Book Review: ‘Draining The Sea: A Novel’ By Micheline Aharonian Marc

By Jane Ciabattari

Los Angeles Times
April 4 2008

An evocation of the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s and its echoes
of the Armenian genocide in the early years of the 20th century.

IT’s unsurprising that Micheline Aharonian Marcom, whose first two
novels, "Three Apples Fell From Heaven" and "The Daydreaming Boy,"
explore the massacre of Armenians nearly a century ago, has turned
her attention to Guatemala.

She is among a growing number of contemporary novelists writing about
the inhumane landscape of genocide. The title of her new novel evokes
the military’s savage "scorched earth" policy toward Guatemala’s Maya
population during the most gruesome years of that country’s 36-year
internal conflict. About 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Maya, were killed,
most with incredible cruelty by paramilitary "death squads."

"The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea," noted Gen.

Efrain Ríos Montt, who led the 1982 coup that precipitated some of
the worst atrocities. "If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain
the sea." (The phrase is rooted in a pronouncement of Mao Tse-tung’s:
"The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the
sea.") Ríos Montt was simply building upon decades-old policy; in
1970, one of his predecessors, President Carlos Arana Osorio, made a
similarly chilling comment: "If it is necessary to turn the country
into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."


Marcom’s incantatory voice shows promise in the opening pages of
"Draining the Sea." Her unnamed narrator is a lonely American man,
half-Armenian, who collects garbage, which often includes canine
corpses, in Los Angeles. "He drives along the streets of this city,
to the sea and up the tarmac hills, along the remote spoors of the
Santa Monica Mountains, which are today the 405 Freeway, and here he
is a driver and the world is seen and separated by glass, plastics,
metal, and it is speed he seeks, and a girl also. . . . " He fantasizes
obsessively about an Ixil girl he calls Marta, brought to him in 1983,
in the basement of the Polytechnic School, in Guatemala City, where it
seems he was complicit in the interrogation and torture of suspects:
"I am aroused when I see you and when I see you I burn you with my
cigarettes and I cut off your hands before I kill you, tomorrow,
because I have been officially trained and educated in these things,
because it is my job."

As the novel progresses, he addresses Marta with endearments,
speculates about her after assignations with prostitutes, compares
her to his Armenian mother, descended from survivors of the Armenian
genocide. He begs Marta’s forgiveness, implores her sympathy, pities
himself: "Love me back, come back to me, make your way back from
the dead corners of your republic and the interstices of historical
rendering where you have been: buried: please return; I am sorry,
I swear it, sorrow’s sorrow is my fleshy foolish history. . . "
This soon strains the limits of a reader’s empathy.

Marcom’s fractured narrative — mixing shards of the narrator’s
memories (rape, torture, dismemberment) with images of other atrocities
and the narrator’s familiar comforts (ice cream, reality TV, his "green
and padded armchair") — becomes increasingly incoherent. By my third
reading, I wished for a search engine that could unwind the narrative
knots and tease out their strands so I could make sense of them.

An accompanying timeline signals the author’s overarching intent. She
begins with 10,000 BC. ("Seafaring culture in modern-day southern
California") and moves forward, through the centuries, to the 1915-17
massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and on to the Guatemalan
slaughter. She includes maps and photographs (of the Polytechnic,
where torture and interrogations took place; the cemetery in Acul,
site of a massacre of Maya villagers; the narrator’s ancestral village
of Kharphert).

Emphasizing the facts behind her fiction, Marcom samples "collected
phrases" from key documents, including "Guatemala: Never Again!,"
the April 1998 report of the Human Rights Office of the Guatemalan
Archdiocese, which broke the silence with heart-rending testimony
from survivors and witnesses, and "Guatemala: Memory of Silence"
(1999), the 3,600-page report of the U.N. Commission for Historical
Clarification, which confirmed the genocide. In an afterword, she
notes, "As stipulated by the peace accords, the CEH [Commission
for Historical Clarification] was not allowed to name individuals
responsible for human rights crimes in its report. This book is,
in many ways, an interrogation into untold or denied histories —
it is, however, a work of fiction."

Despite her worthy intent, Marcom’s ambition here overshoots her
execution. Perhaps she needed more time to distill her material. It
is not an easy matter to push against the boundaries of language to
express unimaginable horror. More likely, her design is flawed.

Yoking the Guatemalan genocide with the Armenian one — and with
the extermination of Southern California’s indigenes, the building
of the Los Angeles aqueduct, the transformation of the Los Angeles
River into a concrete "river freeway" and the alienating effects of
modern life — is a tall order.

And there are no glimpses of courage amid the depravity, no recognition
that human rights workers, survivors, witnesses, investigators
(including judges) and at least one brave bishop risked their lives
to extricate the truth from a labyrinth of lies, cover-ups, terror
and intimidation.

"Draining the Sea" is a noble effort but so flawed as to be
largely unreadable. A redeeming factor: It spurred me to reread
"The Art of Political Murder," Francisco Goldman’s 2007 account of
the Guatemalan military’s murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, two days
after he released "Guatemala: Never Again!," and Victor Perera’s
"Unfinished Conquest"(1995), an eloquent history of the decimation
of four Maya villages in paroxysms of state-sponsored terrorism. I
recommend them both.

Jane Ciabattari, author of the story collection "Stealing the Fire,"
is president of the National Book Critics Circle.


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