I have always lived in three states of time – the past, the future, and the dream. The past I use for recreational purposes – when I want to cry I think of all sorrows and disappointments; when I want to smile I cherish all those moments when I acted out of myself, when I committed a “crime” against society’s opinion, which ultimately made me feel like a God. The future I usually imagine in bright (very) colors after that second bottle of wine, when I make promises I am never going to fulfill and when getting that next step to perfection (which so far is the aim of my life) seems so easy. The dreams I value the most. In them I am not bounded by what happened in the past or by how this is going to affect my future. In my dreams I can be anywhere I want; I can change patterns; I can invent new ways; I can transform time and space; I can even transform people to suit my dreams. In dreams I accomplish something neither the past nor the future can give me. I accomplish freedom. Freedom of society’s rules, of people’s expectations, of daily obligations, of parents’ judgements, of even my friends’ judgements. I can be free out there. Trivial, but free as a bird.
When I read Birdy by William Wharton I instantly felt this was my book. It takes place in the past and in the dreams and it merely discusses prospects of the future. But it never stays in the present. The present is filled with despair, loneliness, grief, and suffering. What counts is the past and our dreams of a better present. Upon these two sort of realities the friendship between two opposing characters is revealed. Al is the strong, the wrestler, the fighter who looks at ways to conquer the world, to get revenge at some imaginary (or not) enemy, to be unbeatable. Birdy, his best friend, is different. Throughout his childhood and teens he is obsessed with canaries. He is one of those weird people you see with a strange obsession. Birdy’s infatuation with birds, though, is more than an obsession. For him this is a way to escape the meticulous, unfair, and lonely life and to get closer to his ideal – to fly. His greatest happiness comes from breading canaries, from endlessly observing their lifestyle and habitat, from helping them mate, from listening to their songs, and most importantly – from learning how to fly like them. Throughout the years Birdy’s obsession increases – he now dreams of being a bird. The present is no longer a desirable present for him; he prefers his dream life, where he acts, eats, sleeps, reproduces, and flies as a canary. The two realities coincide simultaneously in his mind, leading to a deep confusion and a mental illness.
Those two opposite characters remain friends despite their differences until they are separated by WWII. I wouldn’t go into much detail as to what war does to people; I think I’ve discussed that quite extensively in Remarque’s fiction. What I would say, though, is Al and Birdy return damaged from the war. One physically, the other one mentally. Al is hit severely in the head and in the stomach and returns from the battlefield, much to his own delight. Wharton here gives us the real world – the one where soldiers are afraid to death on the battlefield; the one where they dream of returning safely; the one where bravery and glory are substituted by fear and simple sense of self-protection. Birdy returns from the war under Catch 8 – he believes and he acts as if he is a bird and is thus trapped in a mental institution. Al is called in to help his childhood friend remember he is just a human. The other reality emerges – the stories of the past Al keeps telling his friend are both simple but powerful proofs of a friendship that doesn’t make sense on the outside, but fits perfectly on the inside. Both trapped in their own inquisition, Birdy and Al are looking for ways to continue their life in a world, where despair and desolation are predominant, and where love and compassion are forbidden words.
What I loved about the novel are the birds. Birdy’s experience in raising, observing, and learning from the canaries spans more than half of the book. And I get to think – are there more similarities or differences between birds and people? Birds (as people) are born helpless, without any skin to protect them. Their parents take care of them, learning them how to fly, how to eat, how to interact, and how to sing. Birds try flying so many times; they fall constantly, yet they continue trying until they succeed. Not all birds are meant to fly and to sing though; only the toughest, the persistant, the never giving-up are the ones who are able to see the sky within limits. Birds mate and love as well. The male chases, the female runs. Then they both take care of the family until the little ones are big enough to leave the nest and take care of themselves. But birds are different in one aspect – they are free and they can fly. They are not bounded by any rules, any prejudices, any judgements. They see the sky and they take it. Life is simple without complications, without too much thought, without asking the inevitable “why” questions. Unlike humans, who used their brain to construct a cage they now call civilization and are now using that same brain to try and escape from it. In that sense, can you blame Birdy’s obsession and his desire to be a bird and not a human? Can you really not envy the canaries? Can’t you see how simple everything could be if only we could be free. Not only by society, but free from ourselves. Because everyone has its own cage of inquisitions – and it is usually the head.
PS: The present shouldn’t be considered in reading this review or this novel. The present is only there so that we can remember the past and dream of another world. Nothing else.