Novel Portrays Armenian Family in Nazi-Occupied Paris


All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. 288 pp. $24. ISBN-978-0-547-93994-0

By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Novelist Nancy Kricorian has chosen a somewhat unusual setting for her newest novel. Her story focuses on the plight of the Pegorian family and their Armenian community — all refugees from the Armenian Genocide — who have sought a better and safer life in Paris. But history and violence catch up with them again as they struggle to survive the Nazi invasion and occupation of France during World War II.

Kricorian, a fluid writer, has researched the background for her story with great care and bases her plot on those Armenians who joined the French Communist Resistance, inspired by Missak Manouchian, an Armenian poet, who was ultimately killed with 22 members of his group by the Germans in 1944. To document her fiction, Kricorian traveled to Paris several times and interviewed Armenians who had lived through the Occupation. She was even able to contact one of the few surviving members of the Manouchian group.

Her protagonist is a teenaged girl, Maral Pegorian, the daughter of a shoemaker, and his wife, Azniv, the latter struggling to contribute to the family income with her sewing. The rest of the household is composed of Maral’s aunt, Shakeh, and Maral’s somewhat older brother, Missak, who soon involves himself in Resistance activities with his activist friend, Zaven Kacherian.

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Kricorian vividly paints the circumstances of Paris at the time, especially the constant struggle to obtain food. The family exists to a large degree on a diet of turnips and rutabagas, supplemented occasionally by other vegetables or perhaps a chicken. The streets are flooded with German soldiers and officers who attempt to opportune Maral and her friends.

An important strand in the novel’s plot is the developing romance between Maral and Zaven, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the activities of the Resistance. He and Maral’s brother, Missak, take many risks, joining demonstrations, scribbling anti-Nazi graffiti on walls and distributing pamphlets.

The Genocide surfaces, in some respects, by its absence. It is present in Maral’s father’s tight-lipped silence about the past and in her

Aunt Shakeh’s depression. Another strand of plot involves the help the Pegorians extend to a Jewish family, the Lipskis, who have a 3-year-old daughter. When the Lipskis are swept up by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, the Pegorians manage to save the child and to smuggle her, with the help of Resistance members, out of Paris to live with an aunt in the country.

An aspect of Armenia’s involvement in the war is represented by the character of Andon Shirvanian, an Armenian, persuaded by General Dro to join the German army in order to escape death by starvation in a Soviet POW camp. Handsome and eager to connect with the Armenian community in Paris, he is drawn into Maral’s circle with some surprising consequences.

There are tragedies for both the Pegorian and Kacherian families. However, Kricorian skillfully weaves the strands of the story to downplay, to a large extent, the tragic circumstances that affect many of the characters. It must be said she never digs very deep, but she keeps the story moving in such a way that the reader cannot fail to be engrossed in spite of some clumsy deus ex machina plot twists.

The real Missak Manouchian appears in these pages only peripherally and, basically, off stage. Instead, Kricorian has created two fictional Armenian families whose stories present a credible portrait of life for this immigrant Armenian community as it strives for survival in the midst of war and occupation.

After graduation from Dartmouth College, Kricorian lived in Paris and subsequently earned an MFA in writing from Columbia University. She is the author of two previous novels, Zabelle and Dreams of Bread and Fire. She makes her home in New York.

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