Life against Death: Pete Najarian’s Mutual in Love Divine

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When he switches from writing to painting, “You turned from one no-money work to another no-money work, and now no woman will want you and you will never have a family,” says Zaruhi Najarian to her son Pete (also the narrator) in the episode titled “The No Money Work,” in Pete Najarian’s recently published Mutual in Love Divine (Regent Press, 2021). The mother knows that her son needs connections to wife and family and friends to combat his loneliness and his fears.

Mutual in Love Divine is a narrative comprising 16 episodes around the theme of sickness and death.

The episodes start with the narrator as a little boy who would light a candle and pray for his crippled father to heal, and end with the “so many deaths” of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, a fitting finale to the countless deaths of “the nightmare of history.”

Najarian’s vivid account of the desperate search by the rescue teams for bodies among the twisted steel cables and the concrete slabs of the collapsed buildings — “maybe there was another baby buried alive” — evokes the horrors of the death march of which his crippled father and his mother with the wooden ladle — ever-present throughout the narrative — are survivors.

Najarian’s description of the chaos, as the volunteers and the rescue teams’ shovel and haul and dig for dead bodies in the mounds, makes us “feel death and taste it and know it.” The corpses covered by sheets at the side of the city square and the coffins, “only a few yards away,” make death palpable.

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While the Genocide and the nightmare of history have been central to Najarian’s fiction, death acquires a unique prominence in this latest narrative. “After the Massacres” is an account of those in the narrator’s family who survived, and those who did not survive, the death march and the slaughter. We learn of the “grandmother whose face his mother couldn’t remember,” and of uncle Boghos whose “grave is now somewhere in the rubble between Aleppo and Damascus and the bones in the Syrian desert.”

“Archille Gorky was [my uncle’s] age and held his mother in his arms when she starved to death,” writes Najarian.

The narrator also recalls “falling in love with Saroyan’s ‘Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ who starved to death like the suicides of . . .”

References to the deaths and the suicides of fellow artists and friends abound.

The story of life and death is nothing new. It is, in fact, “the same old story told even before writing was invented. Once upon a time, it said, there was life against death in a world of light and darkness.” What is new in Mutual in Love Divine is the narrator’s courage to confront his own darkness and to pose the ultimate question: “Why was the story always filled with suffering?” To “answer” the question requires digging deep into what is happening inside us, to “the part that makes us cry.” The book lets out that cry and gives expression to, in Najarian’s own words, “the primal scream and the sobbing.”

The old sobbing “with an endless grief . . . from somewhere deeper than memory” is here to stay. Nonetheless, the mother’s philosophy of family and love could be an antidote to the shocks and the hardships of life. Her 101 years of survival and endurance on this planet are evidence of it. Zaruhi loses her family on the death march. She survives her husband’s stroke in an alien land (it is, after all, “alien registration cards” that immigrants to the United States are issued). Indeed, the good-natured woman keeps her son, “such a troubled and unhappy person most of my life,” alive, uplifting him and nourishing both his life and his art.

The coda sums up the son’s struggles with his loneliness beautifully. Juju, the cat, gives him the family he has craved his entire life. Of course nothing changes. He still has to look forward to “another day of being human while you will be a cat.” Yet, the mutual love of the two (italics mine) creates the warmth the son needs to relieve his loneliness. A substitute perhaps, but also testimony to the desire to “‘Awake, awake’” from the shadows (Blake), and to let go of his sickness. In another episode, he draws “a thumbnail masterpiece in only a minute,” of “a very cute” Asian boy who happened to be sitting opposite him at a little table at the library. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he writes, “since that little boy was the grandchild I never had.” Confronting the loneliness is vanquishing the alienation and the darkness.

The issue of life and death is complex and Najarian’s narrative plays the tension between the two superbly. “Freud’s Story” challenges the illustrious scientist’s theory of the inevitability of wars and the ultimate self-destruction of mankind with the peasant illiterate mother’s belief in the “sweetness of life.”

Eternal Eros, the other human instinct put forward by Freud in his Civilization And Its Discontent — ironically, “Freud’s greatest story” for the narrator — would master the instinct of aggression and stop the bombs and wars. The “good-natured and un-neurotic” mother — and there are millions like her — “would inherit the earth and hopefully save it.”

Mutual in Love Divine may return one to one’s own loneliness, but it does not invite despair. In some magical way, the beauty of Najarian’s art — the beauty of his words and paintings of landscapes and nudes generously interspersed throughout — supersedes the sadness of life. The book is Najarian’s gift to us. His “need to create” and to learn what art meant have made the telling of his tale possible. “I kept writing as if words would save me,” he writes.

The story Pete Najarian writes is the story Freud “was writing in 1929 before the atom bomb and the mass extinctions of life on the planet,” except that it now has Najarian’s signature on it. “Once upon another time in the year after the bomb, a woman around forty walked home from the factory at day’s end and climbed the three flights of stairs to the railroad rooms of the little apartment where her crippled husband sat on the small sofa between the stove and the kitchen window, her five-year old son playing with his toys on the linoleum and her sixteen-year old on his way home from his afternoon job at a soda jerk,” is exquisite writing. Mutual in Love Divine is Najarian at his best.

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