Take a stroll today in an old district of almost any sizable town in Turkey and you’ll soon come across a few houses, sometimes a whole neighborhood’s worth, in various stages of dilapidation—and lately, in some cases, undergoing “rebirth” as part of a gentrification effort. Commonly referred to as Ottoman, or “old Turkish” houses, they stand out not only with their resilient vitality but also an innate sense of design that’s painfully absent in the concrete towers racing skyward just blocks away, replicating the late Romanian dictator Ceausescu’s urban renewal aesthetic with perhaps slightly more inspired interiors and high-end appliances.
That the old homes were built largely by the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects (Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, depending on the region) may be known to the occasional passerby with an interest in architectural history. And weekend urban explorers who whip out their cameras to commune with the shabby chic may take a moment or two to ponder the loss of, say, the “urban fabric” or “sense of place.” As for people—after all, the builders were members of vibrant communities whose members had to live somewhere, perhaps in these houses now being photographed—their loss, when not an afterthought, is often framed within the context of the majority: We lost them; they added color to our society, and now they’re gone.
Even if you’re not an Armenian writer in Turkey, where taboos take a long time to die and often claim victims as they do, tackling genocide as a literary subject carries a certain risk regardless of which one you’ve picked and how your personal history aligns with it. (Case in point: the backlash directed at William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.) Unintimidated by any of that, Celik manages to stay on the tightrope by resolutely keeping her focus on just a few characters, their story arcs whittled down to their essence and told in brief episodes, scenes, and fragments. Far from being a jump-cut-obsessed writer’s gimmick, this style is a perfect fit for the unsettling tone of the narrative and the uncertainty faced by all the characters—and is somewhat reminiscent of Daughters of Memory by Peter Najarian, another work on the Armenian experience that deserves a wider audience.
Celik’s tightly coiled narrative runs just over a hundred pages, but that length is misleading; the layered text, rich with metaphors and allusions, reportedly took five years to write. She assumes a working knowledge of the outline of the genocide, and in particular the phenomenon of “rescued” girls. As such, the book doesn’t offer a convenient roadmap to a reader who is utterly unfamiliar with Turkish and Armenian history, but it would be safe to say that even Turkish readers brought up on official denial would have no problem comprehending the book’s framework; the same goes for potential readers in the Armenian Diaspora as well as anyone who has a rudimentary grasp of the events of the past few decades in places like Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
That framework, in a nutshell, is this: After a prologue in which an Easter service is almost derailed by a rat—an animal that appears in a number of the book’s scenes, sometimes with a large and aggressive cohort, and acts as a stand-in for a group of people despised, besieged, molded into a shapeless herd, and driven off—we meet the book’s narrator as she arrives in Istanbul, returning after a long absence spent traveling in India, Canada, and Europe. Not feeling a strong connection to the city, which is in the “grip of the claws” of construction equipment hard at work as noted above, she declares her intention of keeping her stay as short as possible. (Celik never reveals the gender of her narrator, but in a nod to the reported parallels between author and narrator, and because I am forced to choose—Turkish allows gender neutrality in the third person; English doesn’t—I will write in this review as though the latter is a woman.) Once she sells the run-down house she grew up in and apparently inherited (to a real estate agent representing a gentrifying developer who plans to gut it and turn it into a restaurant, it turns out), she plans to bail.
A house, though, is not just that, as readers of Nicole Krauss’s Great House will know. The unnamed narrator is soon overwhelmed with the baggage and memories that flood into the rooms and threaten to suffocate her during repeated walkthroughs with the agent.
The 4-story wooden house starts unspooling a family history within the first 10 pages with visions of the dead, remembered in snippets from the restless mind of a lonely matriarch, the aforementioned Ramela, who obsessively cooks meals for the dead and leaves them out for the rats to devour. These episodes battle in the narrator’s mind with childhood memories of growing up in the house with her own family, and later visiting Ramela who somehow ended up living there. For the narrator, the house was where she would play hide-and-seek (perhaps trying to get away from the cold war that raged between her parents) and create imaginary demons (no doubt spurred by the true stories that spilled out of Ramela from time to time) that now, years later, she will attempt to bury, with limited success.
There’s also the slightly inconvenient matter of dealing with a lock of hair that the narrator was given in Toronto and that she promised to return to earth in Harput (Kharpert) so that it can be reunited with a four-year-old girl who was let go of once, about a century ago, and never seen again. As our anxious, constantly Xanax-popping narrator tries to cope with the house, we return to Ramela in alternating chapters, picking up the story on the night following the memorable Easter service at the neighborhood’s 18th-century church. In the light of a candle Ramela brought home from the church, three photos on the wall slowly emerge, transfixing her gaze, and through the photos the core of the story is revealed, first as a broad sketch, then in fuller relief as subsequent chapters fill in just enough detail for you to imagine the rest.
Celik is not one to serve up long descriptive passages, extended dialogue, or a linear storyline to help you out. She would much rather have the reader get to hear the characters’ inner voices and figure out what’s happening by connecting the dots—and those dots are often several (short) chapters apart. Having gotten caught up in the upheaval of 1915 while away from the relative safety of Constantinople for a wedding in Ankara, Ramela tries to save her two daughters during the death march by improvising as best as she can. She hands off Shakeh, the younger child, to a group of strangers near Aleppo. Then, deeper in Syria, she finds safety for herself and her older daughter, Mari, in the person of Rashid—an Arab man of Ramela’s age who takes the 15-year-old daughter as his wife, leaving his family to do so. Their new life, captured in one of the photos on the wall, is poisoned from the start, however, as symbolized by Mari’s stillborn child. The fall, briefly interrupted, resumes.
The plot largely takes a back seat as Celik proceeds to paint a rich canvas of haunting and grief as intense as some of the most enduring literary responses to catastrophe. She works in quick bursts. Compared to the considerable heft of Forty Days of Musa Dagh, this is Death Fugue in prose.
The novel’s restrained tone is tested in a couple of standout episodes set during the marches (think of the scene in “Ararat” where Atom Egoyan’s controlled interiors finally open up to show us the thousands snaking across the desert)—but even then the language remains muted and oblique. The text manages to get across the horrors endured by the accursed without depicting an actual killing. No glinting swords, no whistling bullets, and no mouth curled into a sneer to counter the anguish frozen on the faces of the dead. Literary proxies take over from the perpetrators: The bodies are swallowed and spat out by waves of water (connoting the force of the cataclysm as well as being a cleanser of souls), on which an unnamed Jesus comes a-skipping, fresh off a Last Supper, and touches the blood-soaked earth to bless the souls of the dead before disappearing into the distance.
Time, rigid and merciless, emerges as the enemy; it toys with the survivors, pushes them around, and stops when they die. The soldiers, whose commander is shown to be rotting inside (literally, not figuratively), stand back, their work already done.
As the three ancient rivers, Euphrates, Tigris, and Zab, carry away the blood flowing from the marching mass of humanity, “The sky was a mirror,” Celik writes. “They were dwindling. Orphans, those who had gone mad, blank-stared, women, a lament stuck in their throats, and men, heads down, left behind. Shakeh crouched next to a rock, her eyes pleading with her mother not to leave her behind. She walked now, with several men she did not know, toward an uncertain deliverance. The mirror lost her as she walked away, and the Earth dropped her shadow.”
If deployed throughout, such shimmering prose would run the risk of crowding out the reality of what happened, but elsewhere, Celik depicts the horrors without any symbols standing in the way. Dead children are buried, the survivors trying to pour the dirt in as fast as possible to cover the little hands and feet or the faces turned skyward; starvation is barely kept at bay by chewing on a piece of wood softened by submerging it in water.
The nameless victims in Festival are numerous, their fates clearly sealed, but when it comes to the main characters, Celik is guarded with the specifics. Blink and you’ll miss what happens to Ramela at the top of the basement stairs. We return to the young child Shakeh repeatedly, but Mari barely registers; what happens to her is revealed with no room for ambiguity, but also with as few words as possible.
As for Shakeh, her mystery is sustained throughout the book. Decades after they saw each other for the last time, Ramela wonders “whether she managed to die.” After she is turned over to the group that Ramela hopes will carry her to safety, we see her on the run. Next she turns up as Ayse, enduring her first night as a child bride before being cast off by her new family. (Ayse is a very common Turkish name derived from the name of the prominent Arab historical figure Aisha, whom the prophet married when she was a child.) Finally, after wandering the grounds of a monastery whose head priest may or may not have met a grisly end, she runs away from a murderous mob and is last seen hiding in a cave, with a group of soldiers congregating inside. In several scenes depicting out-of-body experiences or hallucinatory encounters stitched together like the vignettes in one of Stan Brakhage’s experimental films (again, the style matches the indescribable madness that reigned for so long), she converses with members of her family, be they dead, undead, or never born, as well as with her irritated former self, now trapped inside her. The cave, snug as a mother’s womb, brings her life full circle without giving us an explicit ending. It envelops her the same way Ayse now hides Shakeh from view forever.
As for the lock of hair I mentioned above, you might be curious about how it ended up getting separated from its little owner, and what happens to it in the end. The first part of that is outlined in a few lines hastily scribbled in pencil on the newspaper used to wrap the hair in. “This child’s name is Shirag,” a mother writes. “His last name is Asaduryan, of Harput. Shirag is my son. This lock of hair belongs to my daughter, Naro. I cut off a thick handful behind her right ear, close to the scalp. If, God forbid, Shirag cannot take you to the place where Naro is or when you get there you don’t see her where I left her, look around. The four-year-old girl with no hair behind her right ear is my daughter. Take Shirag and Naro to the address I wrote down. Either their father or I, as we agreed before we lost track of each other, will come and get them. I hope…”
And as to what happens to it, I will say that (1) it doesn’t matter, and (2) it is entirely in keeping with everything else that takes place in this remarkable, disturbing, and elusive book.
"The Armenian Weekly," November 26, 2014