Varujan’s Grandmother in Istanbul Before the Genocide
This October, Yale University Press has released in English the translation of one of the most compelling novels on the Armenian Genocide, written by a Romanian author with Armenian origins, Varujan Vosganian. The Book of Whispers was originally published in 2009 and soon after it gained international recognition due to its translation in more than 20 languages. In 2016, Vosganian won the prestigious Angelus Central European Literature award. In The Book of Whispers, he narrates the story of his own family, who fled their birthplace in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, because of political persecutions and following mass-murders of Armenians.
Our correspondent, Borimir Totev, met with Andreea Mironescu, who explored the intergenerational transmission of ethnic memory and trauma, by employing concepts such as postmemory (Marianne Hirsch) and resonance (Aleida Assmann). Her reading of Vosganian’s novel pays particular attention to the way in which family and documentary photos are used in the book, while I discuss the functions of photographs in relation with autobiographical memory, historical representation, and literary aesthetics. Also, she emphasizes the ways in which the Armenian genocide narratives are linked with other traumatic events such as the Holocaust, the mass deportations in the Soviet Gulag, or the political repression in Romanian totalitarianism, thus reshaping the European memory of violence. Borimir had a short conversation with Andreea, which we are publishing now here on our website.
Grandfather Garabet — one of the main characters in the novel
I must confess that, for me, it was literature that drew my attention to this historical event and, especially, to the way in which we see it today. Two novels have stimulated my interest in this topic: The Bastard of Istanbul by Turkish author Elif Shafak and the aforementioned Book of Whispers by Vosganian. Of course, I was familiar with the current political dimension of officially acknowledging the Armenian genocide at state level, which is a priority on the decades-long agenda of negotiation between Turkey and the European Union. I was also aware that numerous and very old Armenian communities exist in Romania, some of which were dissolved after World War II because of forced “repatriation” to the Soviet Republic of Armenia and because of mass migration to the West. But I had paid almost no attention to the way in which the Armenian genocide featured in literature. And this is a very important topic, given that official documents are relatively scarce and, in many cases, subject to falsification. Most of the novels on the 1915 genocide are written rather recently by descendants of its survivors. This is why I wanted to take a closer look at how memoirs and literature may bring a historical issue on the political agenda of the day. And for me it was also noteworthy that Vosganian linked the Ottoman repression against Armenians to the totalitarian repression in Communist Romania.
When I first read The Book of Whispers, I was intrigued by the fact that numerous photographs are described in the novel without being actually reproduced there. The obvious hesitation of the author between the drive to display these photographs and the need to hide them puzzled me. Some of these photos were taken by Vosganian’s grandfather, an important character in the novel. The novel is full of perfumes and smells, whispers, rituals, gestures and scattered words uttered by the old people in the family, that the child narrator hears and feels without understanding them. They all refer, of course, to the trauma of losing one’s home and one’s family in the Ottoman extermination campaign against Armenians in 1915, in which Vosganian’s grandparents were victims when they were children. But beyond the historical reconstruction, I was drawn by the archeological incursion into familial memory. I come from a family with somewhat ethnically diverse roots – one of my great-grandmothers came from Greece and was married with a Russian or Ukrainian – and as a child I sometimes heard stories about their lives. Like any child, I was fascinated by particular objects I saw in our house, by black-and-white photos and other relics of the world before World War II that did not fit with the daily life at the end of the 1980s, when I grew up. I think this is one of the reasons I empathized with Vosganian’s family story. And there is another, let’s say, professional reason. As a researcher, I am interested in literature’s capacity to transmit individual memories in time and space, and The Book of Whispers provided me with an excellent example, since it enjoyed success in the many countries where it was translated.
Grandfather Varujan and Friends. Playing with Identity
Your thought on the importance of memory.
The answer at hand is that memory is of huge importance for the contemporary world; who could say otherwise? We live in a time when electronic memory devices have an increasingly large storage capacity, while Facebook periodically bring to a user’s newsfeed “memories” from her or his profile… Europe lives through an age of the prefix „post-”: postwar, post-Holocaust, post-Communism, post-Soviet, post-traumatic and so forth. The commemoration of the past turned into a civic duty and there is much talk of the so-called memory politics. In Romania, but also in other post-Communist countries, memory is often referred to in quantitative terms, and there are public voices claiming that there is a memory deficit in what regards the recent past. Neither the recuperation and storage of historical information about the past, nor the politics of public remembrance doesn’t guarantee that they will become part of the various individuals’ “living memory”. There is a rich literature on this topic in the field of memory studies, and most of the researchers insist on the role that literature and the arts have in transmitting and acknowledging collective memories repressed both by those who lived through them and suppressed by totalitarian regimes. It is also the case of the Armenian genocide…
Concluding remarks/perhaps anything you’d like to share about future works that may be relevant to Russia.
It’s no secret that, after World War II, the USSR had a tremendous influence on the political, economic and cultural life of its satellite countries, Romania being one of them. The effects of this influence are still visible, and this is why I believe that the research on post-Communism in any of these states is potentially interesting to scholars of Russia’s contemporary history. As for me, I would like to start a collaborative project regarding the cultural transfers between the USSR/Russia, the Republic of Moldova and Romania. In the last one hundred years the Republic of Moldova was a Romanian province, then a Soviet republic and, after 1991, an independent state. In all this period, literature was the main medium for cultural transfer. After 1989, when the USSR-sponsored book market collapsed, many Romanian-language writers from the Republic of Moldova published in Romania translations from contemporary Russian literature. At the same time, they wrote books that examined, either nostalgically or violently, Soviet (post-) Imperialism and its effects on the lives of individuals. In the end, these Moldovan authors succeeded in establishing a trend in contemporary Romanian literature. I think it might be important for Russian scholars to know what happens nowadays in the small states at the fringes of the former Soviet Union and how Russian literature still finds echoes in other literatures which are no longer politically dependent on it.
Andreea Mironescu lives in Iași, Romania and works as a Researcher at the Department of Interdisciplinary Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, at “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University. She obtained a PhD in Philology in 2012, from the same university. Andreea has also been a postdoctoral fellow of the Romanian Academy during 2014 and 2015, with a research project on the culture of memory in post-Communist Romanian literature. She was associated as a contributor to the project “Erinnern und Vergessen in Posttotalitarismus: Kulturelles Gedächtnis–Ästhetisches Erinnern” (Remembering and Forgetting in Posttotalitarianism: Cultural Memory-Aesthetic Remembrance), developed at Humboldt University of Berlin. Her domains of interest are Romanian modern and contemporary literature, post-Communism, and memory studies.
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