Book Review: A Providential Silent Angel by Antonia Arslan

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By Rita Mahdessian

The publication of Silent Angel is Providential. It was meant to be released in April, the Genocide month. COVID-19 delayed its release.

But this delay was Providential. Silent Angel speaks more meaningfully in today’s world than it would have a month ago, when we might not have listened to it, thinking that we already know the story. We all have our dead, our grandparents, our cousins. The weight of their stories is burden enough for each of us. Why listen to someone else’s story?

But this delay was Providential. We are all stuck at home. We have not gotten together on April 24 to ask for justice. We have not had our yearly catharsis, that moment when we stand together and for an instant believe that it might just be our time again.

It is in the walls of our homes, in today’s silence that we can perhaps hear Antonia Arslan’s loving voice when she tells us not her story (she did that in the Skylark Farm, in the Road to Smyrna, in Il Rumore delle Perle di Legno and the other books of her world-famous saga) but our story, the story of all of us. It is a brief story. You can read it in an afternoon. Like the bards of old, she gently brings us back to the lost ancient homeland. She sings of the colors and smells of Mush. She paints the joyous women of Mush swimming in the foggy Aratsani river. She brings us to the majestic plane tree and the little spring, “the flowering garden with its lettuce, purple eggplant, and zucchini that have grown disproportionately …..and the rows of gerania neatly arranged at the windows as well as the colorful zinnias – the pride of … rustic gardening.”

In the walls of our home, Antonia Arslan tells us the story that we all know, the story of two Armenian women who found the Homiliary of Mush, cut it in half and carried it on their backs to save it from the Turks. One of the halves reached Echmiadzin through torturous paths brought by one of the two women. The other half was wrapped in cloth and buried in a churchyard in Garin – or what the Turks now call Erzerum. It was eventually found by a Polish officer in the Russian army and delivered to the Matenadaran where both halves of the manuscript are currently housed.

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In the walls of our home, we can let our authentic storyteller gently touch our wounds. And if we do so, we will hear her once again put us in a true crisis, a moment in which we risked losing everything, home and family, and yet did not lose our determination to save our priceless heritage no matter the cost.

We, Armenians, we have been through far grimmer days than the ones that we are living today. We have survived far, far worse than COVID-19. We have survived stay home orders far, far worse than ours now. We have survived not being able to work. We have survived fire, the sword, our fear. We walked through hell on earth. And we can do so again, and again, and again.

Yes, we Armenians have “learnt to bow … [our] head[s] when persecution rears its head, to shut … [ourselves] up in opaque silence, to disconnect from … [our] own thoughts.” We know how to “Cry, but cry silently … then focus on surviving…”

And when we think that we cannot again go back to look at what our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers had to go through when they hid and when they marched through deserts, that it will tear us apart to do so, Arslan gently reminds us that destruction is not the last word. Once the danger is passed, once the sword is sheathed, we “slowly get back up. Like stalks of wheat after the storm has crushed but not broken … [us, we] sway in the breeze the next day.” Resurrection follows death. Our faith, our culture, are stronger than the sword, if only like the two women, we take them on our backs and climb the high mountains towards safety. “We shall not perish as long as the book survives.”

Antonia Arslan

And if we actually see what Antonia Arslan was and is able to do, we will realize how right she is when she says this. She writes her books not just for us, but for the world. She sings not just for us, but for our neighbors and friends, for those we know and those we do not, for those who know of our pain and for those who learn of it for the first time. And her voice is itself proof of our resilience, of our faith, of our culture. The world listens to it. The first review of this book was not written by an Armenian, and it was not released by the Armenian press. It was written by an American and published by the American press. The book itself was not translated by an Armenian, but by an American professor, Siobhan Nash-Marshall. It was not published by Armenians, but by an American publishing company: Ignatius Press and the St. Augustine Institute.

Yes, the release of the book now is Providential. The story of the book is our story. This is why Arslan wrote it in the present tense. Perhaps we can learn to see ourselves through Arslan’s eyes, not as homeless orphans who have something to prove to the world, but a great people with a magnificent culture. Perhaps we can now take our nation’s books on our backs and climb the high mountain together.

Topics: Books, History

The book is available at Amazon.

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