BOOKS: 1915 genocide haunts, taunts young survivor

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 18, 2004 Sunday Home Edition

BOOKS: 1915 genocide haunts, taunts young survivor


The Daydreaming Boy. By Micheline Aharonian Marcom. Riverhead Books.
$23.95. 212 pages.
The verdict: An elegant, unsettling story of survival.

“In Paradise there is no past,” observes the young Catholic Rachel in
Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s 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,” 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.

Vahe Tcheubjian 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.”

Vahe has lived a life of suppressing the events that scarred him and
destroyed his family. When he was 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 were pulled from their homes and herded together in a
survival-of-the-fittest environment.

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

After leaving the orphanage, he worked as a carpenter, got married.
And then, as a middle-aged man, Vahe 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, Vahe 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 Vahe
is a deeply damaged man, this gratuitous cruelty dispels it.

Jumba and his fellow primates are a motif in the book, their
captivity and behavior reflecting how Vahe 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 Vahe is too compelling to ignore.

Vahe 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 Beatrice:

“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 pushed the gold truffles into her small hand.

Dialogue is the exception in a story built mostly on interior speech,
using poetic, even mnemonic, devices that reflect how memory works.
For Vahe, 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.

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