Undercover: Who Needs Roots? Who Needs a Past? (10/09/75)

Michael J. Arlen‘s Passage to Ararat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 293 pp., $8.95) is a book with a deceptively simple premise. Arlen’s father was born Dikran Kouyoumjian, of Armenian parents, in Bulgaria, in 1895. He moved to England, where he took the name Michael Arlen, and became assimilated. While his background was no great secret, he lived as if it had no great meaning, either. In the Twenties he became a famous novelist. He died in 1956. His son, Michael Arlen, was born in England in 1930, attended prep school and college in the United States and has become a respected writer of nonfiction over the last decade. In his early 40s, he found himself drawn into an attempt to make sense of where he came from, which is another way of saying, of who he was. So, he went to the U.S.S R., just south of the Caucasus mountains, to an area that was once part of Armenia, to find out.

Arlen grew up sometimes identified as Armenian, as “different,” as if, he writes, the Anglo-American identity he understood to be his own was—unjustly, for no good reason—“a camouflage and might disappear any day.” Still no one can really explain why he feels connected to events that occurred before he was born in a place where he has never been.

Especially when, as in the case of the Armenians, the links that make one’s sense of history continuous, at least superficially rational, have been smashed.

Armenian culture (or nationhood, in the archaic sense) goes back two thousand years. Over time, Armenians became a distinct people in terms of the way they looked and spoke, in terms of how they lived and where they lived and in terms of how they understood themselves and were understood by other people. They had a separate history that sustained them, that enriched the fabric of their lives and in which no one else was much interested. In the 1890s the Turks, under whose rule the Armenians then lived, were entering into a modern, self-consciously homogenous stage of nationhood. They discovered an Armenian problem within their borders and commenced a series of vicious massacres. Due to outside pressure, these were halted. Then, during the first World War, the Turks exterminated over half of the two million Armenians in a campaign of unspeakable brutality. The rest escaped, or were deported under hideous conditions. Others were sold into slavery.

So the links were broken. There is no living mother country to sustain an Armenian lineage, as there is for Italians, Chinese or even Jews. But even if the links have been smashed, the lineage has not been and in some way cannot be. Passage to Ararat is a record of Arlen’s struggle with that fact.

It could have been a very different book: I sought my roots, I found them, I feel more complete having done so. All that happened. But the heart of the book is in Arlen’s queasy resistance to taking a foreign land and long-gone events as his own; in his unwillingness to believe that, at bottom, this place and this terrible, incalculable story had anything significant to do with him; in his inability to believe that it did; in, finally, his inability to disbelieve it. Arlen’s attempt to connect himself—to what, he asks himself, a place, a crime, a no-place where he might feel, in some dormant, amnesiac part of his soul, at home?—is never facile. It has none of the romanticism one expects in an account of homecoming. It is a book filled with small choices and refusals, fragments of good and bad faith, which do not resolve the mystery of a man connecting himself with something distant from himself, but ennoble it.

It is the struggle that gives the book its life. Who wants it!, Arlen almost says, time and again. Who needs this confrontation with suffering too horrible to describe in any but the most straightforward, these-are-the-facts manner? Who needs roots, if roots are a curse, insuring only that for the rest of my life I will be visited by thoughts of real events that go beyond the worst nightmare I ever had? If roots are a curse which means I will understand—oh yes, mysteriously, but with absolute certainty—that these events happened, somehow, to me?

That connection made and that burden accepted, Passage to Ararat could still have been a very different book. The Turkish crime, when it is mentioned at all in histories, is usually referred to as “the first genocide” in the same morally neutral way in which we refer to the Wright Brothers as the first aviators. Arlen could have written simply a record of how Armenia came to be and how it was destroyed, an attempt to make the world remember what it forgot. Such an account, in detail, makes up a good part of the book. But for Arlen to have written no more than that would have been only a final denial that he was part of a story he discovered, a story which, in a deeper sense, discovered him.

The extermination of the Armenians is the crucial event in modern, perhaps in all Armenian history. I think Arlen’s book says that, paradoxically, this event became the reason that those Armenians who survived (in Europe, America, the U.S.S.R. and even in present-day Turkey) had to maintain a sense that they were connected to each other and to a specific history; preserving themselves, as Arlen puts it, beyond nationhood. To make the connection Arlen finally made does mean to accept something like a curse: thoughts that are too dark for any mind to put to rest. But to avoid the connection, once one has glimpsed that it can be made, means something much worse. It is to accept that a horror perpetrated many years ago in fact fulfilled its purpose; it is to accept, in the end, complicity in the murder of a part of one’s self.

Arlen’s writing is calm, direct, emotional yet elegant, drawing in readers who care nothing about Armenia, who may not even know where it was, who have no reason to be interested in this story. That most Americans, somewhere, have a story something like it, means, perhaps, that what is most valuable about this quiet, burning book is that the journey its author made can take you part of the way down the trail of your own.


Rolling Stone, October 9, 1975


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