History of Armenia and Other Fiction|
by Lorne Shirinian
Post Your Opinion
by Anna Atkinson
Published almost simultaneously with the release of Atom Egoyan's Ararat, Lorne Shirinian's new volume of short stories, Memory's Orphans, also takes as its subject the 1915 Armenian genocide and subsequent diasporałevents that for so long have haunted the history of World War I as nearly invisible ghosts. It is as ghosts that the genocide and diaspora haunt these tales as well; there are flickers of memory, overheard whispers, disconnected elements, and everywhere a sense of dislocation, aching sorrow, and overwhelming loss.
The enigmatic title of the volume sheds light on the interplay of myth, meaning, and identity. It requires a knowledge of myth to make sense, and in making sense asks how the world would look without the very mythological structures that play such a strong role in the creation of cultural identityłand even meaning.
Memory, to the ancient Greeks, was embodied in the goddess Mnemosyne. Her children, the children of memory, are the muses, each of which inspires and governs one of the arts: epic, lyric, tragedy, comedyłall those artistic and cultural elements that preserve, even create, a culture. The question that lies behind the stories in this slim volume, then, is this: what happens to a people, a culture, and the expression of that culture's identity through the arts, when the memories that inform those arts die? This question become yet more urgent when the memory that dies is the memory of genocide; the loss of the memory of genocide dooms the survivors of the atrocities and their descendants to relive the experience on a cultural level.
This book, then, seeks to forestall cultural genocide. Art remains, as the child of fragmented memory, but not as a coherent representation of history as an unbroken stream. Rather, art becomes fragmented as well, and the artist/author's new task is to find these fragments and (re)create something from them. Not whole art, for this would deny the shattering history of loss. Not memoryłonce fractured, pieces become lost, and cracks show in the mending. Rather, what the artist can recreate is a monument to the memories that remain; this is what may be built by and through memory's orphans. In the way that the tomb/monument for the unknown soldier, by its very nature records not just the fragments but the spaces between the fragmentsłthings that are irrevocably lost.
The two prefaces to this volume introducełand go a long way toward explainingłthe theme of fragmentation that pervades these stories. There is a distinct schism between the voices in which the prefaces are delivered: "Preface 1" uses the analytical, "objective," factual voice of the scholar; "Preface 2" speaks in the painfully personal voice of a reluctant storyteller acting under a compulsion not unlike Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.
In fact, for such a slim volume (101 pages), Memory's Orphans showcases an impressive breadth of tone, style, and technique. The stories range from high modernist realism ("Armenian Tourism" is strongly formally reminiscent of Conrad's Heart of Darkness) to nearly surrealist symbolism, and have clearly demanded skill and sensitivity from the author.
The demands on the reader are no less stringent, as we are asked to participate not only in the interpretation but even in the creation of meaning. Pieces like "Extras", which comprises three separate short narratives, feature characters whose names insist on interpretation: Art Marginalian, Emmanuel, Cassandra Leith. These three characters are, as the title of the section suggests, film extras. The interplay between their names and their occupations highlights the fact that their stories (like those of their namesakes) are not heeded, and that they existłas far as anyone is willing to acknowledge themłon the margins of "the real story": mainstream culture. But their presence, unacknowledged though it remains, is essential to the creation of the "real" story of the "important" characters. Without these extras, there is no "big picture", and the context, along with even the illusion of reality, is lost.
In foregrounding the background, this story draws attention to the importance of stories that exist outside of acknowledged historyłsuch as that of the Armenian genocide and diaspora. Like the text as a whole, the stories of the three "Extras" turn a spotlight on a people and a series of events that up to this point have been historically present only as "an anonymous face lost in a crowd on [the] way to nowhere" (p19).
Equally interesting is the story that gives the book its title. Narrated in the third person, it presents a view of the world through the eyes of the protagonist Paul. On a day so brightly sunny it "hurt the eyes and confused the mind" (p91), Paul suddenly realizes that he is lost. A series of clearly delineated and light-saturated images offers a surreal picture of Paul's sudden disengagement from his life. The combination of visual clarity and mental confusion allows us not just to understand but almost to experience Paul's sudden sense of dislocation. When he is befriended by a passing jogger, who shows concern for his dazed state, the ensuing conversation, although it reveals a little about Paul's life and history, reveals much more about the impact of diaspora, even a generation after the actual event. There is no home, and although Paul has lived a relatively normal life to this point, the historyłor lack of itłcatches up with him. His past, and even his future, become inextricably entwined with the only history that has any meaning: the diaspora itself. His life becomes an expression of his father's words to him: "keep a bag packed, an eye on what's behind you, and make sure the road ahead is clear" (p98).
"I fix soles," says Krikor the cobbler, on the final page of Memory's Orphans. "I cobble together what I can and call it a life." (p101). In many ways this slim volume functions as Joy Kogawa's Obasan did in 1981. By cobbling together what history it can, it lifts the film of unknowing from the eyes of the oblivious. It alerts us to the fact that the loss of any cultural memory is a loss to us all, and that all history exists, as the introductory epigraph from Walter Benjamin suggests, in traces. It reminds us that, even if we cannot retrieve wholeness, by reading, writing, and re-membering what remains, we can all be participants in the building of a monument to the orphans of memory. ņ