Where East Meets West: Hakob Karapents’s The Book of Adam

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The book “I am about to write, nobody else can write . . . It is going to be unique in its depth and breadth,” notes Adam Nourian, the protagonist of Hakob Karapents’ 1983 novel, The Book of Adam, just released in an English translation by Ara Ghazarians (Amaras Press, 2021).

This new publication is dedicated to the ninety-fifth anniversary of the birth of the celebrated writer.

The novel tells the story of the 48-year old Nourian, a respected academic and editor, living in New Haven, Conn. Nourian has left his hometown of Tabriz in Iran and is traveling the earth in search of the place where he can build his mansion and say, “I belong here.” The wanderer with the “dark Armenian eyes” is haunted by questions like, “Should we have left Tabriz?” or, “When I die, where will I be buried?” Underneath his calm Americanized facade is his turmoiled Armenian soul.

Unable to handle the pain of being “an Armenian writer and an American editor,” Nourian withdraws from Armenians, only to return to “my sweet Armenia” with more passion. The esteemed journalist walks away from the editorial offices of the New York Herald Tribune and decides to write his new novel in Armenian, knowing full well that “there are no Armenian readers.” When “there’s no word in English for karot,” how would one say, “I have no home.” Only in Armenian could Nourian truthfully portray his unique Armenian world.

Paradoxically, the grieving Adam, with forefathers from the land of the Meliks of Karabagh in the East, is also the alienated hero of the writers and thinkers of the modern West. East and West merge in the eternally discontented Nourian, roaming “this poor planet tossed into an obscure corner of the Milky Way, one of the billions of galaxies in the universe.” Much like the “heroes” of Beckett, Joyce and Kafka, whom Karapents evokes in his novel, his protagonist is “alone everywhere.” Even in Yerevan, where all were Armenian, “he had felt like a stranger among them.”

Interspersed in the narrative are excerpts from Nourian’s editorials that decry the absence of spiritual values in America. Nourian’s comments on the obsessive consumption of Americans and the abuses of advertising agencies, seamlessly woven into the narrative, further acknowledge his generous and sensitive nature. The fierce defender of human rights accepts his wife’s decision to leave him after twenty-one years of marriage, because she has the right “to be human and free.”

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Karapents’s protagonist may be endlessly searching, yet there is no confusion or uncertainty in his search. Nourian lives two loves. True to his vision that “no happiness lasts,” both end, but not before they give him the satisfaction of a fully lived life. With his first wife, Meline, Nourian fathers two children, “the most priceless creatures in the world.” His second love ends tragically when his second wife, Zelda, falls off the magnolia cliff she climbs up to pick magnolias, a symbol of their love, to celebrate “the happiest day of my life. New husband, new baby, new book.” Zelda would like to raise her children in Armenia so they will be “exempt from the pain of duality.”

The translation could not be timelier. With the recent Artsakh war, the theme of displacement and exile has acquired a new relevance. One would hope that in a world where exile is increasingly the norm, there would be a greater sense of belonging for the masses. Yet, at this historical moment, that seems to be a very distant possibility.

The Book of Adam is beautifully written. Karapents penetrates deep into the world of his characters and recreates their experiences through beautifully dramatized scenes. The flashbacks to Nourian and Meline’s courtship and to their parting are a masterful recapping of the lovers’ twenty-one-year-long relationship. No less captivating are Karapents’s descriptions of the fields, the meadows, and the forests of Vermont and Connecticut, as Nourian and Zelda drive north along the Hudson River, leaving behind the smog and the soot of New York. His, “After the Tappan Zee Bridge, nature began to open up and curve like a pregnant woman,” is simply exquisite. Karapents’s unique ability to tell a story makes it impossible to put the book down. “Nourian embraced Zelda, rocking like a mourner, took her body into his arms and into the bedroom” in the cottage in Vermont, foreshadows Zelda’s tragic death.

The novel reads smoothly in translation. Ghazarians has a good ear for the rhythms of English prose. However, nostalgic for Karapents’ seductive Eastern Armenian, I interrupted my reading of the novel a few times to read one of his short stories in Armenian. Returning to the English translation was not in the least disappointing.

The Book of Adam is an Armenian novel. It opens with Karabakh, “the abode of my forefathers,” and closes with Karabakh without which, Nourian’s son Vahe believes, “there won’t be an Armenia.” The cottage in Vermont where Adam and Zelda go to celebrate the beginning of their new life together recalls Geghard. Nonetheless, ever-present in the book is the promise of “new winds, new suns, new sprouts.” Nourian’s unequivocal, “I made a mistake coming here,” and his inward smile at Zelda’s total devotion to him and the “enduring, constant miracle of rebirth,” are not contradictions. They are simply affirmations — of both the pain and of the beauty of life.

I would like to add a note about the title of the novel. The Book of Adam, the title of the fictional novel the fictional Nourian writes, is to me a clear indication that Karapents’s novel of the same title is autobiographical. Like Nourian, Karapents left his hometown of Tabriz, in Iran, and lived in exile his entire life. While this fact neither adds to nor detracts from the literary merit of the book, it does help highlight the theme of exile, and gives universality to the “sheer loneliness of humanity” the novel constantly evokes. Nourian will always grieve for his children’s “torment as human beings.”

Topics: Books

In a thoughtful Introduction, Ghazarians gives us a brief biography of Karapents, highlighting the prolific writer’s unique place in Armenian Diaspora Literature. Ghazarians covers the reception of Karapents’s work both in Armenia and the Diaspora. He also provides a Glossary of names and terms the anglophone reader may not be familiar with, as well as a Bibliography of the author’s literary works.

 

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