Skylark Farm, By Antonia Arslan, trans. Geoffrey Brock
Where memory becomes legend
Friday 18 January 2008
It is 1915, and Sempad the prosperous pharmacist and his family are excitedly making preparations for his brother Yerwant's visit after decades abroad. The Pharmacie Hayastane, named after the lost homeland of the Armenians, is a "beacon of prog-ress and civilisation" in their little Anatolian town. The Arslanian family are busy putting the finishing touches to Skylark Farm, their new country house, with tennis and croquet lawns and rose-covered pergolas, while in Italy Yerwant dreams of building a villa nearby where he can retire.
This is a bucolic paradise, yet from the first we know that disaster looms; most of the family will perish. The reader has already met little Henriette, three in 1915, as an old lady accompanying the author to her first name-day church service in Italy. Arslan's first novel is also a family memoir, and bears witness to the Armenian massacre that wiped out so many of her forebears in Turkey.
Her imagined history is frequently mystical. Some have had premonitions, "smelled blood in the air, caught the scent of evil" or had visions of the archangel surrounded by evil fire. The paterfamilias, Hamparzum, sees the horsemen of the Apocalypse as his toddler grandson feeds him grapes on his deathbed. He entrusts the child to the Virgin as he dies.
The atrocities they suffer are hard to read, both because of the horrific events and Arslan's purple prose. Leslie is "flung against the wall, where his small round head smashes like a ripe coconut, spraying blood and brain across the delicate floral designs." Carnage becomes religious kitsch, as when Hripsime sees her baby skewered on a bayonet, "the joyous soul of her little Vartan hesitantly trying out his new wings".
Leaving aside literary quality, Arslan's novel raises compelling questions about the traumatic historical events that shaped our inherited identity – here, where memory becomes third-generation legend. The Armenian massacres are said to have served as a model for Hitler's subjugation of Poland. Here the collective memory of the Holocaust serves as the model for imagining the Armenian genocide. Arslan inappropriately attributes Nazi ideologies to the Ottomans. Setrak the baker becomes a sub-human collaborator with the Kurdish guards. Arslan calls him "a capo": I read this to mean kapo, a term borrowed from Nazi concentration camps. This was the only moment Geoffrey Brock's translation offered anything less than lucid clarity.
The narrative has echoes of Schindler's Ark. Ismene, a wily Greek and Nazim, a Turkish beggar, save the survivors. Nazim is no Schindler, though, compelled by greed as much as remorse. There's little hope for redemption or reconciliation here, in the face of an inherited, implacable grief.
Atlantic £12.99 (275pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 2 David De Gea: Manchester United goalkeeper's £29m move to Real Madrid off - because paperwork 'not done in time'
- 3 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 4 Pansexual: What is it - and when did the term gain popularity?
- 5 New Apple TV release date and price: streaming box and games console will launch in October
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge on the show?'
Wes Craven dead: Why Johnny Depp owes his career to director’s 13-year-old daughter
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
VMAs 2015: Taylor Swift and her buddy Kendrick Lamar clean-up at awards - full list of winners
James Bond is a 'very lonely, sexist misogynist', says Daniel Craig
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
UN investigating British Government over human rights abuses caused by IDS welfare reforms