September 26, 2008 | Comments ()

By Brian Prisco | Books | September 26, 2008 |


Until I had seen Atom Egoyan’s Ararat I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. It was one of those events that was never mentioned in the textbooks or history lessons. It inspired Hitler’s purging of the Jews in the Holocaust. And it was perhaps one of the most harrowing events in World History.

Balakian’s memoir uses his own personal history and life to enter into the greater story of the Armenians. While I find his writing to be highly self-indulgent (he never once lets you forget that this is HIS story about HIS family) it’s an excellent way of finding an entry into a story that is bigger than you (no matter how hard you try to put yourself into it).

Balakian talks of growing up in a New Jersey suburb with his stolid immigrant family. While they tried really hard to fit in with the Protestant culture around them, the Balakians were also incredibly firm in their traditions, which of course is grating to a young teenage boy trying to find his own identity. His extended family included many aunts and his grandmother, who used to adore/pester him by constantly asking “Eench, eench, eench.” (What? Are you OK? What?) They would always have massive many-course meals that would last hours while other families were firing up Swanson TV dinners.

Balakian slowly unravels his past, but only later in his life, after college, when he begins to embrace poetry. He begins to realize the stories that his grandmother told were parables meant to sneak bits of history into his life. He begins to understand why there weren’t many male elderly relatives around. He digs into a past that his family doesn’t want to delve into, but when they finally do answer him, the response is horrifying.

What happened to the Armenian people at the hands of the Turks in 1915 is virtually unspeakable. I would rather let Balakian’s solid narration cover the monstrosities. To call the Holocaust humane would be a travesty, but at least they used gas to kill people. Here, the Armenians were set on death marches, where they were subject to rapes, and beatings and random killings. They didn’t want to waste bullets, so often they would let roaming herds of Kurdish rebels slaughter the Armenian women and children with sickles and saws and cleavers. They would leave the dead to rot, steal money from them, starve them, torture them for their own amusement. There’s a chapter called “Dovey’s Story” that will haunt me the rest of my days. That human beings could do this to other humans is disturbing, that the Turkish government still to this day denies the wholesale slaughter of an entire race of people and the abolishment of a nation from history is disgusting.

The first part of the memoir deals mostly with Balakian growing up, and aside from the familial interactions with his grandmother, is boring and unnecessary. But it’s worth the wait, once you end up in the actual retelling of the genocide. Here, Balakian works backwards, talking in generalities and statistics, before narrowing the scope to his own family’s hardships and survival. It’s a frightening thing to know that this was still being denied as late as the Reagan presidency, because of fear of losing military bases and Turkish airspace privileges. The Turks managed to wield their influence over the US well into the late 1990’s.

Once more, it makes me lose faith in government in general, and humanity as a whole.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

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100 Books in One Year #7: Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | September 26, 2008 | Comments ()



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