DISTINGUISHED BY THE DEAD – RIRI SYLVIA MANOR

Source: Ha’aretz / Israel

“Cartea soaptelor” (“The Book of Whispers”) by Varujan Vosganian, Poirom, 528 pages

No one expected Varujan Vosganian to write the best novel in Romanian literature. He was, after all, the finance minister of Romania until not very long ago. He is an economist and mathematician by profession, a talented rhetorician, a brilliant intellectual, president of the Armenians Union of Romania and vice president of the Romanian Writers’ Union. Although he has written poetry in the past, this book (which has not been translated as yet into English) is entirely different. From the first page of his first prose work, “The Book of Whispers,” the unbelievable happens and the surprise is clear and powerful: This is a classic, a true literary celebration.

Vosganian’s whispers are truly mesmerizing. Regardless of cultural status or political-literary association, readers bleed with the vanquished, are persecuted and flee with them, and become Armenians like them. How does Vosganian, an Armenian Romanian, succeed in depicting the events and at the same time elevate the reader and deepen his belief in and grasp of humanist values? How does he create speech with universal validity? Without preaching, without pathos and without overwhelming guilt, he lets the facts speak for themselves, at the same time becoming a more reliable and convincing narrator who reveals the incomprehensible. In Vosganian’s depiction of events in the history of the Armenian people, he awakens our own experiences, our pain, our lives – lived at times without shield or armor in the bloody 20th century – our vanquished lives. Vanquished, but surviving and reviving, in order to allow us to declare: We exist, we have survived and now we must also remain human, because of what happened, and despite what happened. “We are not distinguished by what we are, but rather by the dead whom each of us mourns,” says the narrator’s grandfather Garabet from the small town of Focsani in Moldova. Garabet, who claimed that the best taste of all is the taste of wind, and who believed that as long as you live you are immortal, found a similarity between Armenian carpets and the Bible: “You find everything in both of them – from Genesis to our day.” The grandfather had “an almost Kantian” vision of the world: “The roof over your head, the altar before your eyes and the soft carpet beneath your feet.” In truth, “The Book of Whispers” contains another book, consisting entirely of this nonchalant grandfather’s pearls of wisdom, based on his experience: “‘Don’t rush,’ he’d always say. ‘The person who has won is rarely the real victor. History was made by the vanquished, not by the victors. In the end, victory means exiting history’ … Precisely for this reason, grandfather Garabet thought the real heroes who make history are not the generals but rather the poets, and the real battles are not to be sought under the horses’ hooves.” “Victory,” says the other grandfather, Starak, from Craiova, “isn’t the power to spill other people’s blood. Victory is the power to spill your own blood.” Every great writer is first of all a poet, and every fiber of this novel is rich in metaphor. With verbal thrift and precision of language, the novel creates an electrical-emotional tension, as though the reader is taking part in what is happening. When a Russian soldier threatens the narrator’s grandfather and orders him to move away, down the street, the narrator writes: “No one would be able to say what silence is if he has not heard at his back the rustle of a weapon being cocked.” In another place the prison is described as dampness that comes and goes, “And the moment it penetrates your bones you carry it from within.” Perhaps the book succeeds in sinking into the soul because of the richness of the poetic characters, because “the soul cannot think in the absence of an image,” as Aristotle has taught us. ‘Abandoned path’ After recounting his memories from his grandfathers’ homes (we hardly know anything about his parents’ homes), the narrator brings alive the Armenian folk epic, which survives and abounds in open wounds. Nevertheless, he writes, “Every open wound is the start of an abandoned path. To the extent that it heals, you are damaged.” And the dead? “The dead have moved house in the pictures on the shelf.” Or: “The picture became the request for forgiveness by those who in this hasty century left without having time to bid farewell.” Dante, under instructions by Virgil, built in his poet’s imagination the sad spaces of hell. Vosganian guides us through the hell of his people at the start of the 20th century. He reconstructs this hell meticulously, basing it on historical documentation and his own intuition as a poet and writer. The author does not look back in anger. He is there and he takes us with him. It is clear to the reader that, had we been born in another place and another time, we could have been those Armenians. “More important than death is memory,” according to the narrator. “Among the many lives I carry inside myself the most real, like a bouquet of snakes tied at its end, are the lives I have not lived.” Every character in “The Book of Whispers” is a unique and actual case. Vosganian, who is not of that period, could not have lived those lives, but each of the characters he depicts – with his own unique habits, dreams and history – joins the other characters to create a bouquet of people. These are people connected to one another by the ties and tissues of the human catastrophe caused by those who saw the Armenians as a human mass that had to be annihilated. Writes Vosganian: “All the means they used to kill the Armenians on the roads of Anatolia served the Nazis against the Jews, except in the Nazi camps the Jews had numbers on their arms.” It is amazing to find that among the Armenians, too, the generation that survived the genocide, and even its children, did not talk about the horrors in Anatolia. The generation of survivors has died and its memories have been buried with it. Suddenly the third generation has discovered it knows nothing about the slaughter of its family and people. Is this a trauma that lasts a lifetime? Guilt? Shame? David Grossman, who was a guest of honor at the International Literature Festival in Berlin in 2007, devoted a large part of his speech to this phenomenon. Interestingly, he used the word “whispers” in the context of the explanation of why he refused to answer his son’s question, “What did the Nazis do? I did not want to tell him. I, who had grown up within the silence and fragmented whispers that had filled me with so many fears and nightmares, who had written a book about a boy who almost loses his mind because of his parents’ silence, suddenly understood my parents and my friends’ parents who chose to be mute. I felt,” said Grossman, “I felt that if I told him, if I even so much as cautiously alluded to what had happened over there, something in the purity of my 3-year-old son would be polluted; that from the moment such possibilities of cruelty were formulated in his childlike, innocent consciousness, he would never again be the same child. He would no longer be a child at all.” There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that there is a similarity between Grossman’s silence and broken whispers and those depicted in Vosganian’s book. Just as a painter mixes many colors together to obtain a unique hue, “The Book of Whispers” is full of numbers, data, historical facts and literary portraits, bringing us closer and closer to a picture of the reality. An ordinary writer might have failed in this thicket of exact and meticulous detail, or might have surrendered to sentimental, moralizing excess. But Vosganian is not an ordinary writer. He knows how to navigate elegantly and skillfully between Scylla and Charybdis. Riri Sylvia Manor is a poet and president of the Israel-Romania Writers’ Association.

Advertisements