonic plates. Everybody has a story, and, as two new novels set in Turkey demonstrate in their radically varying tales, every story is startlingly unique.
In "Birds Without Wings," Louis de Bernieres tackles a piece of Turkish history with the same vigor that he used to sketch World War II Greece in "Corelli's Mandolin." But this is a darker book, with nothing like its predecessor's central love affair to soften its tragedy. Near the novel's beginning, de Bernieres introduces Philothei, his fictional village's most beautiful woman, about whom one character says she "reminded you of death," because to look upon her was to know that "everything decays away and is lost." Like Eskibahce, the village she inhabits, Philothei is notable for nothing but her beauty; both are doomed. By the end of "Birds Without Wings," Eskibahce has been decimated by World War I and its aftermath. What had been a patchwork paradise of ethnicities--Greeks, Turks and Armenians--is gone, sacrificed for modern Turkey, forged by the ruthless, charismatic Kemal Ataturk out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks have been exiled, the Armenians slaughtered. Those who remain are too impoverished and war-weary to know what hit them.
De Bernieres takes his cues from Tolstoy--his characters' stories are always played out against the scrim of history. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is more a Kafka man. "Snow" takes place in the 1990s in the far-eastern Turkish village of Kars. And while the story, packed with nationalists, socialists and militant Islamists, has a superficial currency, its reality is dreamlike. Snow falls for most of the novel, isolating the town, where a poet, called Ka, has come to investigate a series of suicides by teenage Muslim girls who refuse the secular government's order to remove their headscarves. Artistically blocked for years, Ka, a Westernized sophisticate, suddenly begins to write poetry again. He falls in love so deeply that he begins to betray everything--even his own scruples--to preserve his happiness. Because he believes in nothing beyond his own desire, he is marked for tragedy.
De Bernieres is so inventive--celebratory but never sentimental--that he is the more beguiling of the two novelists. But Pamuk is the more profound. At the end of "Snow," a young man says to the narrator, "I'd like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away." By refusing to condescend to his characters--by just showing them, not explaining them--Pamuk endows even the most reprehensible figures with dignity. Like de Bernieres, Pamuk never generalizes. In their indelible novels, every tragedy wears a different face.