Book Review: Cruelty becomes the refuge of a refugee

Seattle Times, WA
April 9, 2004

Book Review
Cruelty becomes the refuge of a refugee

By Ellen Emry Heltzel
Special to The Seattle Times

“In Paradise there is no past,” observes the young Catholic, Rachel,
in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s highly acclaimed first novel, “Three
Apples Fell from Heaven.” She is speaking from the grave after
drowning herself to avoid being raped by Turkish soldiers. For her,
hell is the pain of memory.

In her new novel, “The Daydreaming Boy” (Riverhead Books, $23.95),
Marcom reprises this theme, her subject once again the Ottoman
Empire’s 1915 genocide against the Armenians. This time, the story
remains in the land of the living, told by a fictional narrator who’s
looking back a half century after the killings.

Vah̩ Tcheubjian Рcuriously, he bears the same name as the person to
whom the book is dedicated – lives in Beirut, Lebanon. He is both an
unexceptional figure and a tragic one, describing himself as “a
smallish man, a man whose middle has begun to soften and protrude,
his long toes hidden in scuffed dress shoes.” Beneath this bland
exterior, however, lies a person “undone by history.”

Vahé has lived a life of suppressing the events that scarred him and
destroyed his family. At the age of 7, his father was bludgeoned to
death and his mother delivered to an unknown fate, while he was sent
by boxcar to Lebanon and the Bird’s Nest Orphanage. There, he grew up
among what he calls the “Adams in the wasteland” – child refugees who
have been pulled from their homes and herded together in a
survival-of-the-fittest environment.

Author appearance

Micheline Aharonian Marcom will read from “The Daydreaming Boy,” 7:30
p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free
(206-624-6600 or ).

Vahé remembers how he ached with loneliness. He wrote letters to the
mother who never replied. He cherished the weekly assembly-line
baths, a brisk scrubdown by a dour-looking matron, because it gave
him the chance to recall maternal touch.

After leaving the orphanage, he worked as a carpenter and got
married. But, as a middle-aged man, Vahé can’t stop thinking about
Vostanig, the outcast who was sexually and physically abused by the
other boys, including himself, at the Bird’s Nest. “The stranger: he
was all of us, the damned exiled race in its puny and starved and
pathetic scabbed body,” he recalls. “How we longed to kill him.”

For years, Vahé made a habit of visiting the Beirut zoo on Sundays,
where he shared a smoke with the tobacco-loving chimp Jumba. But
before handing over the cigarette, he would poke its burning end into
the chimp’s flesh, exacting his price. If there’s any doubt that Vahé
is a deeply damaged man, this gratuitous cruelty dispels it.

Jumba and his fellow primates are an ongoing motif in the book, their
captivity and behavior reflecting how Vahé perceives a hostile world.
A newspaper article datelined South Africa announces the discovery
that man and gorilla share the same brain size and capacity,
underscoring the primal connection. The metaphor threatens to
overpower the story, but Vahé is too compelling to ignore.

Vahé has learned to translate his grief and emptiness into lust,
braiding sex and violence together, as he was taught. Having been
victimized himself, he becomes victimizer, as indicated by this
simple exchange with the servant girl, Béatrice:

” ‘Would you like a chocolate?’

” ‘No, merci.’

” ‘No, merci? Here, take it. I’ve bought these chocolates and I would
like for you to take it.’ She is still looking at the floor and I’ve
grabbed her hand and push the gold truffles into her small hand … ”

But dialogue is the exception in a story built mostly on interior
dialogue, using poetic, even mnemonic, devices that reflect how
memory works. For Vahé, the past returns in intermittent blasts, like
power surges traveling down the neural pathways. Through his eyes we
see the lies and obfuscations gradually fall away.

“The Daydreaming Boy” probes Vahé’s interior life, displaying his
cruel, hungry sensibility, and eventually locates the sources of his
pain. What remains is a man who sees himself for what he is, “the
ragged round left by absence of affection and knowing.”

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland,
Ore. With Margo Hammond, she writes the weekly column Book Babes,
which can be found at