Dreams of Bread and Fire (Armenia)

book clubFiction

by Nancy Kricorian

for my friend Zan Agzigian

While kayaking Toda Lake in Tokyo, I used to tell my friend Julia stories about my ex-boyfriend. The one I’d come to Japan from Hungary to forget. And she used to tell me that every time I spoke about him, she “just wanted to punch him in the nose.” (It did help me get over him.) I felt exactly the same about Ani’s ex in this novel. Within two sentences, you can tell he is a big fat jerk.

Ani is half-Jewish, and half-Amenian. I did a lot of Googling of the Armenian genocides. I last read about Armenia while reading the history of the Papacy, and in that book the country was doing well. A Christian nation in the Middle East with deep roots and a long tradition of church prominence in the region.

But then the Ottomans came along. That wasn’t particularly good for anyone except for selected Ottomans. Now, I’ve always read about how tolerant the Ottoman Empire was toward citizens who were different. This novel made clear to me just how much discrimination Christians and Jews did suffer under the Ottomans, how much contempt, how much disgust. All of that hurts, whether or not you are “allowed” to practice your minority religion, and whether or not your church-building is “tolerated.” Christian churches in Armenia under the Ottomans could not be taller than mosques…

ancient map of ArmeniaBut all of this takes place in the background of the novel, which is mainly a love story. A story of Ani healing from a relationship that, whether she realizes it or not, was abusive. A story of Ani performing that most important work of a young adult–answering the question of Who Am I?

The Most Important Work…in Paris

Ani goes to Paris. Ani is an au pair. Ani goes to a university on scholarship. Ani is poor. Ani makes judgments about the unhappy marriage of the people she works for and the snottiness (but also loveliness and sadness) of their daughter Sydney. Ani gets phone calls from her ex. He wants her badly–but only when he can’t have her. (I actually cheered one time when she Hung Up On Him.) Since I once had an ex that I broke up with and got back together with approximately 18 times, I know it isn’t easy.

modern mapWho Ani Is is part societal construct (she grew up in America), part family history–is she Jewish? Is she Armenian? If so, how much? What must she carry forward? What must she leave behind, to be healthy? And part, of course, is all her.

And then into her life comes Van, a person she knew when they were kids, a person who rescued her from bullies, a person who is now a good-looking man. Van happens to be stationed in Paris, working for an NGO which assist Armenians who are victims of the diaspora. It is in this moment, when we meet and recognize him and are glad, and he explains to the politically-oblivious Ani what he is doing and why, that I felt the first stirring of impatience with the book.

I am tired, you see, of books in which a Female is Led to a Greater Truth by a Boy or Man Who Has a Mission. It just feels so man-splainy.

To be fair, however, it’s a thing. It happened to me as a young woman. I was a chameleon, so desperate to be loved that I was willing to take on the interests and mission of whatever man found me worthy. I lost myself in him and thought that was lucky. The benefit of middle age is that now, I think for myself, I know what I’m passionate about and what I’m not, and I’ve stopped seeking approval–quite so much. So it does ring true for Ani’s age and background. As does her free and easy sexual seeking.

Of Hedgehogs and Crosses

churchIn some ways, this delectable novel reminded me of my blog book on France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. They’re both set in Paris, they both have characters you root for, and they both teach you a lot about the subcultures that thrive there. There are scenes that will delight your five senses…the sights, smells, sounds, textures, and feelings of the Eternal City of Light. The novel, though easy reading, doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of wealth and class. Her erstwhile ex, named Asa Willard, has some pretty awful parents. They’re rich. Here is a scene from them meeting her for the first time. The dad has been drinking.

“Asa tells me you’re from Watertown [Massachusetts], Ani,” Peggy Willard said. “You’re Armenian?”

“My mother’s Armenian.”

Ben returned to the dining room. “You know what George Orwell says about Armenians, son?” he asked, winking at Asa.

Armenian cognac with Greek letteringAni’s breath halted in her throat for a few seconds, while she waited for Ben to drop the blade.

“Don’t trust them. They’re worse than Jews or Greeks,” Ben said.

Asa colored deeply. [Not a total asshole.] “Dad, what kind of thing is that to say?”

“Ben, that’s not very  nice.” Peggy’s voice was edged with false cheer.

“Can’t anyone around here take a joke?” Ben asked darkly.

In the library’s stacks, Ani had scoured Orwell for the line and found it: Trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.

You Never Forget Your First Armenian

church by waterThe first time I even heard of Armenia was when I read the book Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. It is a love story between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in Azerbaijan, and the bad guy  is Armenian. The second time I heard of Armenia is when I was discussing World War II with my husband, and he quoted Hitler’s speech in which The Most Evil had said he could get away with exterminating the Jews, because look, ‘Nobody remembers the Armenians,” referring to the Turkish genocide, which the Turkish government (not The Turks) denies to this day. Much as the Japanese government denied for decades their shameful atrocities against the Korean “Comfort Women”, also in WWII. The third time I heard of Armenia was when my poet friend Zan Agzigian told me the ethnicity of her name. Once you hear an Armenian name, you never forget it. It is very easy to identify an Armenian name. Van’s family name, for example, is Ardivanian. Ani’s mother’s name is Kersamian, although her late father’s was Silver (likely short for Silberschmidt or something Eastern European that got chopped off at Ellis Island, in the way that Americans and Australians are wont to do.) The man in Ani’s English-Armenian exercise book is called Mattheos Garagosian.

Armenian traditional costume“Miriam was Ani’s grandmother’s name. And Baba was called Mattheos.

Ani saw them suddenly, a young man in a black cloth coat standing beside his diminutive dark-haired wife. They were at Ellis Island being questioned by an immigration official. The man tapped his pencil impatiently on the desk. Mattheos repeated his last name slowly and the man wrote the letters down. He showed it to Mattheos.

Is that it? The man asked.

Yes, that’s it, Mattheos said.

Mariam, following the proceedings skittishly, didn’t understand English, so Mattheos translated for her. She gave the name of her town and the approximate year of her birth.

The vision faded.

Mountains of ArmeniaHad Baba known English when he arrived? How had he learned it? Why had he come to America? When they emigrated, whom had they left behind? Her grandparents drew a curtain of silence over their early lives. And Ani, growing up amid Old World shadows, had never thought to ask.

Rating: Brilliant. Five helpings of manti, and also fresh madzoon!

PS 1–My beloved DK Atlas of the World, circa 1990, says that Azer-Baijan and Armenia are at war. (Just like the protagonist in Ali and Nino and his Armenian friend.) There is a disputed enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh that was Azeri and the Armenians wanted it or wanted it back. You will want to know what an enclave is because the upcoming blog on San Marino features one.

PS2-Armenia is famous for its cognac-producing regions. Anybody know if cognac is gluten free?

Dirty Feet (Guinea) or (Togo)

book covercourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

From a man with a cheesy name (ha ha)…Edem Awumey

I’m not sure where to place this book in the world. Rather like the main character. But we’ll get to him in a moment. The author, Edem Awumey, is from Togo. The MC is from Guinea. But, he’s in exile in Paris. So we don’t really get a sense of Togo or Guinea in the book. It seems ripped from today’s headlines, about Africans fleeing their homelands for Western Europe though, so I will go with Guinea.

There are 3 Guineas, by the way. There is Equatorial Guinea, the only African country where Spanish is spoken, as a result of imperialism. There is Guinea-Bissau, where Portuguese is spoken–second verse, same as the first. And there is Guinea, on the coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, where the MC, Askia, ended up with his family before going to Paris in search of his father. The family is from the interior, fleeing poverty and starvation, although the nation is never specified.

map oF guineaI must say, I thought all along that the search for Askia’s father Sidi ben Sylla Mohammed was futile. Askia doesn’t know why his father left them, or what has happened to the man in the pure white turban. Is he dead? Did he go on ahead? Did he abandon them?

The son is living in a cockroach-infested squat in Paris, having a non-sexual relationship with a Bulgarian girl who claims to have photographed his father 10 years earlier. He’s driving a cab. He’s also fleeing a violent past. I hated the bits about how the kids were so cruel to the dog, though I suspect it is a Western view of the world and the place of animals in it.

An Excerpt:

women holding hands“Askia would recount how, in her final delirium, his mother would keep on about the letters that Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed, his father, was supposed to have sent from Paris. Along with some photos. Which he had never seen. But then one day Askia went off on the same route as the absent one. He did not leave to find the missing father. He could live with gaps in his genealogy. He left because of a strange thing his mother had said. “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet. If you go away, you will understand. Why they called us Dirty Feet…”

villiages

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, I have been called by a former boyfriend a person with Wandering Feet, so I understand. It sounds romantic until you have to do it, until you have no choice. Until strangers get to say that you stink.

Some reviewers have compared this novel to The Stranger, by Albert Camus. I didn’t see it, but it’s been a long time since I read that work. Apparently Camus was himself a “pied-noir”, or Black Foot, being Algerian of European descent, returning to France after the independence of Algeria.

outdoor school

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought many things about the book were genius. The wandering theme, relating to slavery, being cast out on the road. The way that no village in Africa would take in the strangers, thinking them the cause of bad luck, as if it were catching. Paris doesn’t want to take them in either–Askia is illegal. The girlfriend, who is herself a Gypsy, wandering borderless. Identity-less in a way.

photo of author

Edem Awumey

I recently read an article on why ISIS has made France one of its top targets. I did wonder in light of (more) terror attacks recently–why France? Why  not Germany or England or Hungary? One of the reasons proposed online is that France has a larger proportion of Muslim people living there, and terrorism like other crimes is a numbers game. If 1 in 10 people is a burglar, for example, then if you have more people living in your country you’ll have more burglaries–that makes sense–so Switzerland probably has fewer burglaries than China. Another reason is that Paris has a large Muslim slum area in which people are not integrated; are poor and have few opportunities. And I’m sure a third reason is the history of French colonialism and disempowerment of Africans.

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

I sometimes wonder whether, if the European colonialists could have looked into the future and foreseen their actions coming home to roost, if they would have behaved differently.

Anyway, I enjoyed some parts of this book and others not. I did not like the ending, which was not satisfying. I think it would have been more interesting (but vastly more difficult to write) for Askia to have encountered and confronted his father…but I can see why the author chose the ending he did, particularly if he is paying homage to Camus and Samuel Beckett and that ilk. I don’t like their books.

However, this novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist, so somebody liked it a great deal indeed! I guess it’s one of those where I can admire the writing style and the plotting even as I dislike the characters and the story.

Rating: Three clean but illegal taxicabs.