Varujan Vosganian is an Armenian-Romanian poet, essayist, and politician. His The Book of Whispers, or Cartea şoaptelor, sold in over 60,000 copies in Romanian, was originally published in 2009. In 2017, Yale University Press published the book in Alistair Ian Blyth’s lauded translation: it was longlisted for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize.
The Armenian genocide – the first genocide of the twentieth century – is still contested today, and chillingly under-discussed. Vosganian’s book, narrated from the space of 1950s/60s Romania – presents an intertwining brotherhood of sorts, centred around Vosganian’s grandfather as the primary protagonist. At the same time, the book largely speaks of the exodus of Armenian Diaspora: in a fully credible manner, some individuals are portrayed as able to carve a path for themselves in the world, some less so.
Unconstrained by notions of time, which the author describes as a ‘wild beast that runs on all four paws’, the book’s something of an exilic confession-poem in the Dantean tradition: it’s at once a testimony and a testament, fully guided by the tragic symbols of whispers, weeping, and photographs. The allegorical emphasis lends a mirage-like impression, probably befitting today’s readers, who can only understand the graveness of history in retrospect:
By night, as they groped their way, stumbling over rocks or falling into sinkholes, they became their own shadows. The convoys were so weak that they no longer had the strength to leave a shadow, to pull their shadows behind them like a fisherman’s net.
In a somewhat Proustian manner, Vosganian distorts the line between fiction and reality, not feeling the need to establish facts concretely but allowing his reader to believe everything to be true. He recounts his childhood, seemingly living the same provincial, communist life as his peers but drawing aside the curtain for us so that we might be privy to the secrets of his Armenian family. Thus we, like young Varujan, are fascinated by the elders and their whispered stories of ancestral tragedy, who meet in crypts to discuss politics in a sort of ghoulish magical realism. Although the subject matter’s primarily political, the author renders a filial tradition that, in part, transcends the harrowing experiences that the narrator doesn’t shy away from discussing:
Grandfather told death about me, about our walks in the park, down paths of red flowers and thick foliage; about our game of conkers; about “Moby Dick”, the whale brought to Obor Square on a trailer, which we children beheld in terror; about how we played Schubert’s Serenade and Boccherini’s Minuet together on violin and piano; and about how; when the light was not paying attention, we tried to photograph the mirrors. On hearing all this, death understood that my grandfather still had things to do in this world; it made its excuses and left.
The author-narrator reclaims not only his experience, but that of his forefathers, with his mystical musings imbibing what is in bulk, historical recounting.
More than once, I’ve felt a degree of pettiness accompanies the memoir. Vosganian’s memoir has the greatness of a novel, and I find this is because he has the courage to allow his time and anecdotes to drip and damage like hot wax, showing himself to be both a lyricist and a mad lover of the past: ‘As the pages of the book write themselves, as they turn one by one, as I advance in age, my grandparents grow younger, and I will be an old man; I will rock them in their cradles, and we will die together.’ The manner in which the book’s constructed makes it a complex composition, as the narrator alternates between various points in time that come together in finality, in spite of themselves, with a purpose. The narrative machinery’s self-possessed. The style’s unique, somewhat stilting and creaking, befitting the elderly, ‘smoky’atmosphere. The discovery of the topic stirred my interest in reading Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. As Vosganian’s prose is sensorial and perfumed in the original Romanian, Blyth’s translation’s a gossamer, imperceptible one; he acts as a medium through which the story passes in its clearest form. Moreover, scenes from the book left their imprints on my memory in a bizarrely clear way, much as one recalls dreams inexplicably for years on end, and it’s this memorability that convinces me to predict this book will one day have its place among the ranks of the classics.