Saturday, 1 November 2008

Burning Orchards

One of the joys of not watching much TV is that you get more time for reading. I've just finished a magnificent novel, Burning Orchards by Gurgen Mahari. It is set in the town of Van during the years leading up to the Armenian Genocide, but it is neither gloomy nor one-sided, although the author with the rest of the Armenian population fled his native city at the age of twelve. His father was assassinated by his uncle when he was six, for belonging to the wrong nationalist party, but in spite of this he portrays one heroic member of his uncle's party, though the other Dashnaks are presented as murderous and cowardly intellectuals. Mahari wrote the novel in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, after spending some time in the Gulag for his non-Marxist views. It was heavily criticized by ex-Dashnaks, now Stalinist converts, and publicly burnt.

The central character is a loveable old rogue, Ohannes, who has no time for nationalists and who right up the end of the Turkish siege of Van is eating, drinking and being merry with his old pals, who are all wealthy business men like himself. There is a lovely touch in the epilogue, where he is comically punished for his sins. He reminds me of Abdul-Gawwad in Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, another rascally patriarch with a penchant for seducing his in-laws. Throughout the life and times of Ohannes, we are introduced to every aspect of life in Van - its lovely orchard suburb, its wonderful variety of fruits and its spicy dishes, its bustling market, its ancient churches and monasteries - all about to be wiped out forever. This is a marvellous book, up there with the best of Louis de Bernieres and Vikram Seth; do please read it!

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