What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Genocide Fiction? Yes, It Can Work...

 I know, the idea of writing a novel whose plot revolves a human tragedy of the horrific scope of genocide is somehow...  disconcerting. Not only is it an ambitious undertaking on the part of the author -- how to do justice to such tragedies? -- but these novels can be hard to read, dealing as they do with such extreme examples of man's inhumanity to man. Still, over the last few decades, there have been countless novels written about the Holocaust and the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi regime leading up to and during World War II. (Most memorably, of late, I'd point to The Emperor of Lies, a novel by Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg about Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a businessman who became the Chief Elder of the Lodz ghetto and one of the most controversial figures of the Holocuast -- although almost certainly aware of what was going on outside the ghetto walls, he was as oppressive a figure as the Germans themselves within it, all in the name of keeping them within the ghetto.)

But while the Holocaust may be the most dramatic, the most determined and the largest-scale effort to wipe out a single population from the world, the 20th century has given birth to other tragedies of a similar kind, including the Turkish massacre of its Armenian population (the Turks still deem it a criminal offense to refer to this as "genocide"), which Raphael Lemkin had in mind when he first coined the phrase genocide in 1943. And now there are two new novels -- one very good, one not quite as good as it could have been -- that look at stories tied to two of these "other" genocides, one in Cambodia and the other, set in Syria, based on the Armenian genocide.

 First, the good news. Vaddey Ratner's debut novel is an impressive achievement -- no wonder the folks at BookExpo/BEA were buzzing about this title. (I got an advance reading copy from Amazon Vine; the book itself is due out on August 7; yes, it's worth putting your order in today.) Raami, the narrator, is only seven when the novel opens days before the Khmer Rouge show up in Phnom Penh, where she and her family live comfortably despite the conflict, which until now has been almost a background noise to Raami's life. More important is her idolization of her father, elegant, wise and cultured, a prince descended from the Cambodian king, Sisowath. (This mirrors the author's own family history; she has given Raami's father the name of her own father.) She also idolizes her beautiful mother and laments that she will never be able to emulate her gliding walk, since a childhood bout of polio means she walks with a limp. And she tolerates her little sister. But with the advent of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, who force Raami's family onto the road along with all the other inhabitants of the Cambodian capital, she realizes slowly that "normal" life is gone for good, that their adventures aren't simply a short-lived adventure -- and that she must find a way to exist in a strange new universe. "I told you stories to give you wings," Raami's father tells her, at a particularly poignant turning point in the story. And as the novel unfolds, it is clear that she will need every iota of strength she can muster to endure and survive.

What lies in store for Raami and her family in this novel is now clear to anyone who recalls or has read about the events of the next few years, but it only slowly becomes apparent to Raami the child. (She doesn't quite understand why no one should know her father's true name or what might have happened to the Buddhist monks in the temple compound in which they have found a temporary refuge.} It's extremely hard to do a good job of telling a novel for adults through the eyes of the child. Some authors extricate themselves from the dilemmas in which they find themselves stuck by adopting a kind of 20-20 hindsight/omniscient first person voice, as if today's adult is looking back on the child of years ago. The other risk is that the novel comes across as too limited in emotional scope or range to be of interest. Dealing with such dramatic events, Ratner has an edge here -- and yet I was left in awe at her seemingly effortless ability to put herself back in the shoes of a young child, narrate the story in a convincing way. She never made the seven-year-old Raami sound older than her years or more knowing; Raami is aware of the adult world, but hasn't quite figured out the way its relationships work. But Ratner's quasi-fictional character is observant and curious, and we discover more about the nature of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal regime as she puzzles it through herself and fits the pieces together until both she and we understand the full horror. I don't know how Ratner did it, but I'm in awe at the skill it took to make Raami such a compelling character.

Ratner also avoids another all-too-common trap -- that of sentimentality. The appalling nature of the Khmer Rouge rule defies words and language, and it's all too easy to become trapped in easy cliches, or to end up relating one horror after another in purple prose. Anyone can be forgiven for doing so. And yet Ratner never forgets that this is Raami's story. "The dead watched us from everywhere," Raami muses -- but it's the relationship with her own dead, watching her from the moon, that dominates her own experiences and thus the book. You don't get the visuals of killing fields here -- instead, you see through Raami's eyes what it's like to hear someone being pulled through the rice fields a few feet away from where she has taken refuge to have a nap, on the way to their death. It's more subtle, and much more effective way to convey the true horror.

Another bonus: Ratner throughout tells us the kind of stories her own father told her and that Raami's tells her -- of the rabbit in the moon, who sacrificed his life for the Buddha; traditional Khmer folk tales, poems -- and gives us a sense of the Khmer culture that the communist regime tried so hard to eradicate. They came close -- by the time the killing ended, there were few classically-trained dancers, few Buddhist monks, few poets and intellectuals in the country who had managed to survive. Through Raami's and Ratner's tales, we can capture a sense of Khmer culture and society before the violence -- a valuable contribution.

Vaddey Ratner lived through the events she chronicles in this novel as a slightly younger child than her fictional creation, Raami. There are plenty of memoirs already about this era, and rather than add another to the mix, Ratner chose to tell her story as fiction. That enables the reader to immerse him- or herself in that story by providing a bit of distance. That's not always a comfortable experience, of course, given the nature of the events the author is chronicling -- murder, starvation, disease, oppression and terror are at the heart of this book. But it works, and we witness Raami's transformation, mourn her loss of innocence and celebrate the strength and courage she develops.

The Cambodian genocide has spawned a lot of vivid memoirs, and a handful of great non-fiction narrative works, such as The Gate by Francois Bizot. I feel this is a book that I have been looking for for decades without ever doing so consciously, one that manages to capture the essence of the events in the form of a novel. It's not flawless, but dwelling on minor shortcomings would seem churlish in the face of Vaddey Ratner's accomplishments. Whenever a novel gets as much advance buzz as this, I tend to be more skeptical and harder to win over as a reader: this book is the exception to that rule. Highly recommended; 4.7 stars.

On the other hand... I read Chris Bohjalian's just-published novel, focusing on the Armenian genocide of 1915 and onward a few weeks before  I tackled Ratner's book. Like Ratner, Bohjalian is basing his story against a background that is deeply personal -- he is Armenian, and he is telling the story of a genocide that his ancestors experienced through the eyes of a contemporary narrator of roughly the same generation that he is. But in this case, I found myself wishing that Bohjalian had been able to craft a plot and characters that measured up to the kinds of events against which he set his novel; it turned out that the horrors of the events he chronicles had much more impact on me than the novel. Bohjalian certainly deserves praise for taking on the task of trying to make the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the desert wastes of Turkey and Syria as vivid in our imaginations as is the Holocaust. But this isn't a great novel, merely an adequate and rather predictable one. We know from the first pages that the narrator's Armenian grandfather and Boston-born grandmother meet in Aleppo (modern-day Syria) at the height of the massacre, and end up building a life together; the only question becomes how that happens. Obviously, Armen must survive the genocide and Gallipoli, and Elizabeth must make it out of Aleppo -- but the only question is how. Obviously,  any barriers to their love prove surmountable.

There are horrors here -- very vividly depicted, in sometimes nauseating detail. But without the sense of our primary characters -- Armen, Elizabeth or Laura, the present-day narrator -- having their lives at stake or their sense of selves deeply threatened -- it is too often a less engaging narrative than the nature of the story demands. Perhaps had Bohjalian chosen not to blend Laura's quest for the truth of her grandparent's experiences with the main story set in 1915, I would have found myself as caught up in Bohjalian's fictional story as I was with the historical facts? Perhaps, too, this is a better novel for someone to read who isn't at all familiar with the history. I had been lucky enough to read another novel about 18 months ago, Erevan, by Gilbert Sinoue, which has yet to be translated into English. This novel is much better -- but it has yet to be translated into English, alas. By contrast, Bohjalian's novel, for all the gritty detail, felt more "Hollywood", complete with pat yet not really convincing instant romance, than "real".

Part of the problem was that Bohjalian wasn't able to craft characters that measured up to the history.  Laura tells the reader her quest for the truth is unsettling and that she is driven -- but she came across to me as little more than a notch above mildly curious and there's no sense her identity is shaken by her discoveries. Elizabeth's character doesn't really change throughout -- she starts as an independent-minded woman intent on cutting her own path, and ends up that way. Other characters are there to serve the author's purpose, and never really become three-dimensional.

By all means, read this; indeed, you should. Especially if you've read novels set against the backdrop of the Holocaust but are only vaguely familiar with the Armenian genocide from occasional references in the papers. I hope that it also turns out to be a compelling fictional world in which you find yourself while you are reading; that wasn't my experience, but I wish it had been. I'm giving it 3.5 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment