A family confronts a time of madness

Say the word "genocide," and anybody not currently running Iran will immediately think of the Jewish Holocaust. Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia might also come to mind. But say Armenia and in the United States even highly educated people may draw a blank.

Antonia Arslan has taken steps to rectify that situation. Those who read her unsparing debut novel, Skylark Farm, will never forget the events of 1914-1918, when more than 1 million Armenians living in what is now Turkey were massacred in what is widely regarded by the international community as a genocide.

Arslan's family was among that number. Her book is classified as fiction because she uses the structure of a novel to re-create events that occurred before she was born, but not because she is inventing them. In "Skylark," the Italian professor of literature has woven her family's "obscure memories" together with research, including interviews with survivors and her own imagination to tell the story of how three young nieces and one nephew escaped the genocide and made it safely to their uncle in Italy.

The Arslans were a prosperous family living in the hills of Anatolia. In 1914, family patriarch Sempad awaits the return of his older brother, Yerwant, who had gone to Italy as a teenager to study. Both men engage in elaborate preparations: Yerwant buys a red Isotta Fraschinni with a silver monogram, so that he can travel in style, loading it with gold and silver trinkets for everyone in the family. Sempad, meanwhile, renovates Skylark Farm, the family's country house. He orders a stained-glass window from Great Britain, lawn furniture from Austria, and has the ground dug for a tennis lawn.

But instead of the long-cherished family reunion, World War I begins. A few weeks before Yerwant and his family are to leave for Anatolia, Italy closes its borders. Yerwant desperately tries to get information about his family, not knowing that a campaign to destroy the Armenian minority had begun in April, and that by May, Sempad's tennis lawn had become a mass grave.

In the first part of the novel, Arslan introduces all the members of the family, laying out who will survive and who will not. The language in Part 1 can, understandably enough, veer into the overwrought, and Arslan indulges in a few too many prophetic dreams. The human warnings that Sempad and his family ignore are heartbreaking enough, without throwing in green angels and deathbed prophecies. Also understandably, Arslan tends to have Turkish characters spout overripe dialogue rather than engage in a precise examination of the banality of evil. One exception: in a chilling scene, the Interior Minister Talat Pasha, in a secret meeting, orders the roundup of Armenian males and then goes off to play backgammon with Armenian poet Krikor Zohrab. "He's always right on time, a real gentleman," Pasha remarks to his aide.

But once the massacre at Skylark Farm occurs – in a powerfully unflinching scene – the narrative takes hold and Arslan's writing surges to meet her material. All the Armenian women, children, and the elderly are rounded up and forcibly evacuated from the city. They leave in loaded carriages, but are set on by Kurdish bandits operating on orders from the Turkish zeptiahs. Those who survive are forced to march, starving, all the way to Aleppo, where they will be deported to the desert. No one is allowed to give them food; there is a law that makes helping any Armenian punishable by death. (Arslan is careful to mention the brave people, such as the holy leader of Konya, who defied that order.)

At this point, the race to save the surviving Arslan children takes on an inexorable momentum. Their unlikely saviors include a Turkish beggar, a Greek wailer (a professional mourner) and the wife of a French consul. As they march, Shushanig, the mother, and Azniv, her second-oldest daughter, do everything to keep the children alive. (Shushanig only has one son left, her toddler, Nubar. All the men and boys in their city were murdered. Someone put little Nubar in a dress as a joke that saved his life.) Azniv's heroism is all the more poignant because she could have fled to Paris with a Turkish soldier who was in love with her.

The strength of the tale is striking: By page 23 readers know what the outcome will be and yet it's impossible to stop reading. "Skylark Farm" operates like "Schindler's List"; it's a story of hope that makes it easier for us to confront the horror of what happens when evil is allowed to run unchecked.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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