Finding beauty amid the wounds of war

by Jessica Slater, Special To The News

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
May 14, 2004 Friday Final Edition

“How did I become this sort of man?” asks the central character of
The Daydreaming Boy. Born in Armenia two years after the Ottoman
Turks inflicted genocide on his people in 1915, Vahe Tcheubjian was
sold to the Turks and then left at an orphanage in Lebanon. As an
adult living in Beirut in the 1960s with his wife, Juliana, he tries
to put the past behind him. The novel traces his unraveling
consciousness as the ghosts of his childhood come back to haunt him
with increasing intensity. It’s a stunning portrait of war’s bleak
inheritance. Despite the grueling subject matter, Micheline Aharonian
Marcom’s prose spans the full range of human emotion with
spellbinding and luminous beauty. The novel is broken into short
chapters that skip back and forth in time from Vahe’s married life in
Beirut in the ’60s to his childhood years in the early 1920s at the
Bird’s Nest orphanage and briefly forward to Beirut in 1986, after 11
summers of civil war. Marcom doesn’t provide page upon page of
historical detail about the Armenian genocide. Rather, she draws us
into the mind of a refugee, where memory, history, lies and
imagination chase one another’s tails for so long that they become
inseparable. The disjointed transitions can be confusing, but once
you enter the rhythm of the writing, the juxtapositions become as
telling as the events and recollections themselves. Through the
fractured lens of his consciousness, the answer to Vahe’s question
emerges: “The nows become jumbled, riff, they flow together as the
tributaries will flow into the sea and become one strain of water
indistinguishable from the other waters – because: all of it is me.”
Vahe’s relationships betray the extent of damage inflicted on him by
his experiences. Several characters figure prominently in his
thoughts: the specter of Vosto, a boy from the orphanage whose
arrival provides fresh prey for the boys who had been tormenting
Vahe, thus relieving his suffering but also compounding his guilt;
Vahe’s absent mother and his wife; Beatrice, a young Palestinian girl
who works as a domestic for Vahe’s neighbor in Beirut and for whom
Vahe develops an obsessive longing; and Jumba, a chimpanzee at the
local zoo, where he often walks, and who becomes a measuring stick
against which Vahe tries to fathom his own humanity. Vahe’s marriage
to Juliana is described as the result of “desperate convenience, a
coincidence of time and place and sentiment.” As the intensity of his
obsession with Beatrice increases, so does the loneliness within his
marriage: “Our marriage became a container that held the lonely like
a boy holds an empty soup cup and wants just a small amount, just the
littlest bit more of some fatty soup.” His relationships sink further
and further into the realm of fantasy, and the fantasies are often
disturbingly violent. He perceives himself as a beast, partly because
of his brutal desires but more deeply because of the inhumane
treatment he and his people have endured: “What distinguishes us from
the dark beast?” he asks, drawing parallels between the bars of
Jumba’s cage and the balcony railings that divide his own sight. This
obsession with violence and dehumanization makes hideous sense in the
context of genocide: The Armenian language, writes Marcom, “was
murdered in the summer 1915 when no word or sentence or lyric or ode
to man’s dignity or proclamation or newspaper article or pleading by
the Patriarch or pleading by the girl before the soldier violated or
letter or bill or identity card could say, say it so that it would be
heard, . . . their tongue could not alter the smallest breeze. . . .
It could not say (for pity’s sake, honor’s sake) to the Turkish
soldier gendarme kaimakam: Please, sir. I am a man.” One chapter
describes Vahe’s mother being raped by a Turkish soldier, whom Vahe
refers to as his father. Whether it’s the truth or Vahe’s conception
is uncertain. What matters is that it’s there in his mind, part of
the distillation of experience, history and imagination that has made
him who he is: “Perhaps all of the lies together will form some kind
of truth about the man, the orphan, the refugee. . . . My lies are my
history and they have altered with time. . . . Now I have no
assurance as to what happened or did not and it matters little.” The
Daydreaming Boy is dreamlike – surreal, disturbing and stunningly
beautiful by turn – but its final effect is one of awakening. As the
pieces of the puzzle fall together, the picture that emerges is not
just of one man but of the vast machine of conflict and war that has
made (or unmade) him. Marcom’s astonishing achievement is that this
novel contains enough sadness to crush all hope but enough startling
beauty and strength to ignite it all over again. INFOBOX The
Daydreaming Boy * By Micheline Aharonian Marcom, right. Riverhead
Books, 212 pages, $23.95 * Grade: A

Jessica Slater is technology editor at the Rocky Mountain News.