Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 02/19/2013


Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls:
Yet Another Genocide Novel, More Horror, Some Romance
(Doubleday, New York, 2012, 299pages)

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 19, 2013

Reviewed by Christopher Atamian


            Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls follows in a long
and seemingly unending line of novels that purport to tell the story
of the Armenian Genocide using some type of fictional background as a
framing mechanism.  All too often - and this book is no exception -
the stories are thinly-veiled excuses for once again retelling the
story of 1915, where Armenians are hapless victims and Turks evil
murderers.  Bohjalian's treatment is no doubt subtler than most -
there is a kind Turkish doctor who helps Armenian refugees in Aleppo,
for example, but he is a stereotype as well - the token righteous
Turk. This type of retelling of history by a third-generation
descendant of Genocide survivors does not seem to me the most
flattering role for literature or fiction in general, but after Carol
Edgarian's Rise The Euphrates, Mark Mustian's The Gendarme and a whole
host of other such titles, it seems to have become a firmly
established sub-genre in contemporary fiction.  To his credit, Chris
Bohjalian has at least crafted a well-turned out tale full of
unexpected plot turns and surprises. Bohjalian writes the type of
mid-level prose that the general public and Hollywood both seem to
adore. He also sells a lot of books, and The Sandcastle Girls is no
exception.  (I should first admit to having been a fan of Midwives
(1997) and Trans-Sister Radio (2000), which were both page turners in
their own right.)

            The narrator in The Sandcastle Girls, Laura Petrosian, is
a half-WASP, half-Armenian living in the Tri-State area who one day
decides to research her family's past.  Like apparently every other
Armenian-American who writes a memoir or tells their family story, at
least one of her relatives has decked out their living room like an
Ottoman-style bordello, here known as the Ottoman Annex: and yes,
sigh, behind all the nargilis, oriental carpets and lule kebabs, a deep
dark secret lingers. The reader asks (or does she?): what could that
secret possibly be? With Armenians, it seems to always lead to the
same, central defining experience (and no wonder...) Bohjalian has
always been clever at playing with gender issues; using a female
narrator here works to distance the reader from what he may
(mistakenly) assume is the story of Chris Bohjalian's family
generations ago - though for some reason I kept seeing the author's
face pop up in the back of my head as I read this book.

            In part using archives available at the Armenian Museum
and Library of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, Petrosian pieces
together the story of her grandmother - Elizabeth Endicott, the book's
central character.  Endicott is the type of person who might otherwise
annoy: a wealthy but bored Bostonian WASP and recent graduate of Mount
Holyoke, a do-gooder who finds herself on a trip with her father and
the Friends of Armenia in Aleppo, Syria in the throes of the Armenian
Genocide of 1915 and later on for a brief period in the desert of
Der-es-Zor.  It turns out, however, that Endicott is much more than a
bored little rich girl on an adventure before returning to the
material comforts of New England life.  As wave upon wave of dying
Armenians converge upon Aleppo, she is at first overwhelmed by the
sheer number and wretched condition that the arriving women and few
surviving children find themselves in. The men, of course, have almost
all been executed or else are off fighting on the Northern front with
the Russian army for the survival of the Armenian nation.  Endicott is
imbued with a remarkable fortitude and a sincere humanitarian impulse
- the type of Puritan virtues that are legend in American colonial
history.  Back home, she has had offers of marriage but she chafes at
the idea of living as a typical American housewife and longs for
something greater than herself and greater than the fate typically
reserved then for even the brightest graduates of Seven Sisters
schools.

            While in Aleppo, Endicott befriends an Armenian woman
named Nevart who has somehow miraculously survived deportation across
the Syrian desert and has herself taken it upon her person to protect
a tiny waif of an orphan named Hatoun, who has become almost mute from
the horrors she has witnessed.  Endicott bathes these women, applies
lotion to their wounds, feeds them as best she can and when she
witnesses the most barbaric forms of execution of already half-dead
Armenian women by Turkish soldiers, she does what any good Puritan
would - she appeals to her inner fortitude and to God for guidance.
Within the American compound the Consul Ryan Martin - based on Jesse
B. Jackson, the actual American consul at the time - and Endicott's
father provide wisdom, comfort and whatever protection they can to
Elizabeth and her charges.

            Into the fray arrives Armen Petrosian, a dashing Armenian
who has most probably lost his wife Karine and his young child forever
to Turkish depredations.  He cannot be sure what has happened to them,
but he fears the worst, unless his college friend from Harput Nezimi,
now a Turkish general, has interceded and saved them from certain
death. (He has not, quite to the contrary.)  Of course Endicott and
Armen fall head over heels in love, but Armen leaves Aleppo in search
of his lost family. At times his adventures across the Arab desert, to
Gallipoli and down to Egypt resemble something out of a parody from
Sir Lawrence of Arabia, including scenes where he kills an evil Turk
by poking his eye out, before jumping off a moving train and
befriending Bedouins who do not of course try to kill him but instead
admire his spirit, are a bit difficult to swallow.  These types of
hijinks would be truly risible if Bohjalian were not as gifted a
storyteller as he turns out to be.  The fate and intertwined lives of
all the preceding characters, as unlikely as they may be, form the
highlight of The Sandcastle Girls - I certainly do not want to reveal
the remaining plot points, but they are at times simply remarkable.

            So much for the plot.  The problems with The Sandcastle
Girls are unfortunately difficult to ignore, including its sometimes
remarkable bad taste in describing every form of torture and cruelty
visited by the Turks upon the admittedly defenseless Armenians.  As a
reader and as the grandson of Genocide survivors myself, I do not need
to be so shamelessly manipulated or shocked into some type of almost
gangrenous state of disfeeling every time I read about my people's
past.  It's a cheap trick, and one that Bohjalian might have avoided.
While Bohjalian never approaches the apex of grotesquerie that
Jonathan Littell scaled in his French language 2006 Goncourt-winning
Holocaust novel `The Kindly Ones' (Les Bienveillantes) there is
something unseemly about all the descriptions of decapitations, rapes,
fusillades, bastonimentos and other horrors.  Here, one of the milder
descriptions of Turkish-on-Armenian barbarity:

    `There was a young man who pretended to be a woman,' his friend adds.
    `A real Armenian dog. We took a collar off a sheepdog and made him
    wear it. It was the kind with spikes on the outside. You know, so a
    wolf can't bite the dog's neck.'

    `Who was he?' Orhan asks. It's so rare for there to be young men in
    the convoys.  He wonders if the fellow was a priest or a banker or an
    official so important they had been afraid to kill him before they had
    set out.

    `I told you. He was a dog. He was pretending to be a woman. He was
    married and his wife was there. And their baby.'

    `Ah, he was trying to protect them,' Orhan says.

    `No, he was just a dog.  A coward,' the gendarme insists. Then he
    laughs and adds, `We stripped him and made him walk on all fours. He
    actually tried to keep up for maybe an hour.'

    `Then?'

    `When he couldn't keep up any longer, we did what anyone would do to a
    worthless dog.  We took off his collar and shot him.'

    The other gendarme pulls the cube of white cheese from his sack and
    studies it for a moment before popping it into his mouth. Then, almost
    contemplatively, he says, `We did fuck his wife. We all fucked her.
    That was the only time that he did a really good job as a dog. Howled,
    I tell you. But usually we didn't fuck the women. Most of them were
    stinking and dirty and dying by the time we got to them. They all had
    diarrhea. We were too busy digging graves or burning bodies to fuck
    anybody.'  (p141)


            There is of course much precedent for Bohjalian's
descriptions of rape, depredation and torture going back all the way
to 1915 and even before - see Zabel Essayan's Amongst the Ruins
(Averakneroon Metch), which is a blistering eye witness account of the
aftermath of the 1909 Adana massacres.  Almost immediately after the
events of 1915 in fact, known more properly in Armenian as the Aghet
(Catastrophe) or Medz Yeghern (The Great Calamity), survivors and
their descendants as well as foreign witnesses to the events, began to
publish - sometimes in lugubrious and mind-numbing detail - accounts
of exactly what had transpired. The descriptions are heart-rending, as
evil and cold-blooded as any recorded in human history. The most
famous and well-regarded of these was for a long time Leon Surmelian's
critically well-received 1945, I ask You, Ladies and Gentleman, but
for the most part readers have been treated to a veritable litany of
literary mediocrity that has done little more but repeat stories so
similar that one can simply not read (or write) any more such accounts
- or so one would think.  Antonia Aslan's 2007 Italian-language La
Masseria delle Allodele (Skylark Farm) was several literary notches
above the others and was made into a powerful film by the Taviani
Brothers.  To my mind however, the only author of late to have
successfully, even triumphantly negotiated The Catastrophe and its
post-catastrophic aftermath is Micheline Aharonian Marcom in her
remarkable trilogy, comprised of Three Apples Fell from Heaven, The
Daydreaming Boy and Draining the Sea.  While these three books also
technically fall into the same category, her exquisite mastery of
language and luminescent linguistic experimentation make up for what
is admittedly a difficult event to render fictionally. Her description
at the very beginning of The Daydreaming Boy of young Armenian boys
swimming off the corniche in Lebanon, exploding into Mediterranean
water and air after having survived what we know they have survived -
all rendered stylistically and impressionistically, is simply
breathtaking:

    `We are naked like Adam and the blue wide band now becomes what it
    is, the long sea rises before us, the notfish become what they too
    are, so that we see: water; white-capped waves stretched out to
    infinity; but not salt, warm sad. Clothes stripped and bodies for
    the sun and sea and we run like the djinn, thousands of boys
    running into the Mediterranean, saying, we thirst, we thirst and
    we drink the water and we laugh and gag, a gaggle of orphans
    loaded onto the boxcars at Eregli and unloaded in the Lebanon at
    the sea's edge. The water swallows us and we did not see it before
    and we did not drink it before and though it was awful we will cry
    because with each gust of salt water swallowed it becomes more and
    more what it is and not what it could be or what is dreaming was
    or how after the push round the bend of the mountain aboard the
    black hot metal beast and the flash through the silent dark tunnel
    in the selfsame beast high in the mountains it was: blue wide
    band, then the New Jerusalem, then sea of white fish.'  (p3)


            In terms of Jewish history and the Holocaust, The Diary of
Anne Frank has endured in part because stylistically it is a
wonderfully simple volume, written by a young girl who is writing down
her own daily adventures for no one in particular - she never tries to
prove or even infer that the Nazis are evil for example. Her fate is
sealed from the beginning we know, and that makes her innocent diary
entries all the more affecting. And Elie Wiesel's Night is powerful
because the writer himself lived through the Holocaust and the camps -
he writes from lived experience.

            Also problematic in The Sandcastle Girls are the
unfortunate (over-) simplifications and casual insertions that occur
throughout the book, for Bohjalian takes it upon himself to give the
reader a primer on almost every aspect of Armenian culture and
history. We find out for example that the narrator is not related to
Tigran Petrosian, the great chess master - same last name, but no
dice.  We also get treated to short disquisitions on everyone from
Arshile Gorky to Atom Egoyan to Armenian mercantile geniuses of the
past - even Kim Kardashian is thrown in for good measure: at one
point, I believe that the narrator points out to one of her children
that the Kardashians have after all not done badly for themselves
financially in exchange for doing little besides show up at parties.
(In this last example, one can only wonder where the narrator's moral
compass has suddenly disappeared...) Every aspect of the culture one
short the Armenian kitchen sink seemingly makes at least a brief
apparition in The Sandcastle Girls, and at times one wonders if one is
reading a novel or snippets of random Wikipedia entries. The narrator
opens chapter 5 by affirming: `My Armenian grandfather once said: `The
Turks treated us like dogs,' (p71) and we are then treated to the
story of the Island of Oxia off the Bosphorus where the Turkish
government sent literally thousands of stray dogs to die in 1910 - an
episode which was recently made into an award-winning short film
titled Chienne d'Histoire (2010) by Serge Avedikian. Here is one of
the oversimplifications in question, having to do with Laura
Petrosian's dual ethnic heritage:

    `Obviously my ancestors from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were
    immigrants too. Even those original Bostonians were fleeing
    religious persecution. And that, in some ways, is what the Turkish
    Armenian hostilities were all about. A new regime in a largely
    Muslim nation decides to try to rid itself of its Christian
    minority...It was, arguably, the notions of nationalization and
    modernization - the idea of a homogenous Turkey - that led to the
    slaughter. But I can't resist finding parallels between my Puritan
    and my Armenian Ancestors. The big difference? The Bostonians
    simply came here three centuries before the Armenians.'
    (pages 25-26)


She cannot resist finding parallels, but she really should.  If after
everything that she discovers about her Armenian ancestors, she can
tolerably equate the type of religious persecution that the Puritans
experienced in England and what the Armenians underwent during the
Ottoman Empire, then she should re-read her own family history. The
fate of the Armenians, as the great novelist Hagop Oshagan has
written, was sealed long before 1915 and sealed mainly because as a
subjugated people, the Armenians had lost all means of finding
themselves in any position except as that of a dominated, powerless
race. The Catastrophe or Armenian Genocide was the terrible and - dare
one say it - almost logical conclusion to this terrible state of
affairs.

            Bohjalian, of course, is more than well-intentioned and
will no doubt do much good by instructing a large swathe of the
American reading public about the Armenians and a part of their
history which more people should certainly be aware of.  He has
already been trotted out before Congress by Armenian lobbies just as
Mark Mustian and others were before him, and that is unfortunate -
literature, again, should not be used towards explicitly political
ends. Literature should be the opposite - a space for exploration and
invention and one where psychology more than anything else is brought
to bear.  Yet the more attention Bohjalian brings to the topic,
perhaps the more people will take the gravity of what happened in 1915
seriously.  Neither the American government nor those of Europe have
done much in the previous one hundred years to try to force successive
Turkish governments to make any type of real amends (not to mention
extend a simple apology), and I doubt that much will ever change this
from the outside, but if the lobbies want to keep trying, they can be
my guest.

            What remains of The Sandcastle Girls when all has been
said and done is actually quite instructive, because Bohjalian's tale
proves that fiction can simultaneously exist on different levels, for
his book is both maddening for the reasons I have explained beforehand
and engaging for the sheer thrill of the story being told, and
Bohjalian's ineffable and undeniable ability to tell a good story.
Bohjalian also displays some humor in unexpected places - the narrator
for example tells us that she lost her virginity while in high school
to a Turk named Berk - this must be humor...To my mind it is not
during the descriptions of despoilings and murderous savagery or
during his primers on Armenian culture that Bohjalian's prose is most
effective and touching. Rather it is during the private moments
experienced by the novel's protagonists that his most tender and
sometimes affecting prose comes to the fore:

    In the morning Elizabeth stands in the doorway of Armen's bedroom,
    a shawl draped over her shoulders, and watches him lying flat on
    his stomach in bed, one bare leg revealed where he must have
    kicked off the sheet in the night. A ribbon of sunlight through
    the lats in the shuttered window lands on his thigh like a paint
    stripe. Last night she had waited until his breathing was even and
    she was sure he was asleep to climb from under the comforter and
    return down the corridor to her own bedroom. She hadn't thought
    about where she would sleep when they had retreated to this
    particular room ten hours ago; she hadn't thought about that at
    all.  She had been aware only of the feel of his hands on the
    small of her back and the taste of anise on his lips from the arak
    the two of them had drunk with Mr. Martin and David and Nevart to
    celebrate his return. This time he did not stop her and pull away
    the way he had that morning on the stairs so long ago. Later, when
    he was moving inside her on the bed, she had giggled. ( p273)


            In the end, I have to give it up to Chris Bohjalian: the
last thirty pages of the novel possess so many twists and turns and
that you are left almost breathless. The narrator spends a lot of time
in these pages sobbing (too much): Bohjalian's narration and the sheer
epic quality of the story are emotion enough without all the pathos.
As a reader and critic, I sometimes also felt a slight urge to weep at
the dramatic overkill.  That being said, there are many touching and
memorable scenes in this, Bohjalian' fifteenth novel. If you do not
mind the constant stream of melodrama, then The Sandcastle Girls may
very well be the book for you.



--
Christopher Atamian is a noted translator, writer, and producer/director
living in New York City. He produced the OBIE Award-winning play "Trouble
in Paradise" in 2006 and was included as an invited artist to the 2009
Venice Biennale for his video "Desire". His short films and videos have
screened throughout the world and he publishes regularly in leading
publications such as The Huffington Post and The New York Times. He has
written one novel, "Speaking French," and translated six books from French
and Western Armenian into English, including Nigoghos Sarafian's "The Bois
de Vincennes." Christopher has worked in senior-level positions for leading
media companies including ABC, Ogilvy Interactive and JP Morgan's marketing
division. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School
and USC Film School and a former Fulbright, Bronfman and Gulbenkian Scholar.
Chris can be reached at catamian@gmail.com
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