‘The Power of the Human Spirit’: Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from The Sky

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In Three Apples Fell from The Sky (Oneworld, 2020), author Narine Abgaryan takes us to the heart of Maran, a village perched on a cliff in the Armenian highlands, at the farthest end of Manish-Kar.

Abgaryan brings this isolated mountain village to life with her vivid, often hilariously funny, details and playful images. With painstaking detail, she describes the “tangy scent of tiny, delicately blushing apples with dark raspberry-colored seeds and little pink blotches on the cut edge,” or a pig “that particularly astounded the Maranians because it was as clean and neat as a round turnip that had been thoroughly washed under running water.”

We walk through the village roads and climb the perilous mountain path, rejoicing in the winter snow, the pale blue alpine violets, and the pink and white almond and cherry blossoms. Abgaryan allows us to participate in the ways of the villagers, as they gather over strong tea with thyme, tend their kitchen gardens, and help one another cook, babysit and care for the ill.

The book opens with the 58-year-old Anatolia, the youngest inhabitant in Maran, waiting to die. “If only I could hurry up and die,” she moans as she lies in bed soaking in blood from a sudden onslaught of her menstrual cycle. The final image of the novel is not of the finality of death, however. Anatolia gives birth to Voske (miracles are taken for granted in Maran), a baby girl born of her second marriage to the caring Vasily, with “the village of old people” happily sharing in the responsibility of raising a new child. Voske may know nothing of “the big wide world,” but she had her own tiny world over which “stretched an endless summer’s night that told stories about the power of the human spirit, about devotion and nobility,” writes Abgaryan.

“The Maranians were a rational people who nevertheless believed in dreams and signs,” we are told. They believe, for example, that dreams dreamt “on Wednesday mornings, between the rooster’s first and second crows” have a hidden meaning. Indeed, because of a prophetic meaning attached to the dreams of Akop, an inhabitant known for his ability to foresee misfortunes, the villagers construct a stone barrier between the peak and the houses to the east, which actually prevents the mudslide from reaching the village and tumbling it into the valley below. In this fantastical tale of superstitions and unusual occurrences, the magical and the real mix seamlessly. The cesspit overflows, spills over, and floods part of Anatolia’s yard when the packages of expired yeast, which hadn’t lost its strength, are thrown into the cesspool.

The remote rural setting of the novel suggests the simplicity and the innocence of a world of “endless summer nights” and “many wonderful things.” This world is, nonetheless, also a world where life’s hardships never ease. Famine, war, and earthquakes are constant occurrences. Death is a fact of life in Maran. When war breaks out and Maran’s men are drafted, the village is “reduced by half,” and plunged into “pitch-black darkness, hunger and cold.” Over the years, all the children are lost to famine. Indeed, the solitary village, with only twenty-three inhabited homes, may be “meekly living out its last years as if condemned, Anatolia along with it:” “The young people had gone and the old ones would depart without even leaving behind memories.”

Narine Abgaryan

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While it is true that a work cannot be disengaged from its historical and social context, one couldn’t say that Three Apples Fell from The Sky is immersed in a specific historical moment. There are passing references to historical truths, such as the massacre (Armenian?), in which Vano’s grandfather had died, or Vano’s mother having picked up “enough ideas about equality and brotherhood (not to mention various suffragette inclinations)” during her years of study at an institute for noblewomen. Yet, at no point does one get a sense of the villagers yearning for a different time or place. I see the remote setting, where the entire community come together and sustain one another, more as the recreation of a reality where things are just the way they “are supposed to be, so that’s how they’ll stay.” The villagers never grieve about the way things are. There is no rage over the fact that “nobody dared contradict a man.” Nothing overwhelms the Maranians for, as Anatolia well knows, “there was no point in worrying.”

When things are the way they “are supposed to be,” there is no need to mask or to change them. The cycle of wars, of famine and of illnesses will continue, but it will all be survived. Life unquestionably prevails. The world of Three Apples Fell from The Sky may not be a paradise but it is not a desperate world either. “That’s just the way it is,” is “the old people’s favorite phrase.”

Abgaryan “delivers the world to us in its human dimension,“ to borrow the words of the celebrated French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (“What Can Literature Do?”). She creates a humane community where ails and misfortunes are redeemed by friendships and communication. We share in the Maranians’ unconditional connection to their fellow human beings. Even the fact that the gypsies, who occasionally came from the valley, spoke other languages and wore different clothing “held no significance whatsoever. In the end, the sky is always identically blue, and the wind blows exactly the same way wherever you were lucky enough to have been born,” writes Abgaryan. This focus on our common humanity might just be the balm to save us from despair at a time when we no longer find it possible to make sense of the greed that has taken over our lives. In fact, when many hope for doomsday, our sense of community is something we cannot afford to lose.

The world Abgaryan recreates is neither a retreat into a legendary past nor is it a flight into fantasy. Three Apples Fell from The Sky reasserts the validity of the human endeavor. Abgaryan’s tale of miracles reminds us that it is possible to find meaning amidst the discomforting truths of our lives when human connection has not been lost. Despite the troubles and the cares of real life that these stories reflect, the world of the novel remains a good-natured world. The three apples of the old Armenian legend, which the title invokes, have been dropped “to earth from the sky: one apple for the one who saw, another for the one who told the story, and a third for the one who listened and believed in what is good.”

Abgaryan’s delightful tale is an accomplishment worthy of the prestigious Leo Tolstoy Yasnaya Polyana Award and Russia’s National Bestseller Prize, which it has won. The book was originally published in Russian in 2015, but has recently been translated into English by Lisa C. Hayden, herself an award-winning translator.

 

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