Armenia is a tiny landlocked democracy in Eurasia surrounded by big players of world politics like Turkey and Russia and smaller ones like Georgia and Azerbaijan. It was the first nation in the world to embrace Christianity as the state religion as early as 4th century A.D.
The Armenian language is a unique subgroup in itself in the Indo-European family. Literary tradition has been alive and thriving even through the several regime changes.
Armenian Genocide is the darkest episode in the history of the Armenian people. Till the end of the First World War, a portion of the present day Armenia was a part of the Ottoman empire. When the war broke, the empire decided to have a more homogeneous Turkey by cleansing itself of its Christian Armenian citizens. This was achieved by the slaughter of able bodied men in Anatolia and the death march across the Mesopotamian desert of the women and children.
Most contemporary works by Armenians stem from two broad categories. They are either from the diaspora, created most likely as a result of the mass uprooting during the Genocide. Then there is the whole genre of Armenian Genocide literature.
For my reading, I was quite tempted to go for My Name is Aram by William Saroyan, the most popular name in Armenian literature. In the end, I decided to read The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian, a historical fiction about the Genocide.
The first thing about The Sandcastle Girls in the context of this blog is that the story is not set in Armenia, but rather in Aleppo, Syria and Boston, America. However it is the story of the suffering endured by the Armenian people. The novel hops between Aleppo during the First World War where Elizabeth Endicott, a Bostonian arrives on a philanthropic mission to the American Consulate. The tragedy she witnesses is beyond the worst horrors she can possibly imagine. She pours her heart and soul into the place by both helping the marchers and falling in love with an Armenian soldier, Armen, who has lost his wife and infant child in the death march. In the present day, Laura Petrosian, the granddaughter of Armen and Elizabeth, sees a photo exhibit of the Armenian marchers and is moved to find out and chronicle everything she can about the events in Aleppo and all that her grandparents went through.
The beauty of the novel is that although we start out with the conclusions to the individual stories known, it is still extremely easy to get immersed in to the story. In the very beginning, we know that Elizabeth and Armen are married, have two children, lead a long and happy life in America and die of old age. Their journeys still make for a nail biting narrative.
It is Laura, the narrator and the granddaughter of the couple, who has secrets to reveal for the reader. She has an American view of life and the Armenian ancestry is just an undercurrent till her middle age. She takes some things for granted as an Armenian when she says,
“We Armenians represent well. We are exotic without being threatening, foreign without being dangerous. We are domestic; we make rugs.”
She leads a suburban life with her husband and their two children. The Armenian Genocide is an ever present background in their life and is referred to as ‘The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About‘.
“Even as a child I detected the subterranean currents of loss when I would visit” the grandparents.
When we jump to the Aleppo of the past, we see emaciated women and children arriving from the desert and dropping dead due to hunger and thirst and unbelievable cruelty on the part of the Turks. As one of the marchers puts it, “Time, I thought, gives us hope. It shouldn’t. Time is indifferent.” Elizabeth stands strong in the face of this human degradation, sheer helplessness and her longing for Armen.
In the end, its the random kindness of human nature, that is responsible for the evidence of the Genocide getting out of the barren desert. Two German soldiers, allies with Turkey, collect photographic evidence of the emaciation of the arriving marchers. A Turkish soldier helps save them. Armen, unbelievably, survives and returns to Elizabeth owing to the kindness of a Turkish officer and some Bedouins in the desert.
The core principle of the story is that history does matter. Unspeakable atrocities committed and hidden from the world’s eye affect lives even generations later. However, wars end and human race continues because of people who have the strength to look beyond ideals and anger. In my view, this book cannot be categorized as a romance. It is nothing less than a tragedy. It also conveys that true survivors choose not to dwell on the tragedy but to move forward relentlessly. This is a beautifully written book and I recommend it wholeheartedly for an introduction into Armenian history.
Other Options from Armenia:
Book, Untitled – Shushan Avagyan
A unique feminist work with an imaginary conversation between two women authors from Armenia.
Orhan’s Inheritance – Aline Ohanesian
Orhan’s quest to find out why his grandfather left his estate to a strange woman in an Armenian retirement home in America leads him to a dark past during the death march.