Book Review: The Lamppost Diary Tackles Lives and Loves of Armenians Post-Genocide

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By Edmond Azadian
The Lamppost Diary by Agop J. Hacikyan

This is the fifth novel by the prolific and popular writer, Agop Hacikyan. It comes through the experience and mastery of a novelist weaving together an eternal love story and a particular social order between World War I and World War II Istanbul, where minorities are restricted to a code of conduct of fear and persecution.

The author confesses in an interview that “every novel is autobiographical in that the author chooses his words according to what he has seen, lived or even imagined…Fiction partly comes from experience and imagination — both merge and then suddenly that experience turns fiction. In The Lamppost Diary, there is a lot of fiction as well as many episodes based on reality.”

This book does not have the traditional structure of his previous novels. It is more fluid and it reads like an actual diary, although without losing its focus.

The narrative revolves around three axes. The first is the loss of a sister at a very young age, bringing home the finality of death, which becomes a permanent obsession for the hero Tomas to grapple with. The other theme is the hero’s love story with a White Russian immigrant girl, Anya, within the context of coming of age of a young man, with sexual fantasies and frustrations. All these personal and family interactions take place within the broader theme of Turkish society where the minorities are terrified with the history of the genocide in their past and are harassed with an uncertain future imposed on them at the time.

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The lamppost itself remains as a symbol — or a talisman — for young Tomas who has to turn around it every time he passes by. It may also stand as a source of light to illuminate the rather dark life of a segment of society, which tries to survive within the government-imposed parameters. Racial discrimination has been and continues to remain state policy in Turkey.

For an era early in the last century the love story is audacious in its development and sexual context. It seems that as the author grows older his sexual imagery becomes bolder. Here Anya is always perceived through the eyes of Tomas who becomes the focus of the couple’s relationship in a narcissistic perspective.

Any novel which is structured along a predictable climax loses interest for the reader who needs some food for thought. A little room must be left for the reader’s imagination. The novelist’s technique must lead the reader to a point where the latter’s imagination takes flight. In that sense, the love story of Tomas and Anya is inconclusive. There is no happy ending where the reader would be left with no issue to ponder.

Anya leaves for America and Tomas settles in Canada and the rest of the story is anyone’s guess.

The broader framework of the story is the structure of the society and the plight of the Armenians in that society. They are already terrified based on what their families had experienced during the immediate past in deportations and killings. The trauma has not gone through a catharsis and continues to persist silently in their subconscious and in their collective lives. The probability of a repeat performance is always in the air.

Hackiyan, using that historic element, has not tried to write an ideological story which would have damaged the artistic quality of the narrative. Instead he has woven the social upheavals into the family lives of his characters.

There is not yet a comprehensive history of the wealth tax (varlik vergisi) era, which targeted the minorities — and particularly the Armenians — for extinction through taxation.

Kemal Ataturk has been hailed as modernizer of Turkey. He indeed eliminated the traditional Muslim garb and veil, radically changed the alphabet but he continued the racist policies of the previous regimes, by dumping Greeks in the sea at Smyrna, deporting Armenians from Cilicia and massacring the Kurds in Dersim.

Varlik Vergisi was the continuation of that policy to destroy the minorities to further Turkify the country. The government, which imposed exorbitant taxes on Armenians, Greeks and Jews, had a specific goal in mind. Turkish leaders knew full well that even the richest among them could not afford the taxes levied on them. After bankrupting them, they were sent to Ash Kale labor camps, to suffer and die under the harshest conditions.

We find in Hacikyan’s novel many families going through the ordeal and losing loved ones quietly.

Although the novel was written and published after Orhan Pamuk’s novels, it focuses on the period immediately before the Pamuk era. In a way Pamuk’s story in his monumental book titled Snow becomes an indirect sequel of The Lamppost Diary, especially in its socio-political contexts. Both in Hacikyan’s and Pamuk’s novels, a totalitarian regime has an ideological axe to grind. In the first one, Armenians, Christians and Jews are the target, while in the second one the Kurds and left wing groups are the target. They are killed or quietly eliminated and life continues as business as usual.

A British columnist, Ashley Perks, writes, “What is the connection between Agop J. Hacikyan and Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate?…His book is easier to read than Pamuk’s densely lyrical novels…Hacikyan’s whole treatment of characters [are] interspersed with historical details.”

Tomas grows up in the stifling atmosphere of Turkey. He even tries his hand at journalism and publishes a successful literary magazine, but he is gradually disillusioned. There are no particular sequence of events leading him towards the decision to leave the country. But the pervasive sense of insecurity which may put anyone’s life in jeopardy is hanging in the air. Perhaps one particular incident came to break the camel’s back: the assassination of one of the contributors to his journal.

Hacikyan is an accomplished stylist and can cast characters in a few lively brushstrokes and render them as unforgettable living individuals. The heavy and dark atmosphere of this novel is compensated by humor, which balances the mood and propels the narrative forward in an effortless pace.

The Lamppost Diary is a significant novel, not only for its artistic and literary value, but also because it brings into focus a different dimension of Armenian- Turkish conflict, which is not documented properly, nor studied fully. Besides the confines of Armenian-Turkish relations, it has also global resonance, which focuses on one of the dark pages of Turkish history, which denialists would have wished forgotten.

A review in an online European magazine (Café Babel) has the following to say about that broader aspect of this book: “Throughout the novel there is a sense of Europe knocking on Turkey’s door and Turkey resisting this approach trying to maintain its neutrality and at the same time, stifling Turkish ethnic minorities.”

We have to acknowledge grudgingly that Turkey is a rising power in the Middle East and its cultural influence has been spreading throughout the region like a conflagration. The Islamists are proud of Turkey’s achievements, which may serve as a role model to the rest of Islamic world. The West and Europeans have their own wishful thinking that Turkey is modernizing along European standards, while Turkey itself is pursuing its own nationalistic agenda with new Ottomanist dreams.

In short, any event or development relating to Turkey is a topical issue, which will attract attention these days.

The Lamppost Diary was released at the most opportune time to claim its fame as the next best-seller by Hacikyan’s prolific pen. Hacikyan complains that he is afflicted with the disease of depression. I have always begged him to borrow some of his depression, which has triggered his creative impulses, which have made him a compulsive writer with 30 volumes to his credit.

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