Tales from the heart of a forgotten holocaust

A Summer Without Dawn: an Armenian epic by Agop J Hacikyan & Jean-Yves Soucy (Saqi Books, £15.99)
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The Independent Culture

Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians? So asked Adolf Hitler as he planned the Final Solution. Turkey's murder of a million and a half Armenians during the First World War gave Hitler a model for a holocaust that could be secreted from the world. Even now, the Armenian massacre is denied by modern Turkey and the last century's first racial cleansing is largely unknown.

Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians? So asked Adolf Hitler as he planned the Final Solution. Turkey's murder of a million and a half Armenians during the First World War gave Hitler a model for a holocaust that could be secreted from the world. Even now, the Armenian massacre is denied by modern Turkey and the last century's first racial cleansing is largely unknown.

In l930, Franz Werfel wrote Forty Days of Musa Dagh - the first book to explore the Armenian tragedy. Now, during the 85th anniversary of the genocide, comes A Summer Without Dawn, the first novel on the subject to be written by an Armenian. (The original French version was co-authored with the Quebecois writer Jean-Yves Soucy.)

This narrative is set in a Byzantine world, where Europe meets Asia, and is partly based on the life of Agop Hacikyan's own grandparents. Hacikyan, a Turkish-born Armenian who lives in Montreal, is a renowned scholar and academic writer in the Armenian diaspora. A Summer Without Dawn has just been published in Canada. In France, it has already had a runaway success. The style, a mixture of epic storytelling, poetic description and the realpolitik of the fight for a nation state, makes compelling reading.

The novel is a complex love story, set against the background of the deportation of Armenians during the First World War. The hero of the story is Vartan Balian, a reserve medical officer serving in the Turkish army. He also works as a journalist sending secret news articles to the international press. As the Turks begin their round-ups, Vartan escapesbut his wife, Maro, and son, Tomas,suffer the humiliation of the death marches.

Rape and murder was the fate of most Armenian women. The "lucky" ones were often taken into Turkish harems; their children were sold as slaves. Maro is saved by the ambiguous figure of governor Riza Bey, himself a leader in the Armenian killings.

The book's strength is its multilayered texture, its poetry and a gripping narrative. Always there is duality; Vartan is saved by an Armenian woman who is the widow of a Turk. Maro is abducted into Riza Bey's harem but she is loved passionately by the man who murders her people. Hacikyan suggests that exile intothe land of the enemy has profound effects on the psyche, not all of them negative.

Hacikyan clearly blames the Ottoman empire for the mass murder of the Armenians, but he avoids blanket condemnation of the Turks. Vartan is saved from the gallows by a Muslim who dies to protect him. Enemies are interconnected, because the blood of Armenian Christians and Turkish Muslims is already mixed. If themes of duality already run throughout the book as a metaphor for Turkish-Armenian history, they are also realised in a literal sense.

I liked the way that Maro has sons by enemy fathers, and adores them both. She secretly baptises her Muslim son before being forced to choose between her two families. A Summer Without Dawn suggests that Armenia cannot be eradicated from the Turkish bloodstream - just as Germany cannot forget its Jews.

Hacikyan has produced a gripping read. He has a very good eye for detail. Most striking is the way he evokes the acrid smell of the rotting Ottoman empire on the eve of its destruction. In the harem section, he avoids any sense of Arabian Nights exoticism by concentrating on the delicate power-balance between the women controlled by the Muslim patriarch.

The political and the personal themes are delicately interconnected in an engaging epic style. This is a fascinating and very cinematic novel, written from the gut. As far as the translation is concerned, I picked out only one Americanism; otherwise, the book feels as if it were originally written in English.

The reviewer's plays have just been published as 'The Holocaust Trilogy' (Oberon Books)

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