Archive for the ‘Armenian Literature’ Category

I’ve never read an Armenian book before and so I was excited to read Susanna Harutyunyan’sRavens Before Noah‘.

The story starts with a young woman giving birth to two baby twins, both of them girls. The midwife who helped in giving birth and the village people don’t expect the babies to survive, but they do. Soon we learn that this is a village in the middle of nowhere, beyond the mountains. People who live here have escaped from the outer world in some way. Mostly they have been victims of war or violence. They were mostly discovered by Harout, who is like the village elder (though he is not old), who saved them and brought them to the village. Once people arrive at the village they don’t leave. The village is their sanctuary. Harout is the only person who knows the way out and he goes out once in a while to buy things that the village might need. No one else in the village knows the way out. As the story proceeds we get to know about the lives of the people in this village, in this sanctuary. Sometimes we get to know about what happened to them before and how they landed up here. We learn a little bit about Harout too. We discover that people live normal lives here, sometimes pulling each other’s legs, gossiping about each other, feeling jealous of each other, showing each other kindness – the kind of things people who live in a small community do. People live in a village which is their sanctuary without contact with the outside world, and they live happily everafter – this is, of course, heaven, it is Shanghri-La. If the outside world discovers this, it is not going to leave them alone. No one wants a small community of people to live happily everafter, do they? How can they be happy when the rest of the world is miserable? What happens when the outside world discovers this village forms the rest of the story.

There are many beautiful characters in the story. One of my favourites were Nakhshun, the young woman who gives birth to the two baby girls at the beginning. She is a fascinating character and her relationship with Harout is beautifully and delicately depicted in the story. Another favourite was Varso, who tells stories to children. Or rather she tells one story to the children, which continues everyday for years. The children grow up and they have children themselves and Varso continues with her story, keeping engrossed a new generation of kids. She continues spinning this yarn till the last day of her life, becoming the unofficial Scheherazade of the village. The scene in which the kids and the grownups crowd around her bed asking her to tell them the ending of the story before she leaves is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in the story.

Susanna Harutyunyan’s prose is not simple or straightforward. Or spare as they say these days. It is the opposite of spare. The point of view of the story kept shifting and the story kept moving across mulriple timelines, moving seamlessly from the present to the past, that at the beginning, it was hard to keep track or figure out what was happening. But after a while I got hold of a thread and moved with it, and the story revealed itself and I could glimpse its glorious beauty.

The writing was filled with poetic imagery which was beautiful to read. For example, this passage –

“The pure wind plucked from the nostrils of the sky would sometimes blow into the trees’ armpits, and the applause of the trees would blend with the sounds emitted by the birds, bees and water.”

And this one –

“…the wind’s legs were tied and it was rolling about miserably in the sand somewhere, exploding from time to time and casting sand on the waves, simply to remind them of its existence.”

And this one –

“The wind slithered up the spine of the mountains in the bright darkness of the autumn night, scratching the sky with a strangled scream, hanging itself from the ragged clouds and slipping down, praying sounds and dust from the place where it fell, pressing the rocks to the ground clawing at rocks and bushes with nail-less fingers, grabbing its own tail in its mouth as it rolled about wildly, thrashing and slithering… and whizzing… Like being skinned alive, the wind was ripping itself apart.”

And this one –

“The dawn flowed out through the throat of the rooster and when it poured out, the air went red at the force of the blow. The first cock-a-doodle-doo scratched at the dawn like a stream of water blowing into a strong wind, where it shatters and turns into moisture.”

And this one –

“Throughout the winter, the ice would hold tightly to the water and strangle it, stifling it in its palm. When it melted in the spring, the water would explode and splash its cold scream to the face of the sky.”

The story touches on the massacres of Armenians in 1896 and 1905 and the Armenian genocide of 1915. Many of the characters end up in the village because they were victims of these violent events.

I loved ‘Ravens Before Noah‘. I am pretty sure that there is a deep connection between the title and the raven that the biblical Noah released after the flood, but I haven’t figured out that connection yet, and I need to contemplate on that a little bit. I am so happy that I read my first Armenian novel. Susanna Harutyunyan is an amazing writer (what exquisite prose!) and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

I have seen only 6 posts on this book on the internet, 3 of them reviews. This book deserves to be more well known than that, because it is wonderful. It deserves a bigger readership. I am doing my bit now, making this 6 to 7 😊

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Perch knew everything. There were more faces in his memory than were even in the Bible. Each of them was carefully arranged in a frame and nailed to the wall of his memory. It’s too bad that he aged quickly and the autumn migration flights from his memory started early. In a single night, all the faces and incidents flew off flock by flock, like the wrinkles disappearing from the face of the deceased—his mind was wiped clean and his blood lost its memory and he became a hollow reed. Perch cleansed his brain—as if intentionally—by directing that fountain of misery inward, in the same way that the waters of God’s wrath washed over the world, but he left nothing behind. No memory, no Noah. His memory at first, then his sight, then his ability to speak… He cocooned himself in oblivion, like a male butterfly enclosing the love organ of a female so that nothing can enter or leave any more… He was free of everything that bothered him and could now live in peace.”

Will you read ‘Ravens Before Noah‘? What do you think about it from the above? Does it appeal to you?


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