Novel Serves as Vehicle for History of Armenians

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

This volume is two books in one. On one level, it is the personal story, told as a fictionalized memoir, of the protagonist, Vartan Apelian, a survivor of the Genocide when he was only 2. And then there are the disquisitions on Armenian history that are interposed somewhat awkwardly with Vartan’s story. If the reader is looking for a primer on the history of Armenians from the beginning to the present, this book will satisfy and inform. If the reader is looking for a fully-developed and integrated work of fiction, he or she will be disappointed or, at least, have serious questions about the work’s structure.

This is not the first work of literature to employ a bi-furcated technique. Herman Melville in his greatest novel, Moby Dick, often departed from the fictional narrative to include what are, essentially, essays on whaling, life at sea and various technical matters relating to these subjects. It makes reading this work by Melville something of a challenge, but Moby Dick has survived as one of the most significant literary accomplishments in the canon of American literature.

The question is — does this approach work in Momjian’s work? I would argue that it does not very well, because his method for relating the history of Armenia and Armenians is to set up Vartan’s wife and children as straw men (and women) who pose obvious questions and then listen politely as Vartan delivers his lengthy lecture. This, in purely fictional terms, is simply not a very believable or convincing strategy. In contrast, when Melville departs from his gripping tale of Captain Ahab’s hunt for the great white whale, his knowledge of whaling and the intricacies of the whaling industry are ingeniously related to the thrust of his invented story.

That said, it is possible to admire Momjian’s book, both for its passion and also for the depth of research that enables the author to set forth his historical account. And it is clear that his intention is to review the entire history of the Armenian people, whether this approach works in the context of the entire narrative or not.

On one level, this is the story of a survivor. Vartan is saved from death by his uncle, and his parents are presumed to have died in their house in a fire set by the Turks. He makes his way to the United States in the 1930s where he begins working at menial jobs, but later is able to study landscape architecture and to marry and start a family. A chance meeting with a Turk who was an instrument in his family’s tragedy results in the Turk’s unexpected death by suicide. To some degree, this event in Vartan’s story mirrors the period when Armenians were assassinating Turks in retribution for the Genocide and the reader can entertain some doubt as to whether this particular Turk died of his own volition or was pushed off the balcony by the protagonist.

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Momjian recounts the stories of Tigran the Great, St. Gregory the Illuminator and Mesrob Mashtots along with a narrative of conquests and battles with neighboring forces, the Persians, the Romans and the Mongols and brings the history of Armenians all the way to the present.

The author also uses the narrative to divest himself of a number of opinions, some of which should be questioned for their complete veracity and factuality. He is especially harsh towards Jews whom he characterizes as competitors towards the event of Genocide. It is not correct to pin the same label on all Jews. Jewish scholars, such as Israel Charny, have acknowledged the Genocide.

Momjian brings up an interesting and persistent issue concerning Armenians’ sense of identity. Again, while he does not speak with complete accuracy, he has a point. He states, “I keep asking myself what it means to be Armenian in a multi-ethnic or multi-cultural society, and how one reconciles one sense of ethnicity with citizenship, power and social status. Today, unfortunately, the new generation of Armenians has enthusiastically embraced the foreign traditions. Ignorant of their mother tongue, their top priority would be to earn a living and integrate into modern urban society. This led up to altruism and mixed marriages.”

First one has to ask, what is wrong with altruism? And then, this sort of  unvarnished assertion simply ignores the fact that there are many Armenian families, some American-born, some recent immigrants, who make a genuine effort to teach their children Armenian, who send their children to Armenian schools and who attend Armenian churches. The picture is far more mixed than Momjian would allow.

Momjian concludes his story of Vartan with a surprise ending that reunites him with his aged mother, who, in fact, escaped the Genocide and who converted to Islam.

In conclusion, this volume is a bit of a mixed bag. Aesthetically, it is not satisfying. But, it is, undeniably informative and there are surely readers who will recognize and warm to Vartan’s story.

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