New Fiction: Love and loss in an age of genocide
War-torn Armenia proves an interesting backdrop for Irish debut
Author Martine Madden recounts a shameful part of history
The centenary of the first World War has seen a proliferation of new fiction set to a wartime backdrop. Martine Madden’s debut novel, Anyush (Brandon, €14.99), tells the underexplored story of the Ottoman Empire during this fraught period, specifically the mass slaughter of the Armenian people under Turkish rule.
Over the course of the war it is estimated that between one-and-a-half and two million Armenians were killed in what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century.
This compelling subject places Madden’s novel in an important tradition of witness literature. From the Turkish armed forces to the Kurdish rebels to the Armenian villagers, Madden portrays the injustices of a tiered system with clarity and compassion.
The plot centres on the eponymous young Armenian girl, the brave Anyush, and her illicit relationship with a Turkish captain, Jahan Orfalea. Interspersed with their narratives are the diary entries of an American doctor, Charles Stewart, who emigrated with his wife at the turn of the century to practise in the coastal town of Trebizond.
The main narrative begins 15 years later with a memorable opening chapter that foreshadows the violence that is to come. As a group of soldiers attacks a young boy, Anyush’s attempts to save him result in a disaster that is narrowly averted with the arrival of Jahan.
The atrocities escalate as the story continues. The body of a respected elder is left hanging in the square by the jendarma as a reminder of who is in charge and how little they value Armenian life. Later the inhabitants of the town are herded like cattle on a nightmarish journey, exhausted and starved to death, their corpses littering the roadside. There are graphic examples of how the Turkish soldiers abused their powers, the most shocking of which happens to a young and simple friend of Anyush.
Before Jahan, Anyush’s world is female and full of hardship. She does the laundry with her mother, Khandut, for their boorish landlord, Kazbek, a convincingly ugly character who has seized their property through nefarious means made possible by a corrupt political landscape. His wild son Husik stalks Anyush with a love that is primal and unsettling.
Relations are strained between Anyush and her mother, a brittle and bitter widow whose backstory is revealed only late in the novel. Beloved grandmother Gohar brings a chink of light to the domestic bleakness; Anyush’s devotion to her contrasts with the deterioration of romantic relationships. In times of war, blood matters most.
Predictably, Jahan and Anyush’s happiness is infiltrated by the growing civil unrest and impeded by family members on both sides who cannot see past age-old divides.
Madden handles the disintegration of the relationship well. Both characters’ motivations and desperations are believable, particularly Anyush’s desire to protect her kin.
The book excels in its descriptions of local culture, landscape, architecture and language. Dr Stewart is a giaour, an outsider, who must earn trust. Foreign terms are weaved into the narrative, from the namaz (morning prayers) and chekeji (health practitioners) of community life to the salvar trousers and kaftans of local attire. There are vivid descriptions of the terrain: “Like a lake of fallen stars, the late afternoon sun sparkled across the blue-green surface.”
The narrative falters at times. After the lovers’ well-executed first union, Anyush falls happily asleep to an omnipresent warning: “But others were not so lucky.” This authorial voice veers towards hyperbole as the relationship deepens: “They were the limits of each other’s existence, citizens of a country all their own.”
Elsewhere, while the diary of Dr Stewart offers an outsider’s perspective on Turkey’s conflicts, at times it reads less like a journal of personal thoughts than a guide to the background and politics of the war-torn nation. It is also a clearly fictional diary, with whole scenes and conversations related verbatim.
Other fictional indicators include the appearance of certain characters at opportune times and a wide cast featuring hastily introduced functional bit players, particularly towards the end of the narrative, who somehow manage to always know each other. In the more dramatic scenes – the soldiers’ raid of the Stewarts’ house or the Kurdish rebel Murzabey’s altercations with Jahan – dialogue dips into cliche.
These issues aside, Anyush is a worthwhile read. Madden, who was born in Limerick and now lives in the midlands, recounts a shameful part of history that demands remembrance in its own right and not to be subsumed amid the global narrative of the first World War.
Or, as a colleague of Dr Stewart puts it: “The war is just what the Turks have been waiting for – the perfect opportunity to wipe out an entire race.”