Haunted by visions of massacre, an Armenian trolls cafes of Beirut

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Haunted by visions of massacre, an Armenian trolls cafes of Beirut

Reviewed by Allison Block

The Daydreaming Boy
By Micheline Aharonian Marcom
RIVERHEAD; 212 PAGES; $23.95

On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman government ordered the systematic
massacre of the Armenian population. Within a year, roughly 90 percent
of Armenians were beaten, stabbed, burned or starved to death. Despite
overwhelming evidence that the Turkish government killed nearly 2
million Armenians, there are still those who claim that the first
genocide of the 20th century never occurred. In “The Daydreaming Boy,”
the follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Three Apples Fell From
Heaven” (2001), Micheline Aharonian Marcom powerfully rebuts deniers
with a piece of historical fiction that is beautiful, brutal and
unsettling until the end.

In recent years, several authors, including the late Samuel Weems, a
disbarred Arkansas judge and district attorney and zealous defender of
Turkish causes, have written books dismissing the Armenian genocide as
just another horrible consequence of war. The Turkish government has
used the cover of World War I to justify its actions, while, in
reality, the genocide was committed in front of the eyes of officers
of the German military, war allies of Turkey. (Hitler would later
imitate some of the Turkish techniques.)

The Turkish government tried to destroy all evidence of the genocide.
Soldiers burned Armenian churches, destroyed records and buried bodies
in mass graves with no markings. Acknowledgement of the historical
truths, however, is everywhere in evidence. In 2002, the European
Union voted to forbid entry to Turkey until it recognizes the Armenian
genocide. This year, the U.S. government reportedly plans to send
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Yerevan, Armenia, to
help normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.

In her breathtaking first novel, “Three Apples Fell From Heaven,”
Marcom, a Saudi Arabia-born Armenian raised in Los Angeles, crafted a
complex tapestry of characters and stories set in the time of the
genocide. Her follow-up effort focuses on the aftermath and revolves
around the experiences of one man: Vahé Tcheubjian, a middle-class
Armenian businessman in 1960s Beirut. Tcheubjian and his wife,
Juliana, appear to have an idyllic life, soaking up the sophisticated
culture that marked the pre-civil war city as a cosmopolitan capital
on the Mediterranean, the “Paris of the Middle East.” But inside,
Tcheubjian is an emotional train wreck — racked by memories of escape
from the campaign of genocide that killed his family and years endured
in a brutal Armenian orphanage. In the wake of a cold, loveless
childhood utterly devoid of human touch, Vahé seeks refuge in an
outrageous and graphic imaginary life that brings him to the verge of
a nervous breakdown, just as Beirut, the city he has come to adopt as
his home, edges toward destruction.

Vahé doesn’t just embrace fantasy; he fastens onto hallucinations
with a white-knuckle grip. His days are spent in a state of suspended
reality; smoking cigarettes while he lies on the cool linoleum floor
of his kitchen, Vahé harbors lustful thoughts about Béatrice,
the adolescent servant girl downstairs, and whores like sweaty
Rita. His erotic visions are inevitably oedipal; the “her” to whom he
refers could be either his late mother or a lover: “And I was there,
on her belly. Me as a babe, but not a babe … my chin hairs,
sideburns, but in miniature, and I was lying on her belly, stretched
out on top of her, breast to pubis, suckling. My hands holding her
breasts, pulling the nipple into my mouth.”

Forever haunted by the specter of Vostanig, a fellow orphan who
endured unconscionable abuse, Vahé walks the streets of Beirut,
lingers at street cafes and makes regular visits to the zoological
garden, where he smokes cigarettes with a monkey named Jumba, whose
caged world reminds Vahé of his own. Deep down, Vahé knows that
neither he nor Juliana can ever escape the harsh truths of their
history: “You erased the past from your voice, you smoothed your skin
with expensive creams, you removed the hairs from your limbs, the high
heels, the tight jacket, tight coiffure, and it was never enough, my
darling, was it, to make us different, better than who we were?”

Marcom’s seamless, ethereal prose is suffused with raw emotion; there
is heartbreak on every page, but also hope. Vahé, is, above all, a
survivor, who has seen the worst the world can offer and still manages
to go on with his life. The opening scene of “The Daydreaming Boy”
replays Vahé’s memory of the day he and his fellow orphans were
treated to a rare visit to the Mediterranean Sea. “Clothes stripped
and bodies for the sun and sea and we run like the djinn,” he
remembers. “We learn to swim and our bodies float in the salty air and
the sun shines on this skin; we wait for the fleshy sores to heal in
the briny warmth.” As the novel reaches its devastating conclusion,
the physical wounds of the young orphan Vahé have long mended, but
the grown man’s psyche remains ravaged beyond repair. His is a past
too devastating to transcend or escape. –

Allison Block is a writer in Solana Beach, in San Diego County.