Review: Denis Donikian’s Trashland: ‘Der Voghormia. Der…’

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The world of Trashland (Nauset Press, 2023) is a world of doom and gloom. A garbage dump and a cemetery, separated by a narrow dirt road, and a nearby lunatic asylum/prison provide the setting. Normal human beings live in an environment where human values have completely broken down. The protagonist Gam, a muckraking journalist, probes this world to expose its inhumanity and to return dignity to “his own people.” The novel opens with Gam relieving himself standing on a hill above the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The acrid fumes set the tone for the “shit-filled air that clogged everything up” and the putrid smell of the smoldering trash dump the citizens rummage through to dig out their dinners.

There is no suggestion in the book that this world, where leaders oppress and murder and where the police repress the citizens with brutal force, will change anytime soon, except perhaps that the “black air” will become heavier and the “grey stench” more fetid and nauseating. Indeed, the crimes committed in this rotting world seem tame, almost “humane,” when juxtaposed with the ruthless assaults and the destruction we have brought upon ourselves. They are, nonetheless, in Donikian’s words, “the same eternal crimes.”

While the ills the novel conjures are universal, the specifics are intrinsically Armenian. References to the corruption and the pollution of the pre-Independence Soviet days and the Post-Independence Republic of Armenia abound. The first three Presidents of the new Republic who failed to work for the good of the people are directly evoked. The garbage dump guard’s favorite sow, the one “with the largest teats,” is named after the second President’s wife, Bella. The lewd poems the characters recite, and the profanities, “some of the spiciest in our language,” in the words of the guardian of the cemetery gate, help spill the rage, the bitterness and the helplessness of the citizens whose only source of sustenance is the rotting dump.

Alongside the scathing criticism, however, the novel also reveals the deep love Donikian has for his country. Mount Ararat, with the purity of its eternal snows, “floating atop an eternal space, wedged between men and the sky high above,” is always in the background. The all-too-familiar expressions — aghber djan, Seko djan, djanikess — and the names of the streets that the trash truck drivers take to transport the waste from Yerevan to the dump site in Noubarashen — Abovian Street, Mashdots Avenue — convey a sweet feeling of intimacy. The goodness and the generous spirit of Gam’s mother, Anna, whose funeral procession launches the novel, is also ever-present. Anna inspires her son to fight for the peace and the justice his people deserve. “Can you abandon the sky that gives birth to you…and abandon your own people to their decay?” Gam muses.

 

Most compelling are the ”dumpster stories,” accounts of the individual tragedies of the garbage pickers. We learn of old Susho who bent down so low to sort out the trash “that she was practically one with the ground.” This “zibil collector” is, in her own words, “living proof that this country is sick.” We also learn of Larissa djan who, along with the stray dogs, the pigs and the rats, digs into the decomposing waste to feed her “poor balik . . . her husband lost in God knows what corner of Russia.” Even as they expose the humiliating and dehumanizing lives of these miserable souls, the stories help bring back the human into a world lost to human dignity.

 

Donikian’s fairy-tale ending, with the sky, so pure, so calm, that it “filled men with joy” and bathed everything in a luminous glow, only reinforces “the chaos and the stench,” for it ignores, in Donikian’s words, “everything that went into the making of this novel . . . where the guard at a trash dump curses the businessman responsible for a nation’s woes . . . where the dead flee their tombs to smell life’s fresh air . . . where a buried woman still suffers from the slightest harm committed against her son and where her son, a certain Gam, dead or alive, fights valiantly in one world before falling inexorably into another, whispering on the way down Der Voghormia. Der . . .” Despair remains the dominant mood.

 

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In fact, prior to the “Storybook Ending,” the rag pickers, with only their hooks and shoulder bags to defend themselves, have been brutally attacked and demolished with armored cars come to hunt down the garbage dump. Gam’s friend Garo is clubbed to death and will be buried in a “hole somewhere on the hill,” freshly dug “for someone who’s supposed to arrive tomorrow.” Garo is to be buried with “not a trace. And no name on it either.” The dead will not Rest in Peace in this infernal world. Indeed, “the wretch” being taken to jail in the novel’s “storybook ending” did not marvel at “the colors [that] appeared more alive than usual,” or feel “the ecstasy of the wind’s light currents,” as did the truck driver. “Men see the world only through their own personal anguish,” writes Donikian, affirming that a dignified life is the only definition of life.

Christopher Atamian’s masterful translation of Donikian’s French original, Vidures (Actes Sud Editions, 2011), a book he describes in his foreword as “a wake-up call . . . a comprehensive critique of the Armenian world and a quest for justice for the Armenian people,” captures the power and the beauty of the original. The vivid descriptions of the devastating earthquake and the frantic escape from the crumbling city, the “Khorovadz Saturday!” when Dro shares the flesh of “My sweet Bella” — Dro’s favorite sow has died—with the rag pickers, and the final scene of the brutal attack on the rag pickers make it impossible to put down the book and leave “this rotting Eden” behind. Atamian’s exquisite, “the rag pickers’ eyes fixed on their Garo’s body. Dead indeed, Garo, curled up on his bloodied red cardboard, erect when before he was always trembling year-round. Haik took off his own windbreaker and placed it over his dead friend’s remains. . . . Each person threw in a farewell handful. Haik, whom Roubo had given his shovel to as well as the difficult task of erasing Garo from this world, began to fill in the trench,” reaffirms the human connection of the friends reduced to popping open plastic bags at the dump site to survive.

One leaves Trashland with anguishing questions. Maybe “kindness isn’t a human trait,” as Gam himself begins to wonder. Will there ever be an end to the “Misery. Such misery?” To flee the catastrophic earthquake, Gam and his family leave their home city of Gyumri for Yerevan, “without knowing what sort of new collapse awaited us.” If the “either/or” meaning of Gam’s name in Armenian is any indication, the world of Trashland is not a world of certainties. Pursuing the truth is an absurdity.

Yet, pleading with a Merciful God to “Let your goodness pull the voiceless creatures, suffering and near death, out of the abyss for they have not sinned,” does suggest the possibility of a peaceful and dignified life for humanity. ”Your Der voghormia! will stay with me until the day I die. Light and human. A sky that rains its joy upon us,” Gam tells his friend Sako djan. Whereas he rejects the offer of the bearded priest, clad in “holy clothes richly woven, chalices and crucifixes made of solid gold,” to recite a prayer and chant Der voghormia! on his mother’s tomb.

 

“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

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