London Literary Review: „ A book in the old narrative tradition of the Levant”

London Literary Review: „ A book in the old narrative tradition of the Levant”

Revista londoneză de cultură Literary Review elogiază versiunea engleză a romanului Cartea șoaptelor:„ O carte scrisă în vechea tradiție a Levantului, plină de parfum și savoare, cu cântec și poezie atât de puternice încât ne duce adânc în lumea pe care o descrie. Cartea șoaptelor este o combinație complexă și de ample dimensiuni, al cărei cel mai mare merit nu constă în povestirea însăși (deși povestea e splendidă) ci în abisul uman care stă în spatele ei.”

What are you saying in a whisper?’ asked the author long before he was an author. ‘I’m reading,’ his grand- father Garabet answered. ‘How are you reading? Where is the book?’ ‘I don’t need the book. I know it by heart.’ ‘All right, but what is the book called? Who wrote it?’ ‘Perhaps you, one fine day.’ Unlike most books, The Book of Whispers didn’t need writing to exist; the book ‘lived’ long before it was written. Indeed, writ- ing hasn’t done much to solve the fun- damental difficulty that lies at its heart: there are things so painful to remember, so traumatic to talk about, that any story dealing with them will increase the pain rather than heal it. For fear of adding to the pain, the story can only be told in a whisper. Writing such a book, then, is one of the hardest tasks a writer can face: to make the unspeakable speak. Ultimately, as the author himself admits, the task is near-impossible: the story of The Book of Whispers is one that ‘nobody can tell in its entirety, as if each teller feared to understand the whole, thereby trying to
save his life from meaninglessness’.
It must be this difficulty that makes Varujan Vosganian’s book such an unclas-sifiable project: it is not a novel, yet it is a compelling read; it is not a memoir, though the labour of memory lies at its core; it is not a philosophical essay, even if it is non-fiction at its most penetrating; it is not a book of history, though it is about nothing else. The Book of Whispers is a collage, complex and of ever ampler proportions, the greatest merit of which lies not so much in the storytelling (although it does a splendid job at that) as in the pointing to the human abyss that lies beyond what the story tells.
The book follows the fate of Arme-
nians living in the Ottoman Empire in the few decades before its collapse, espe- cially the years 1895 to 1905. That sounds scholarly enough, but The Book of Whispers
is anything but academic or dry: it is populated with people of flesh and blood, folk of all stripes, with names, faces, attics and everything; it’s „, replete with aromas and flavours, with songs and poetry powerful enough to take us, on the sly, deep into the world it describes. When, for instance, it tells how Armenians, on their death marches through the deserts of Mesopotamia, kept pomegranate seeds under their tongues to trick their thirst, we almost taste pomegranate in our own mouths and experience the Armenians’ thirst, their tired feet, the sand everywhere and the deadly heat.
Vosganian proceeds slowly, in concentric circles, beginning with what’s closest to him – ‘the old Armenians of my childhood’, especially his immediate fam- ily and the fabulous, towering figure of Grandfather Garabet. Most of these peo- ple were born and grew up in the Otto- man Empire, and even though they had to flee and seek refuge in Romania, they took their native place with them. They lived in Europe as if they had never left Asia: they spoke Turkish, ate Turkish, felt Turkish. ‘Every item had a Turkish name, and they sometimes even called the coffee kahve, the same as in Turk- ish. For my grandparents, who in the old days had seen the same objects in their old folks’ houses on the banks of the Bosphorus or the Euphrates, the memories and the words had probably merged.’ They may have left the Turkish lands, but the latter never left them. No matter where they were, Constantinople remained for them ‘the City, the center of the world’. Everything revolved around it, even the unspeakable. ‘The genocide was commemorated on April 24, the day when the massacres began in the City, in Constantinople.’
Then, as these people bring in more and larger stories – stories of close
Vosganian: ‘make the unspeakable speak’
encounters with death, of exile and rein- vention, of resilience and never-healing trauma – the circles grow ever larger. Unavoidably, the book’s focal point is what happened to the convoys of Arme- nians who were assembled in 1915 in different parts of Anatolia and herded, under military escort, to their final des- tination, Deir-ez-Zor.
Instead of charges and accusations, of broad historical considerations on the Armenian Genocide, Vosganian offers something else – descriptions like this: ‘On the road between Sivas and Khar- put, the mutilated bodies of the women massacred on the eastern bank of the Euphrates lay by the side of the road and in gullies for months on end. There were too many of them to bury. Their skele- tons could still be seen in the middle of 1916.’ Hundreds of thousands of people died like flies during those death marches. There are haunting tales of starving women who could no longer walk and collapsed. That was a death sentence for their children as well: ‘More often than not, the child would cling to its mother, and they awaited death together.’
This is a never-ending story. ‘And so,’ said Grandfather Garabet, ‘the war has not ended.’ ‘Which war?’ asked the author before he even knew what an author was. ‘Well, there is only one. But it keeps breaking out in different places, like a rash.’
To order this book from the Literary Review Bookshop, see page 53.
Prof. Costică Brădățan – MUTED WITNESSED, Literary Review, March 2018, London