It’s taken me a few years to finally read the three books below, which struck me as related and worth sharing. Each is a powerful statement. Each represents a time and situation in human history. Even though they are based on events or situations that occurred (or were created) a century, half a century, and a decade ago, it seems to me they can all be tied to processes that began in the 18th and 19thcenturies.
Diana Apcar’s From the Book of One Thousand Tales deliciously conveys the flavor of her times. The 16 stories included in the book retain the style and language of her time, which is what makes it so interesting. We all grew up hearing about “Diana Apcar, the Republic of Armenia’s ambassador to Japan.” Of course, that was the first RoA, not the current third republic. But that was about it. It was a point of pride that we’d managed to have an ambassador in far-away Japan, and a woman at that, back in 1918. It turns out she did a lot more than act as a diplomat. She helped escaping Armenians find a new, post-genocide, life there. In the process, she became imbued with the sense of what was going on in the homeland (her family hailed from Iran’s Shah-Abbas-created-community of the diaspora). Through allegory and fictionalization, she conveys the tragedy that befell the nation back then and the character of the people, Armenians and Turks, who went through that hellish turbulence. We owe significant gratitude to her family, who dusted off Diana’s archival materials and discovered these stories.
Silent Spring is credited with starting the modern environmental movement in the U.S. Rachel Carson died shortly after she published this book, which describes the tragedy of lifelessness caused by the use of highly toxic herbicides and pesticides. Reading it after it was republished on its 40th anniversary, I was astonished by how much was known even before I was born, that I thought was “newer” knowledge, say 1980’s vintage. It was stunning and infuriating that we’ve known how destructive certain chemicals can be and their insidious, persistent effects on all life, not just the weeds and bugs they’re “intended” for. Who knows? The cancer that killed Carson may have been triggered by exposure to the very toxins she wrote about.
Perhaps the most unnerving of this triad of books is the novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. This book put its author, Elif Shafak, on the literary map in Turkey. It also put her in the government’s crosshairs. She was charged with violating the infamous Article 301 of Turkey’s Penal Code, for “denigrating Turkishness.” The whole book speaks to the point she made when I heard her speaking at UCLA—that Armenians are largely one with their history, while the Turks are cut off from their history, except that which has happened since 1923 and the founding of Ataturk’s republic. The book traces the stories of three families, one Armenian, one Turkish, and one odar/Armenian/Turkish. The three storylines (re)converge in Constantinople after two had diverged from there as a result of the genocide. In the process, Shafak presents an Armenian family, with all its foibles, eerily well. I was surprised (though I probably should not have been) to see how similar the Turkish family’s interactions were to ours. In reading this book, you’ll alternately chuckle, cry, sneer, gasp, and just be generally very impressed. It’s no wonder the original Turkish version was bestseller of the year in Turkey. And all this, the potential for bridging and progress among Armenians and Turks, is the outcome of another tragedy: the tragedy of a child (the author) growing up fearing that her diplomat parents’ lives would be taken by an Armenian, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, working to break the wall of silence surrounding the Armenian Question.
But where’s the connection among these three lives/tragedies/books? It strikes me that it all started with the industrial revolution of the 17th-18th centuries that swept Europe and North America. Naturally armaments were included, leading to economic and military superiority of the West over an already-weakening Ottoman Empire. This led to frantic efforts by sultan after sultan to modernize and catch up, all the while being unable to stanch the collapse. Ultimately, this desperation led to the racist Pan-Turanist ideology that bred the genocide. Meanwhile, industrialization spread to the world of agriculture and its “chemicalization,” leading to Carson’s inspiring treatise, hence the connection between the first two books. Obviously, the connection to the third book is through the genocide that created the life conditions that led to the author’s inspiration, plus, the coincidental place of the diplomatic life in Apcar’s and Shafak’s lives.
You won’t regret buying and reading any one, or all three, of these books.