The Pleasures of Wonder: Mariam Petrosyan’s The Gray House


“So I’m not crazy? Or if I am, I’m not alone.”

“That last part looks more like it.”

The Gray House

Mariam Petrosyan’s The Gray House (amazon crossing, 2017) opens with a boy and a woman carrying a suitcase approaching “the place,” an ugly gray house at the edge of town, where children “like that” are housed. The little boy is armless, a white jacket with long empty sleeves hugging his shoulders. The old structure looming in front of them has, in fact, been home to generations of “such people.” Its inhabitants are all “not-quite-right,” mostly children with physical disabilities, “silly, happy smiles” and “vacant stares.” Each child is given a nickname upon arrival, usually based on the child’s handicap. As we watch the children grow — all are younger than eighteen — forge friendships, fight and reconcile, we learn to cherish them, no matter what their deformity. With her meticulous details, hilarious descriptions, and much empathy, Petrosyan depicts these kids as credible human beings. She delights in describing their response to the “one piece of luggage per person” warning for their summer trip: “The seniors acquired bags the size of trunks. The juniors had to improvise, sewing additional pockets and elastic bands to their old ones . . . [They] spent their entire days packing and unpacking, in search of the precise formula for the contents of a bag before it burst at the seams . . . there were always more things that simply had to go inside.”

Indeed, we almost forget that the kids are bound to wheelchairs, or that they need to be lifted to the windowsill so they can peer out of the window at the yard below. While for the Outsides (name given in the book to the neighborhoods surrounding the Gray House) these kids still carry the stigma of “such people” and are dismissed with euphemisms such as, “healthy people with scary stuff in their medical histories,” or “children with diminished ability,” Petrosyan makes even their grossest deformity irrelevant.

The Gray House is a wondrous place. It is a world full of amulets, spells and bad omens, a world of magic and phantasmagoric stories. “The passion of the House dwellers for tall tales of all kinds did not spring out of nothing. It was their way of coping, molding their grief into superstitions,” writes Petrosyan. In fact, four times a year, the House organizes a Fairy Tale Night when kids share their own imagined stories. The children paint their faces and cover the walls and the ceilings of the locker rooms and the canteen with fanciful images, all in vivid colors. The two-headed lizard and the eagle-like monster on the coat of arms are part of who they are. Leaving the House would be a “step into the void.”

Mariam Petrosyan

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This imagined world is far from being a perfect world, however. The more insightful among the children know that the House is not a thing apart. “The Outsides . . . contained the House in it.” Indeed, the divisions and the fights among the leaders of the House reflect the wars and the massacres of the world outside. A game of chess is played as a battle between two armies. Playing dirty tricks and scaring and beating up the newbies is the seniors’ favorite entertainment. The newbies are disciplined, chain-walked, and forced to eat, sleep, and pee on schedule, just as the grown-ups in the Outsides follow the Rules and Regulations of their own Script.

And then, of course, there is the Sepulcher, “a house within the House,” where patients are kept, and where Death, “a small, tender boy, with eyes occupying a good half of his face, and long dark-red hair that looked varnished . . . was a permanent resident.”

Petrosyan’s is a masterful parody of the care patients receive in “the godforsaken real world.” Her critique of the inhumane treatment of the deranged and the disabled, in “the empty and hostile city that lived its own life,” cannot be missed. “They pump you full of drugs and pack you off in a straitjacket,” she writes. In the words of one youngster, “There is no trace of humanity in the Sepulcher . . . The human floats somewhere outside of the boundaries of the patient, waiting patiently for the possibility of a resurrection.”

Despite the obvious overlaps, however, the Game played in the Gray House is not the same evil drama as the one played in the Outsides. No matter what their abnormality, the kids in the House are neither pitied, nor shunned and excluded. Spells and amulets work (even if not all of the time) and magic caters to their fears and their wishes. The Great Power makes the armless little boy we encounter at the beginning of the book, “whole” with arms. Whether these are prosthetic or metaphoric arms does not even matter. Indeed, the armless boy wonders if arms are something that everyone needs: “I could choose to have them or not have them,” he tells his friend Ancient, the smartest guy in the House.

Under the guise of a fantastical tale, Petrosyan makes us ponder the inner workings of human nature and the societies in which we live. While she is entertaining us with the particularities of her imagined world, she is also implicitly interrogating: “Why do we oppress and tyrannize?” “Where does this angst come from?” “Sepulcher: Outside or Inside Us.” These questions are left unanswered. Receiving the answers would be even more frightening. Smoker understands that there is “not a word of truth” in the promotional booklet that advertises the House as a Home, “but also not a word that was a direct lie.” Things remain enigmatic.

Maybe there is no perfect version of life. The craziness is all around. Yet, by confronting the disabilities of these children, Petrosyan creates the possibility of a viable life for them. We embrace the girl with “eyes too big for a small triangular space,” the kids with “big heads full of teeth,” and Humpback, who “laughed with only half of his face.” In the final chapter, the Happy Boy wakes up with this wondrous feeling: “I’m feeling kinda strange. Kinda liking everything, very much, so much I want to cry.” The joy overflowing inside the boy fills him with “an unexpected and unfamiliar delight . . . Nothing much would be able to offend him anymore.”

What ultimately emerges is Petrosyan’s empathy for her fellow human beings, good and bad. At the end of the book, Sphinx brings another “crazy kid” to the House, “a little changeling” he wanted “to learn to love this world. Even a little. As much as I could teach him to.” The narrator of this particular event cannot decide which of the two he pities more. “Sphinx, I guess. He has a history of attempting the impossible. And it doesn’t always work out in the end for him, not by a long shot,” he muses. The Gray House remains a world of contradictions.

Petrosyan’s imagined world enlightens and opens into spirituality. The references to the ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu and the need for “introspection,” “spiritual cleansing” and “deeper self-awareness,” indicate how far we have traveled from “the spirit of true Tao.” Indeed, Sphinx reckons that the Sepulcher is a place where the spirit goes to be buried . . . and there is nothing worse for a spirit than to be reduced to a mere body.”

I would like to add that, while totally engrossing, the 721-page book can also be overwhelming. At times, identifying the narrators of the different events, and having to flip back and forth to check the names of the characters whose nicknames change as they are transferred from one group to another, feels like solving a “puzzle.” However, nothing takes away from the book’s brilliance. When “the boy shuffling a little behind, the woman bent under the weight of the suitcase” were brought up on the last page of the book, I turned to the beginning to check out the scene, and ended up reading a whole chapter. Fantasy fiction has never been my genre, yet letting go of this bizarre reality has been impossible. Petrosyan must have cast a spell on me, too.

The Gray House was published in its original Russian in 2009 and became an instant bestseller, winning several top literary awards, including the Russian Prize for the best book in Russian by an author living abroad. Yuri Machkasov’s translation from the original Russian into English is a feat worthy of its own awards. Machkasov’s prose is rich and lyrical. “Humpback played his flute, and the backyard listened. He was playing very softly, for himself only. The wind whirled the leaves in circles. Then they were caught in the puddles and stopped. Their dance ended. They ended. Now they would turn to mush and dirt. Just like people,” gives no hint that this is a text originally written in another language.

Most surprising to me, however, is the fact that there is as yet no Armenian translation of this extraordinary book authored by the great-granddaughter of the Armenian painter Martiros Saryan. Mariam Petrosyan lives in Yerevan, Armenia.

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