Novel, “Fiction Ltd.” series, Polirom, 2009, 528 pages
Translation rights sold to: Pre-Textos (Spain)
The Book of Whispers begins in a picturesque register, on a lane of the Armenian quarter of Focşani in the 1950s, among the steam of freshly roasted coffee and the scents of grandmother Armenuhi’s larder, among the old books and photographs of grandfather Garabet. But the reader is not left to savour the intimacy of this hearth and home and nor is he invited to chat with the merry folk who in peacetime spin stories about Ara the Fair and Tigran the Great. Varujan Vosganian’s “old Armenians from childhood” have no delectable tales to tell, but rather events that are thoroughly disturbing. In narrating these events, they attempt to disburden themselves of a trauma – their own and that of their forbears.
The history of the 1915 genocide against the Armenians, the history of the interminable convoys of those banished into the Circles of Death, into the Deir ez Zor Desert, the secret history of Armenian freemasonry in Romania, of General Dro’s army, the history of the Armenians who followed the path of exile in the Stalinist period – all these and many other biographically filtered histories are to be found illustrated in the pages of this unsettling book.
THE STORY OF YUSUF. In The Book of Whispers there are no imaginary characters, since they have all existed in this world, in their own place and time and with their own name. There is one character alone that might seem imaginary given that his existence gradually transforms The Book of Whispers into a self replicating reality, like two parallel mirrors. I often write about the storyteller of The Book of Whispers. In my tale, the storyteller tells of The Book of Whispers. And in the telling of this new book, there appears once more the storyteller who tells the tale. He tells of the storyteller and his story. If the order were reversed and we arrived at the final storyteller, the one who does not possess the weakness of describing himself, and if we were to move from his direction toward me, then we would have the dream, then the dream in the dream, and so on. In this way, however, writing about the one who writes, while he in his turn bends over the manuscript in which there is also a character named the author and writes, it is as if we were gradually going deeper, like those toys made of hollowed wood, the matryoshka dolls that old man Musaian brought back from Siberia, losing count of the years and forgetting that in the meanwhile his son, Arachel, was already old enough to be drafted into the army.
Among so many real life characters, some names you will find in the history books, others you will find only in The Book of Whispers. Although it more often than not tells of the past, it is not a history book, for the history books above all tell of the victors. Rather, it is a collection of psalms, for it tells of the vanquished in particular. And among the characters of the book there is also one who did not exist, but in spite of this fact or precisely because of it, he too bears a name : his name is Yusuf. This Yusuf was nothing more than a borrowed name and exists in The Book of Whispers only due to the fact that, in spite of not being part of the Book’s fabric, he is nonetheless the key that opens the door to the room of the most lamented chamber of the liminal era, with bare walls scored by fingernails, with buckling floorboards and earth heaped haphazardly in mounds, as is the case with graves dugs in haste. And the graves dug with the greatest haste are mass graves.
The living and the dead belong to the Heavens and the Earth. Only the dying wholly belong to Death. Death walks among them tenderly and she takes care not to break off the state of dying too quickly. It is her fresh rice. The state of dying is an initiation into Death. From Mamura to Deir ez Zor, for a distance of more than one hundred and eighty miles, an entire nation traversed the seven circles, which is to say the road of initiation into Death. It was at the end of this road that Sahag Sheitanian met Yusuf.
MAMURA. THE FIRST CIRCLE. The road runs straight, for the length of the railway line. The entry into the first circle, that of the convoys that had gathered the Armenians from the most various places, from European Anatolia, Smyrna, Izmid and Adrianopolis, or from the vilayets of Eastern Anatolia, from Trebizond, Erzerum or Kharput, was made on foot. Seen from afar, as they walked huddled together, their heads bowed, they looked like pilgrims. Except that pilgrims are driven by their faith, not by soldiers who thrust them from behind, butting them with their horses’ muzzles or herding the stragglers back into the convoy with blows of the whip. Sahag Sheitanian’s family was made up of five persons : the grandmother, the parents, himself and his younger sister. The other two, older children, Simon and Haigui, had been sent clandestinely to Constantinople. His mother, Hermine, was a fiery woman. She was still steady on her feet. She held her arms around the children and kept a straight path, in the middle of the convoy, to shield them from the horses’ hooves. And to shield them from the sight of the corpses rent by the crows at the edge of the road. They had some money. Rupen, the father, kept it hidden under his shirt. With a part of the money, they had been able to pay for a kind of ticket, or rather they had bought the goodwill of the stationmaster in Izmid, and they had boarded the train that crossed the Eşchişer Konya Bizanti Adana line, as far as half way to Mamura, where the train stopped, at the orders of the Army, which had barred the railway line. But even if the journey, crossing rocky wastes and the scorching plain, would have been exhausting, the train stopping saved their lives, for there was no room in the cattle trucks in which they were crammed, their food had run out, and no one had given them water. The dead that had remained in the cattle trucks were those who had barely breathed their last, for all those who died on the way had been thrown from the train onto the embankments.
Thus they were fortunate twice over. Firstly, because they had not had to travel for hundreds of miles on foot. And secondly, because they had been released from the cattle trucks when they were all on the verge of dying of suffocation. But the majority, especially the convoys from the eastern vilayets, did not have such luck. They made the whole journey on foot. Some of them, the wealthier, had managed to get hold of carts and mules. Because of the exhaustion, the cold, the hunger, the robberies and the massacres, of the almost one and a half million people deported half a million died before reaching the edge of the first circle. To which can be added those who nonetheless did arrive, not on their own legs, but rather borne by the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
In September, the nights begin to grow cold, without the scorching heat of the day abating. They were herded onto open ground by the railway station in Mamura. As far as the eyes could see, folk erected makeshift tents from whatever they could – blankets, clothes, sheets. Most of them stood on only four sticks, extending over a surface area of about ten square feet. The faded tent fabric was good against the sun and the rain, but wholly ineffective against the cold. Sahag counted with his eyes so many ramshackle tents that where they came to an end could not be glimpsed. They were situated deliberately at the edge of the town, on the other side of the railway line, because it was easier to guard the boundary of the tracks, and so that no one would dare to go into the town for bread. They still had meagre provisions. They ate in haste and watchfully, under the shadow of their tents, so that they would not be seen by the others around them.
Now and then, scattered groups approached the railway station, but were driven back into the camp. Nevertheless, the soldiers ceased to threaten them in the end, allowing them to see to their business. For this time they were those who, going from tent to tent, helped those inside to carry away their dead. And so as not to leave the dead all alone, they laid them one next to the other. Later, when the dead had multiplied exceedingly, they laid them one on top of another, so that death built mounds that surrounded the camp like watch towers. The animals snuffled because of hunger and the smell of death. These were above all mules, tethered to carts or carrying bundles on their packsaddles. The mules proved to be the sturdier. The horses had died either of thirst or with broken ankles on the mountain paths. The dogs kept apart. They sensed in the eyes of the people the same hunger and harrying. They waited patiently, together with the flocks of crows, for evening to fall.
They slept huddled together, to keep warm. In the daytime, they undressed and hung out their knotted clothes overhead. They had come to an agreement with a betrothed couple from Konya to share their cart, and the men took turns pushing from behind, to help the mule. The woman offered to darn their sheets, better to resist the gusts of wind. She was with her fiancé. They were to have wed, but the wedding guests had died on the road.
Sahag’s mother had two pots in which she collected the rainwater. When the water had almost run out, they wiped their lips with the rags they hung out at night to be moistened by the hoarfrost.
When the host of tents stretched too far, threatening to spill over the railway track, and the number of corpses was so great that the air was thick with the scent of death, the soldiers descended on horseback among the tents and forced a few thousand folk onto the road once more. The tents collapsed under the horses’ hooves, the people were herded to the edge of the field with blows of the whips. When they did not manage to cram their things into their bundles or to pack away their tents, the horsemen made haste to set light to the roofs of dry fabric.
Their turn came at the end of October. Until the next stopping place it was a five hour walk for a hale man, but it took them almost five days.
ISLAHIYE. THE SECOND CIRCLE. The road would lead through the Amanus Mountains, over the crests, then down toward Islahiye, on the banks of a river. When they reached the second circle, the first snows fell. Many were clothed in thin rags and only dust imbibed with sweat thickened their clothes, keeping them warm. They threw the blanket over the mule and for the whole way they wrapped themselves in sheets. They abandoned the cart, which could no longer pass along the narrow paths, and the men carried on their backs as much of the things as they could. When it grew a little warmer, they tore a sheet into strips and tied it to one another, so that they would not lose their footing and slip among the steep drops. It was a clean, mountain path, and clean it remained even after the convoy passed, for those who fell, at the end of their strength, were thrust with blows of the walking stick into the ravine. The old woman rode on the mule, which helped her to endure the journey, in contrast to many others, who died of exhaustion or collapsed dying and tumbled down the rocks. When they reached the plain, the convoy was met by a band of a few dozen armed Kurds. At a signal, the soldiers guarding them blocked the way ahead, leaving the convoy powerless to advance. The people came to a stop, gazing in fear at the horsemen that fell upon them, waving their muskets and sabres. The plateau was narrow, with mountains behind, precipices on either side, and the horsemen before. A scene we know from hundreds of accounts. Abandoned convoys, defenceless, mostly women and children, scattering over the plain, each seeking to escape, without knowing that when you manage to break away from the crowd you become the easiest prey of all for horsemen bent on plunder and slaughter, be they murderers released from the Turkish prisons for that purpose and given weapons, be they Kurds, Chechens or Bedouins. They rarely attacked at random. More often than not they were informed of the convoy’s time and route, and the soldiers had instructions to move aside, leaving them to do their work. Sometimes only to plunder and take the young women, or, as more often happened, to slaughter them to the last man. There was no rule. You could be killed for having money or jewels, or because you had nothing to give them. The best thing was to curl up into a ball or to stretch out and pretend to be dead. If you were lucky enough not to be trampled under the horses’ hooves, you might escape until the horsemen grew weary, having chased moving targets, or until night fell and they went away, whooping and grasping struggling women over their saddles. Behind them they left a plain dotted with corpses, from which those still alive were slowly climbing to their feet, dazed.
The fiancé of the woman they had befriended was also killed. Around his neck he wore a worthless but shiny chain, which a horseman coveted and did not take the trouble to steal from him other than by chopping off his head. They were forced to abandon him there, prey to the wild animals.
Dragging the wounded behind them, it was not until daylight that they reached the plain at Islahiye. On either side of the entrance to the camp there were two mounds of corpses, above all children. They unfolded their tents. The food was almost gone. In the morning, mounted soldiers cut across the plain, tossing loaves of bread at random over the tents. The people swarmed, most grabbing at pieces of bread, fighting for their share. Toward noon, the camp grew quiet. The people crawled under the tents, keeping watch over those who were nearing death.
The soldiers kept their distance, for the oppressive smells of death were not sweet, but sharp, presaging the spread of dysentery. The commandant of the camp called the men that still had strength and ordered them to gather the dead. In those autumn months, at the camp at Islahiye, starvation and dysentery had caused more than sixty thousand deaths, and so the commandant ordered the corpses to be left at the edge of the camp for two or three days, before burial. Left in the wind, the dead dried and shrivelled, taking up less space. In this way, there was more room in the mass graves.
Then, they drew their tents closer together, so that the raiders, especially the Bedouins from the surrounding villages, would not have room to move among them. And they did not fear one another, for none of the deportees stole money or gold, not having any use for them. And the things that might be coveted, flour, sugar or dried meat, had long since run out. At the foot of the walls or among the embankments, the animals sought tufts of grass. Those wracked within by dysentery lay curled up, awaiting death. The others chewed long on the pieces of crumbly bread tossed from the galloping horses.
A miraculous and at the same time terrible thing happened : the snow came. They rushed outside the tents with outstretched palms. They still had enough life in them for the snowflakes to melt in their cupped palms, so that they could lick the drops from between their fingers. Then, when they saw that the snowfall was thickening, they waited for it to settle and licked it from the ground, together with the dogs and mules. Sahag drank his fill more than the others, for he had observed that the snow thickened and persisted above all on the brows of the dead, colder even than the ground.
But with the snow came a bitter frost that froze the earth, turning the sheets from which the tents were patched together into jagged folds. It cleared the air. The putrefaction of creatures of every kind ceased and the miasmas settled on the ground as hoarfrost. The people huddled together, from many tents gathering beneath the most capacious. And there they managed to scrape together a fire, softening a few chips of wood. They crowded together, even if they managed only to see the dying flame from afar.
And those at the point of death were so emaciated from hunger and scorched by the cold that when they dragged them between the tents, by the arms or legs, their ankle and wrist bones broke, snapping like dry branches.
When the snows melted, the convoys began to form once more. The heavens grew damp and the rain began to fall. The roads were mired in mud. They tied strips of sheets around their feet, otherwise their bare soles would have stuck in the ground and the people no longer had the strength to tear them from the mud. Under the drizzle, that blurred every outline, the new journey lasted almost a week. They could not number the dead, for on this misty road no one could see anything other than the bluish mist of his own breath. The flesh of those who fell, soaked in the rain, was as soft and sticky as clay. They were trodden underfoot by those that came behind and their flesh was churned into black dough and swallowed by the mud of the road. And nor did the rain cease when they arrived.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“The great revelation of Romanian prose in 2009 has been The Book of Whispers by Varujan Vosganian. (…) It is an admirably written book (and written with impressive responsibility), a book of ‘identity’, of universal value, but also a lesson for many of our established or up and coming prose writers. Recouping, in the account of Romanian literature and culture, the traumatic memory of Armenians in the twentieth century, it takes from the zone of ‘whispers’ a painful and sensitive subject, at the same time offering a reading experience that only major literature can produce. And major literature is always much more than literature.”
“The Book of Whispers is a very good, dense but also alert novel, compositionally ingenious and excellently written – things which, in the end, the wider public and the critics will both agree on.”
(Daniel CRISTEA ENACHE)
“Varujan Vosganian achieves an imposing novel, as fluid as the passage through the world of the ethnic group of which he is part, but also as solid as a legitimising discourse that will outlast any lists of figures and names, past or future.”