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Make room for Biberyan please

1 3 7

“To tell the truth, I have to confess I regret writing in Armenian.”
Zaven Biberyan, December 3, 1962. In a letter to his friend Hrant Paluyan

Zaven Biberyan’s novel, translated into Turkish in 1998 as Babam Aşkale'ye Gitmedi [My Father Didn’t Go to Aşkale], tells the story of a disaster. The story revolves around a father who is forced to sell everything after the implementation of a Wealth Tax- a levy that inflicted moral and material devastation on Turkey’s non-Muslim population during the years of the Second World War. By paying the tax he avoids being sent to the work camp at Aşkale and to a probable sorry end, but his family is shattered by the loss of status brought by this sudden impoverishment. Oppression, despair, fear, anger, hanging onto life but everything slipping away, dissolution, hitting rock bottom, the hope of bouncing back and then everything shattering to pieces over and over again. The disaster here is the Wealth Tax as experienced by the Tarhanyan family which we follow close detail in the text through their son Baret. The novel is long and impressive. It is unadulterated literature and considered to be the author’s masterpiece. Even though it was liked and appreciated by a small group of readers, it never reached a wider audience, was not widely written about not extensively discussed. In the new edition published; 49 years after its first serialization in Armenian, 35 years after its first publication as a book and 21 years after its first translation into Turkish; honor is restored with the reinstatement of the original Armenian title Sunset of the Ants and some miscellaneous untranslated or simply ignored passages that have also been restored to the text. This new book charts more useful routes to rethink the novel, Zaven Biberyan and his work; the nature and influence on the human of disasters (lowercase) and the Disaster (capitalized). We should take into consideration, that today, compared to 1998, we know so much more about these issues. Among these routes, perhaps the most interesting one, relates to the story of how for 21 years the Turkish translation of the novel could not be published with the right title and complete text, and even more strikingly, how this saga in itself confirms “the thing” the novel hopes to tell-- ultimately an aspect that is related to the Disaster itself. I will explain.

Sunset of the Ants begins on the day that Baret, an educated Armenian youth from Istanbul, returns from the 3.5 year-long, compulsory Nafia military service reserved for non-Muslims. After three and a half years of crushing rocks, building roads, living in tents and struggling with malaria, insects, nature, the mistreatment of sergeants, homesickness in all four corners of Anatolia; we expect Baret to embrace his homecoming with the ardor of a long-parted lover. On the contrary, the view that confronts us is icy cold. Baret knocks on the door and sees his mother Arus from the window. His mother, however, does not recognize her son. This first scene makes it feel like the two have drifted apart long ago. Finally recognizing Baret, Arus runs down the stairs, reaches the door, attempts to hug her son, but the response she receives is the first brick in the wall Baret will build around himself during the course of the novel:

“Don’t touch me, I’m filthy,” (…) “I’ve lice, don’t touch me.”

Even though Baret reunited with the home of his imagination, neither the home nor the inhabitants will be as they once were. He experiences a strong alienation from everything. It’s almost like he is paralyzed; he is there, he exists, he breathes, he comes and goes, yet it’s like he’s flowing along a stream –he doesn’t know what to do, what he wants, what he feels, he has virtually lost his will. What’s more, it’s as if he has transformed into a mere receiver, a recording machine. He does not have his own voice. He watches attentively, listens and comments but does not take action; he is incapable of so doing. He does not express opinions, talk to those around him about his state of mind or soul. Nor can he. He just swallows what he records as if it’s a black hole and not digesting or being able to digest he simply regurgitates various reactions. Meanwhile, life and Istanbul, regurgitate him.

Biberyan always portrayed home and family as hell. In his other novels, such as Yalnızlar [The Lonely Ones] and Meteliksiz Aşıklar [Penniless Lovers] and as well in the latter Karıncaların Günbatımı [The Sunset of the Ants], family is a living hell that brings unhappiness to all members, but especially at the tenderest of ages it drains the young and blinds them with an indescribable anger. Here we see the soul-sucking hypocrisy, the malice, the calculating nature of the upper-middle class Istanbul Armenian family Biberyan knew so well in tatters. In this sense it reminds us of analysis we are familiar with in Western art: An exposé of the rottenness of the bourgeois family. For the bourgeois/ish segment of İstanbul Armenians, the family is the product of an unspoken traditional contract emerging essentially with the intention of gaining upward social mobility or securing basic comforts. For its participants Love plays no role in marriages or at least due to rootlessness, love is not transmitted to the next generations. So practically inevitably, these marriages become forced unions in which spouses despise one another but where the risk of abandoning a material comfort zone makes a break-up inconceivable. Biberyan himself belongs to this class and therefore he knows this milieu from within. Nonetheless he breaks off the contract of keeping silent. First he writes. Later, by becoming a communist, he is forced into class alienation, marginalization and insecurity for the rest of his life. The consequence among the children of the household of the absence of love, of the naked power struggle between grown-ups and of the games based on deceit, apart from the anger and resentment directed against their parents, are revolt, denial or apathy. Through this miniature universe Biberyan succeeds in expressing through internal monologues and dialogue and with a proficiency rarely seen elsewhere in our literature, confrontations and fights, people losing their temper or having fits of hysteria. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, he airs the dirty laundry of the urban, middle and upper-class family.

Even though his analysis is not false, it is incomplete. This is because the family that Biberyan portrays is different from the conventional, dissatisfied bourgeois family that readily feels ownership of the homeland it inhabits and relishes in that sense of ownership. They are the representatives of a minority group, marginalized, declared to be internal enemies, cursed. So no matter how hard they try to create and protect the fundamental need of their class, a safe space, in reality, they are the most vulnerable segment of society. Their values, accumulations, self-perceptions all rest on a weak foundation and their fates hang on rumour and hearsay; security of life and property is an illusion. Furthermore, no matter how much they try to forget, they are perpetually aware of this situation and this inner knowledge influences their every state, inflicting every moment of their daily lives. In front of us we have an Armenian family, which knows who among family members, were lost and how and in what conditions; despite this, they have somehow managed to survive, or rather the right to live in their own homeland was granted to them with the condition that they remain loyal citizens. Perhaps the worst part of it all is the perpetual waiting for new troubles to arrive, has turned their lives into a nightmare. This state of perpetual waiting in Biberyan’s works tells us that the Disaster goes on, it never ends. The Disaster is not the G word he never mentions, it is not in the least limited to that; it is indefinite, constant, eternal. Above all, when Biberyan is presenting all of this, rather than treating his characters as victims for their identities and victimhood, feeling sorry for them or trying to provoke with the intention of arousing pity, he tries with utmost dispassion to go down into the depths of their souls, and simultaneously into his own. Thus, the reader too can see and recognize his characters as stripped of all defenses.

No doubt the Tarhanyan family of The Ants, experienced deep traumas. At the very least, due to the Wealth Tax they were forced to sell everything they had, lose their social class and position within society, and were never again able to get back on their feet. No longer did they live in Mühürdar where they joyously watched the sky and deep blue sea from Gökyüzü Street. Instead, they lived in a house crumbling away on muddy-streeted Kuşdili where there was barely room to stand up straight. The source of trauma comes from the outside. Official or civil, all kinds of threats and danger are just beyond the threshold. Turkey, Istanbul. The country they live in, the place they were born and raised known to them as the homeland, has shown that it carries the potential of becoming a hell for them at any moment. It has become a cage in which they can never find peace. Yet it’s out of question to settle their account with the source of the trauma, this outside world. Settling accounts is such a horrifying, scary possibility that it can’t even be imagined. Haven’t they been so generously graced with the right to live? They must now shut up and behave. They must pound away, they must spare no effort to be able to endlessly feel that fake sense of safety. Towards the outside world they must be polite, loyal, understanding, skillful and obedient. They must be good neighbors. Like ants, they must rebuild life over and over again. They must do this, they must do that.

In this case, how can the pain, the pus, the poison ever drain? How will all this sorrow, this oppression be reflected externally? As a matter of course, that which is unable to seep out turns inward. First to the spouse; the wife’s to the husband, the husband’s to the wife; and certainly after, to the child once he/she grows up a little, reaches puberty and his/her tongue begins to grow sharp.

Thus while the actual war ends in the outside world and new horizons unfold like sheets for those who know how to take advantage of opportunities, for others the home has now unwittingly become a warzone. The incompetent father is rejected by his wife and daughter. He is impotent now. Everyone else is going about their own business, spinning their fortune but his time is over, his reputation as a doyen of the bazaar has long expired. Those grasping the spirit of the times; acquiring position, making money, living their lives and taking important roles in community works, are ascending. Baret is surprised to find his mother and sister taking a stand against his father. He has become a stranger now from whom even the sugar and coffee, obtained with great difficulty for the house, are hidden. They will not even believe that he is sick, albeit a while later he will die from that same disbelief; he had already avoided going to the workcamp in Aşkale out of fear that with his deteriorating health he wouldn’t be able to endure the conditions. For this decision, he was accused of being a “selfish” father, not thinking about the future of the family. Even though Baret does not completely surrender himself to the hostile winds blowing inside the house, he slowly becomes an accomplice on the battlefront set up against his father. And with the death of his father, he becomes even more reserved. He is overflowing with guilt, yet he blames his mother and sister for this death, he gets angry at them. Not knowing what to do with his anger, instead of staying and struggling through, trying to change the conditions, his solution is to leave. He runs away both from home and the job he had once embraced with enthusiasm but soon realized, in order to advance, he would have to sell his soul. He sinks into decadence in the backstreets, withering away in a freefall. The mother and daughter left behind, will not be able to do without an enemy and now will start nagging at each other. Through the energy they get from their mutual enmity they will be sucked in at full speed towards the vortex that will destroy them too.

Biberyan’s perennial male main characters, who cannot be called heroes, most of the time are hostile towards women. Their repressed sexual desires at times blow up, but not with the intention to express emotions and release, but with the need to define more clearly the boundaries between themselves and the opposite sex and to strengthen the established hierarchy in their minds. These learned men unfailingly bed less........

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