ARMENIAN HISTORY REINTERPRETED SERGE MOMJIAN'S 'MEMORIES OF THE PAST' AIMS TO PRESERVE HIS PEOPLE'S CULTURAL HERITAGE
By Annie Slemrod
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Daily Star
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=4&article_id=12 2070#axzz16zRYCrkY
Dec 2 2010
Lebanon

BEIRUT: It isn't easy to narrate the story of a people that dates
back over 2,000 years. This is what Serge Momjian has attempted to
do, in a slim 190 pages, with "Memories of the Past." This mix of
history and fiction sets out to inform the reader about Armenian
history and culture within the frame of the story of one survivor of
the Armenian genocide.

The narrator and protagonist of "Memories" is Vartan Apelian, an
older man who recounts his life story and that of the Armenians.

During the Armenian genocide, young Vartan flees his hometown of Urfa
(now Sanliurfa in Southeastern Anatolia) with his uncle Hovsep and
lands in Cairo.

He eventually finds himself in Michigan. While waiting tables and
studying landscape architecture, Vartan begins visiting an Armenian
cultural center and meets other members of the local Armenian
community.

Through an improbable series of coincidences, Vartan meets a man named
Latif Odoglu, who turns out to have been a "military official who was
responsible for carrying out the deportations and killings [in Urfa]."

Vartan confronts Odoglu with stilted dialogue - "to deport and kill
innocent people, that's bullshit" - and, within a few pages, Oduglu
commits suicide by jumping out of his hotel window. Vartan is arrested,
tried and acquitted of murder.

At the book's conclusion, Vartan discovers that his mother is still
alive and living in a Kurdish village in Eastern Turkey. After a
short reunion, he returns to Michigan, stating with a curious lack
of emotion, "You know, my mother is an old woman now, and while she
feels she belongs there, I feel I belong here."

According to press materials released by Austin & Macauley Publishers,
Momjian is the author of three previous books, "Conflicting Motives"
(1994) "The Invisible Line" (2000) and "The Singer of the Opera"
(2004). These works largely appear to have passed beneath the radar
of the English-language press.

Nearly 100 years after it occurred, the Armenian genocide is still
a controversial topic. Scholars and politicians tend to agree that
between 1915 and 1916, at least hundreds of thousands of Armenians died
during their deportation from Eastern Anatolia by the Ottoman Turks.

Estimates vary widely on exactly how many Armenians were murdered,
or died from starvation or disease. The Turkish state puts the number
at 300,000; the Armenian government and many scholars suggest the
number is closer to 1.5 million.

More than 20 countries have formally recognized the events as
genocide, and in March 2010 the US House Foreign Affairs Committee
voted to label the killings genocide. Turkey temporarily withdrew
its ambassador from Washington in response.

Turkey denies that what has been referred to as the "Great Calamity"
was genocide. It claims there was no premeditated plan to eliminate
the Ottoman Empire's Armenian community.

In eliminating much of the Armenian population, the Ottomans
effectively destroyed the personal histories and memories of families
and entire towns.

Momjian is bent on correcting this state of affairs.

There are some problems with the book that emerge from his efforts.

English-language readers will find Momjian's labor has not been well
served by its sloppy copy-editing, which is credited to Austin &
Macauley. But there are more essential difficulties here.

Vartan catalogues aspects of Armenian history from their beginnings
as documented by Herodotus, the formation of the Armenian language,
and the gods worshipped by pre-Christian Armenians.

The problem is that it is often difficult to discern whether Vartan's
stories are myth or history, as he cites the stories of St. Gregory,
the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church and Vartan
(the general and saint) as if historically verified truth.

For the most part, Momjian has chosen to detail Armenian history
via Socratic dialogues between Vartan and his wife, Alice, and their
children, Kevork and Vera. These are long speeches, with his family
members serving as Socratic-style yes-men.

This is a bit problematic, as the reader does not know which aspects
of Vartan's tales are fact, and which are fiction. Even history takes
on a mythical quality and some of Vartan's statements about Armenian
history are simply too simplistic to be believed by historically
informed laymen, let alone professionals.

When his son Kevork asks why the Armenians were driven out of Urfa,
Vartan replies, "Because they wanted to take our land."

The Armenian genocide was indeed part of a land grab by the Ottoman
leadership, but the Young Turks also considered the Armenians to be a
fifth column and a potential liability in a new "ethnically Turkish"
state.

There is nothing wrong with historical fiction. When resting on a
bed of solid historical research, the genre can serve to make past
periods and people come alive for the general reader in way that dry,
inaccessible academic prose cannot.

A major problem with the notion of historical fiction of the
Armenian genocide (indeed, of Armenian history generally) is that
hard documentary history of the events is left wanting - especially
when compared to the exhaustive institutional and personal histories
that have been generated about the other major group extermination
effort of the 20th century, the Nazi Holocaust.

Because European Jewry's horrendous collision with the 20th century
is so well documented, fictive and fictionalized treatments of that
experience have thrived in numerous popular media. From the Art
Spiegelman's renowned graphic novel "Maus" to a range of Hollywood
movies - somber bio-pics such as Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"
existing alongside ahistorical fantasies like Quentin Tarantino's
"Inglourious Basterds."

For various reasons, academic histories of Armenia and the Armenians
during the Ottoman genocide are far more rare. Consequently, when
artists have attempted to present work that leapfrogs documentary,
the reception has been ambivalent. A good case in point is Atom
Egoyan's 2002 film "Ararat."

This masterful piece of cinema uses the complex of genocide
recollection and representation as a means to examine stories of
personal grief and, ultimately, peoples' need to inscribe meaning upon
death and loss. Yet because it didn't treat the Armenian genocide for
itself, it was not necessarily warmly received within the Armenian
diaspora.

"Memories" falls within this conundrum. Not quite historical fiction,
it wants to be both history and fiction. Without any real evidence
of the author's credentials or source materials, its authenticity is
hard to take at face value.

"Memories of the Past" is published by Austin & Macauley. It can be
purchased online at Amazon.




From: A. Papazian