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Domestic and Epic

GARIN K. HOVANNISIAN, the young author of this book, has been journalistically blessed (and historically cursed) with a family tree that exemplifies Armenia’s past hundred years. His great-grandfather Kaspar survived the Armenian genocide and traveled through violent post-war Turkey and the surrounding region before immigrating to the United States. His grandfather Richard is a leading scholar of the brief history of the Armenian Republic of 1918-1920. His father Raffi became Armenia’s first foreign minister upon independence from Soviet rule in 1991, and is currently a deputy in the Armenian National Assembly as an outspoken crusader for the independence of the Mountainous Karabagh region that has been a source of decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Hovannisian largely serves as an able guide to a sprawling story. Many of the books about Armenia in recent years have been focused on the genocide of 1915, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Turkish soldiers. This focus is justified: it is the defining event of modern Armenian history, and it remains painfully unresolved as a result of the Turkish government’s denial of widely established historical facts. Hovannisian’s short, swift narration of the forced march undertaken by his great-grandfather Kaspar and his mother and young brother, and Kaspar’s subsequent survival through a combination of luck and determination, will be familiar to readers of Adam Bagdasarian’s novel Forgotten Fire and Peter Balakian’s Burning Tigris.

But Hovannisian places a less frequently told incident at the heart of Kaspar’s story: his participation, under the command of the famed Armenian General Antranig (more commonly known as Andranik) in the attempted defense of the former western Armenian city of Garin against the Ottoman army in March 1918. It is a complicated historical episode: Antranig was commanding Armenian volunteer units with orders from a diffuse array of Armenian political groups, attempting to push back the approach of the reconstituted Turkish army into Armenian land. Hovannisian places significant emphasis on Kaspar’s shooting of a Turkish soldier during a charge by the Armenian volunteers. Here the usually staid prose rises to a melodramatic pitch: “His whole life had been winding up to this moment. The Turk begged for mercy but Kaspar did not hear him. The sounds of the battlefield had long been muted to the deafening memories: the death marches, the cries of abandoned children along the Euphrates, the final sight of a wailing mother.” Despite modest success in the morning’s battle, the Armenians, lacking resources and discipline, are forced to give up the fight in Garin and retreat into Russian Armenia. Kaspar’s killing, though justified in the moment and resonant as an act of historical vengeance, haunts him for the rest of his life.

The family story then shifts to take in Kaspar’s migration to Tulare, California, and the new life that he begins for himself there amid a growing Armenian expatriate community. Kaspar becomes a barber, marries, has children. His wife Siroon insists on giving the children Americanized names, and there is a lovely moment in which Hovannisian explicates the melding of the two cultures in the naming of his grandfather, Richard Gable Hovannisian, after Clark Gable. “The embarrassment of naming an Armenian child after a Hollywood actor was not lost on Kaspar, but again he did not protest. This time he had a secret reason: the name Gable actually reminded Kaspar of the infant boy he had last seen on the banks of the Euphrates, his brother Gabriel. The middle initial G—and it would only be an initial from then on—was much more complicated than Siroon had intended.”

Much of the back half of Family of Shadows is concerned with the career of the author’s father, Raffi Hovannisian, a charismatic and principled man whose fate has been intertwined with the rising and falling fortunes of the current Armenian Republic. He rushes to Soviet Armenia in the last days of 1988 to provide aid following a devastating earthquake. The collaboration between the Soviet and American governments in giving disaster relief to the Armenians proved to be a significant moment of cooperation at the end of the Cold War, if not quite the“groundbreaking event of Soviet-American relations” as Hovannisian puts it. The disaster puts a spotlight on Soviet Armenia and its protests in favor of the unification of Armenia and Mountainous Karabagh, a historically Armenian territory granted to the Azerbaijan Soviet state by Stalin in 1923 and a semi-autonomous region of Azerbaijan ever since. Through his personal diplomatic efforts, Raffi finds himself in the right place at the right time when Armenian independence becomes a reality, and he occupies a unique position as the first Foreign Minister of the new Republic of Armenia, even though he remains an American citizen.

Hovannisian’s book is a sometimes awkward mix of anecdote, historical journalism, and family hagiography. Perhaps out of justified skepticism toward the genre of the personal memoir, he largely keeps himself on the sidelines of his story. Yet the format that he settles on is imperfect. The main sources for much of the history that he recounts are inevitably the stories of his own family members, and a more direct discussion of his technique—and perhaps some reflection upon the experience of attempting to reconcile these personal recollections with an objective journalistic account—would have been welcome.

When the author does allow himself to emerge into the foreground of the story, the result is fascinating. Describing his experience in the early days of the republic following independence from Soviet rule, when his father insisted on moving the family to Armenia, Hovannisian writes: “We were to live as ordinary Armenians, my father had said, which meant that we survived without gas and electricity, and the only way to keep warm was to bury ourselves in sleeping bags. We ate potatoes and cheese and apricot jam. Often we had no bread, because grain shipments were not coming in. “ A little later, his description of the family’s Soviet-style apartment building is pungently well realized, and gives the reader a visceral understanding of the reality of this period.: “We celebrated when the water came and trained our noses to stop smelling in the elevator, because it reeked of urine and vomit, and then learned never to take the elevator because, if the electricity went out, we would have ourselves a private dungeon.”

Hovannisian does attempt to explain the shifting tides of Armenian politics over the last two decades, but the facts of the political situation there, especially in regard to the protracted negotiations with Azerbaijan about the status of the Mountainous Karabagh region, remain somewhat opaque. Raffi is constantly depicted as taking a hard-line stance against any compromise in the establishment of full sovereignty for Mountainous Karabagh, and although Hovannisian shares his father’s viewpoint, a clear, objective overview of the historical facts and the political conditions that have led to its disputed status would have been helpful in making his case. 

Still, Hovannisian has an important story at his disposal. It is, among other things, a case study in the circularity of family history. While determined to differentiate themselves from the preceding generation, the men of the Hovannisian family are invariably driven by the need to address and avenge the past wrongs visited upon the Armenians, Richard as a historian, Raffi as a politician, and now Garin as their chronicler. Embedded in all of their work, despite the tragedies of the past, there is inevitably idealism about the future. The story of Armenia isn’t over; perhaps the next century can be better than the last.

Andrew Martin is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books. He has written for The New Yorker, Bookforum online, and Arts and Letters Monthly.