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Posts from the ‘Micheline Aharonian Marcom’ Category

Draining the Sea

Marcom Draining the Sea

I am a man collects corpses. I eat photographs and I am a dead man also. A tired man; a whorish man; a man who does not look back, I have only the future in front of me, no present; I am a man without history; and I am a man of despair…

Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Draining the Sea (Riverhead Books, 2008) is the third in a trio of books that included Three Apples Fell from Heaven (2001) and The Daydreaming Boy (2004). Not quite a trilogy, the three novels each have their roots in the Armenian Holocaust.

The first,Three Apples Fell from Heaven,was a poetic, frightening, visceral book about the brutal oppression, murder,and forced exile of more than a million Armenians in what is now Turkey, circa 1917. It had no central narrator or character, but followed the fates of a number of people trapped by the upheaval. Then came The Daydreaming Boy, which took place in Beirut in 1963, with the first signs of that country’s civil unrest appearing in the background. It essentially had a single character, a middle-aged man named Vahé, who had been the product of the badly-run orphanage system created to handle the parentless children of the Armenian Holocaust. For me, Daydreaming felt like a transitional book, only half realized.  Vahé was a pathetic, gross, and scarcely likable character, and he seemed a poor fit and unworthy receptacle for Marcom’s explosive, dreamy language. I found it curious that his lazy, lascivious, violent life was more the result of the orphanage rather than the distant events in Turkey which claimed his heritage and family. The third book, Draining the Sea brings us up to the end of the twentieth century and into the Americas, following an emigrant path westward across the globe. Draining the Sea also returns to the kind of blood-soaked history that we witnessed in Three Apples, only now the violence occurs during the civil conflict that erupted in Guatemala in the 1980s.

Draining relentlessly exposes us to the mind of Marcom’s narrator and it is not a pretty sight. He is nameless and unpleasant man who lives in Los Angeles and he immediately announces “I am irritable, a fat and ugly man”and “these are not stories for the faint of heart.” While he drives the streets and freeways of Los Angeles or sits morosely at home, he obsessively addresses his thoughts to a woman named Marta (“the indigenous one”), who perished in a massacre of the villagers of Acul, Guatemala in 1982. The narrator explicitly lets us know he had been sexually involved with Marta in Guatemala before seeming to have been responsible for or complicit in her torture and death. Or so it seems. Marcom’s narrator also serves as the oracular voice of the history of post-Columbian Americas. “I am a scribe, a stenographer of lust,” he says, referring to the half-millennium of bloodshed from Columbus to Guatemala. His rabid confession, full of self-loathing, is a  powerful indictment of the colonization of the Americas, the failure of the American Dream, and the psyche of the white male. 

And I did not intend to kill you, no more perhaps than I intended to kill and rekill the Gabrielino girls and boys (their existence) for this American man to become so: an American in his city; an idea of a man? and my ideas in my head (are they mine?) history’d from my teachers, memory’d from the boys on the playground, push my head into the dirt, tarmac, the playground view of the palms in the distance, the girls in the back row; the television blares in the background. These Americas make us and they unmake us, unmade and making you all of the time – disease, the vagrancy laws, lynching laws, blacks, white roads rules and Indians. – Do you exist, darling? And if not, may I?

He knows modern Western civilization is out of sync and his confession is also intended to be a testament to and partial restitution for this sadistic and murderous history. D.H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman are the earthy, redemptive angels that hover over this book and their words are often embedded in Marcom’s text. Here, the narrator quotes Lawrence: “We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe.”

This book has haunted me for more than a month. The telling and retelling of acts of misogynistic sex and torture is painful to read. And I continually felt frustrated by my inability to determine if the narrator actually did these acts or “merely” imagines them, even though I know the answer is both: the narrator is simultaneously a character and the voice of history. I don’t think there is much doubt that this is precisely what Marcom intended. Through distasteful characters and unpleasant acts, she forces the reader to experience her text viscerally as well as intellectually. Her goal seems to repulse any easy reading or single interpretation. It’s a hire-wire act from start to finish, but Marcom has no second thoughts about falling off and immediately getting back on the wire. In the end, I found Draining the Sea to be the most astonishing and powerful book of this trio. (The title, by the way, comes from a statement made by Guatemala’s General Rios Montt. “The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.”)

All of the books in this trio use photographs to anchor the text in history, acting as a kind of verification that there are real people and real events at the basis of Marcom’s fiction. In Draining the Sea, each of the book’s five sections begins with a pair of photographs that make linkages between “soulless” Los Angeles, the Armenian Holocaust, and the civil war in Guatemala. 


“The Bone Boy, Der Zor Desert, Syria” and “The Polytechnic School, Guatemala City, Guatemala”

SONY DSC“Cemetery in Acul, Guatemala. Site where the victims of the massacre were killed and dumped into a mass grave. (The site was later exhumed and the victims re interred.)” and “Entrance to Khaphert (Harput), Turkey.”

[Captions from the “List of Photographs” at the back of Draining the Sea.]

The Daydreaming Boy

Marcom Daydreaming Boy

“How did I become this sort of man?” Vahé Tcheubjian asks himself.  Vahé is, by his own admission, a debauched and pathetic coward and a constant liar, stuck in a loveless marriage and pawing at servant girls.  Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s second novel The Daydreaming Boy (NY: Riverhead, 2004) attempts to tell us just how Vahé became the man he is.  It’s 1963 and Vahé estimates he is about forty-six years old.  His family, about whom he remembers nothing concrete, disappeared into the Armenian Holocaust that overtook the final days of the Ottoman Empire.  As a result, he was raised in an orphanage euphemistically named the Bird’s Nest but which operated on cruelty, scarcity, and deprivation – somewhere between a prison and a concentration camp.  Now a resident of Beirut (just as their civil war is getting under way), Vahé spends his days daydreaming, reliving the past, and visiting the zoo, where he sits in front of the chimpanzee enclosure and intensely watches the behavior of the caged beasts with whom he clearly identifies.

In her first novel Three Apples Fell from Heaven, Marcom spread her attention across more than a dozen characters as the Armenian Holocaust unfolded circa 1917.  In this, her followup novel about the aftereffects of the Armenian Holocaust on the next generation, Marcom has chosen to focus on a single survivor of  the orphanage system that arose to handle all of the abandoned children (Vahé remembers almost nothing about life prior to the Bird’s Nest). There, the mairigs (the “mothers”) nurtured a vicious, dog-eat-dog society in which only the strong would survive.  But to be strong, as Vahé ultimately learns, requires victims.  And this is the real core of Marcom’s book: watching Vahé and others Armenian orphans become torturers just like those who murdered their parents.  The primary object of Vahé’s guilt is Vosto, a young boy who was the most abused victim within the Bird’s Nest.  Even decades after leaving The Bird’s Nest, Vahé despises Vosto for allowing himself to be his victim.  Vosto “was all of us, the damned exiled race in its puny and starved and pathetic scabbed body.  How we longed to kill him.”  Several times in the novel, Vahé runs into the adult Vosto, who now shines shoes on the street for a living, and each time Vahé, Judas-like, denies recognizing him.

As in Three Apples, The Daydreaming Boy contains a single photograph, a blurry image of a large group of boys, among which Vahé might be one.

Marcom Daydreaming Boy 1

Eavesdropping on History: Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Marcom Three Apples2

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.

Three Apples photo