Eavesdropping on History: Micheline Aharonian Marcom
For a little while, the Commander said, there will be some confusion. The post may be delayed. The cartographers will require overtime and extra pay. But you’ll see, it won’t take long. Soon the villages will have always existed this way. A few extra dogs. A few extra shoes. Extra women in the haremlik for a few years. Some children who need to work extra hard on their religious training. It’s better than dead, it’s history.
The year is circa 1917 and the cartographers are earning their overtime wiping the traces of Armenian life off the deeply troubled map of the old Ottoman Empire. Since 1915, the Ottoman government had been systematically killing and deporting Armenians and other minorities in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide, while most of the world focused on the Great War. In her first novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven (NY: Riverhead Books,, 2001), Micheline Aharonian Marcom suggests how the past might be reconstituted by the imagination into a form of elegiac empathy.
The two epigraphs that Marcom chose as her guide stars tell us much about her intentions: “Not to have seen it yet inheriting it” (Myung Mi Kim) and “At the edge of love, there we stand” (Clarice Lispector). What Marcom does in Three Apples is to drop the reader momentarily into the lives of a handful of Armenians as they try to maintain some aspect of normalcy (shopping for eggs, going to bathe at the hamam), as they flee or hide, as they die. Written in the present tense, these brief episodes modulate between pleasure and cruelty, hope and fear, memory and erasure. The writing is sensuous, full of things seen, touched, heard, smelt, tasted. Memory becomes a sixth sense, one that combines all of the other five. Here is Sargis, a young man who dreams of becoming a writer, hiding in the attic, dressed in the clothing of a girl because his mother believes this will fool any authorities who might search the house for males:
Dressed like a woman, can you imagine it? And sitting here in the pitch-black darkness like some mewling schoolgirl. My mother sneaks in dolma and cheese and pieces of fresh fruit and small strips of succulent lamb when she can get it. What I would give for the simple and unfettered pleasure of standing in the garden and tipping my head to the sun and the sky, of talking with the beautiful neighbor’s girl, Koharig, in front of the white lilies, and lazily smoking a cigarette. I would even climb the mulberry tree like I did as a boy; I would shake the branches so that Mairig and my sisters-in-law could catch the berries in the blanket they’d hold like fisherman’s net below me. The red fruit would rain down in one thunderous catch and we’d laugh, thinking of the delicious fruit spreads Mama would make. I would feel the slight wind on my cheeks from the rush I had created in the branches. I would breathe the bluewhite in the sky, the crimson in the berries, green on the leaves and the gray of the tree bark. My cheeks would puff up like a rodent’s with the fruit I would pilfer.
Part of Marcom’s project in Three Apples is to map the Armenian genocide onto the reader’s consciousness and to memorialize those who suffered and died. The book is also a something of a personal homage to her maternal grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide whose life partly inspired Three Apples. But the book makes an urgent call to the reader to do more than simply bear witness; we are asked to use our senses to identify and empathize with Anaguil, Sargis, and Dickran, to participate in their tragedies via the imagination. Through this poetic re-imagining of of the lives of a few individuals, Marcom also suggests the inconceivable scale of the estimated two and a half million Armenians killed or deported. The phrase from which the book’s title is derived crops up on several occasions – “And three apples fell from heaven, one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the eavesdropper” – creating a triangulation between the Armenian storytellers (circa 1915-1917), us as listeners, and Marcom as the eavesdropper. Burdened though these tales are with evil, by signaling that they are gifts from heaven Marcom suggests that our symbolic engagement with the past is a redemptive act of ethical restitution.
Language itself comes under close scrutiny in Three Apples. We see language used to dehumanize and erase an entire people. And we also see that language eventually fails the victims. Anaguil says “There are days I cannot speak. Each word is a weight, and there are pounds of flesh, the heft of diction. I say good morning and I am wearied. Good morning pulled from the body, from my mouth, like opaque stones.” Even Sargis, the youthful writer who begins to think of himself as “the poet of this age” (“I’m the Armenian race rolled into a ball and stuffed in this attic hideaway”) – even Sargis finds himself unable to make sense of language as he begins to despair for his future: “I have lost the ability to read. It’s as if the words no longer make sense in my mind, no longer take me with them to the places that they travel. They’re signs without meaning, black slashes and crosses and curled up slants.” And somewhere in between the tongues of the oppressor and the oppressed is the language of documentary, shown here in extensive quotations from the letters and reports that the U.S. Consul sent from his post deep in the Ottoman Empire as he watched more or less helplessly while the genocide transpired. His is the language of a witness trying to balance an objective recording of events as they unfold and the emotions that threaten to overwhelm him.
The hamam, or Turkish bath, has a place of special and complex significance in Three Apples. It is depicted as a kind of neutral, albeit carnal, space, the only place (at least for a while) where everyone can be open and vulnerable. In the hamam one could see all ethnicities mingling – Turk, Armenian, Kurd. The woman’s hamam is a world of “loosened flesh and breasts and bellies of every kind and shape and shade, and sweet or sour gossiping, familiar as hot tea and warmed bread.” In the woman’s hamam, young girls critique each other’s bodies while their mothers search out prospective wives for their sons. Until a certain age, boys go to the woman’s hamam with their mothers and sisters, and so the hamam is a place to observe adult bodies and covertly learn about sexuality. “We children looked from our corners, we looked at the women and then we looked at our smooth forms. We preferred our smoothness.” The male hamam is quite different. “Here. Here men have loved men.” It is here that Sargis first realized that he loved the male body and the egalitarian nature of the baths.
A room of odor and thick white air and a male secretion different from the women. Lounging languid men of all ages – the butcher, the doctor, my teacher, the fixer, the coffee-server – together I saw them, and there in the hamam they were different men, they were changed from the men I had known previously in the street and at school and in my home. They were men without women in private. They had removed their stiff coats and fez, their darned socks and thick woolen shirts; they had unwaxed their mustaches and fluffed their beards; they had braided their pubic hairs. They were naked men together in a room, with nothing but their forms to distinguish them…
Three Apples opens with the reproduction of a photograph, the only one in the book. A woman, three boys and a girl stare at us through the aged and damaged photo paper. Undoubtedly a family – minus, significantly, the father. The oldest boy, probably taller than his mother, is seated, perhaps out of respect for her. The girl, the youngest child, has moved her eyes, blurring them slightly, and her head is tilted as if awaiting an answer from us.