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 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, 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 no central love affair to soften its tragedy. Near the beginning, de Bernieres introduces Philothei, his fictional village's most beautiful woman. 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 Kemal Ataturk out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
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. 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 again. He falls in love so deeply that he betrays even his own scruples to preserve his happiness.
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. By refusing to condescend to his characters--just showing, not explaining them--he endows even the most reprehensible figures with dignity. Like de Bernieres, Pamuk never generalizes. In their indelible novels, every tragedy wears a different face.