Armenian Memorial : RISE THE EUPHRATES, By Carol Edgarian (Random House: $22; 416 pp.)

John Espey's most recent book is "Major Heresies, Minor Departures" (University of Calif. Press)

Although the 1915 massacre of more than a million Armenians by Turkish soldiers is this engrossing novel's controlling force, both the narrative itself and today's headlines give Hitler's cynical question--"Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"--the lie. As Carey Goldberg reported last month in the Times, ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh, Armenians have been fighting to free their tiny stronghold in the Caucasus Mountains from the control of Azerbaijan.

This ongoing struggle highlights the narrative line of "Rise the Euphrates," which centers in the memories of Casard, the grandmother of the fictional narrator, Seta Loon, now 33, as she re-creates the past and advances into the present. Seta's father is an "oder," an outsider, and his marriage to Araxie, Casard's daughter, has given an added bitterness to Casard's accounts of the past as Seta and her brother and sister grow up in the town of Memorial, Conn. Memorial contains a well-established Armenian community dedicated to preserving as much of their traditional past as they can. The three children find themselves caught between loyalty to this living past and the America of their schoolmates.

Seta is Casard's favorite and confidante. Her grandmother communicates to her the guilt that Casard feels for having escaped from the Turks on the banks of the Euphrates. Time and again Casard asks Seta to guess what her true name is, never willing to give the answer to this secret. Only after her grandmother's death is Seta certain of what it must have been. But until then, Seta must deal with her mother, Araxie, her apparently bland non-Armenian father, and her own mind and body as she begins to grow into womanhood.

Araxie herself must deal with her own loyalties, most particularly with the partial break that her marriage has caused. Edgarian handles all this with the skill of a professional juggler, taking up one theme after another while the rest is not merely suspended in the air but changed by the current action before it re-enters the central matriarchal line of narrative. For this is essentially a world controlled by its women as the older ones do their best to preserve the past and their daughters and granddaughters face a future seen always in comparison with that past.

Seta's personal story provides an active commentary on all these conflicting forces. Scarcely realizing what she is doing, she betrays one of her Armenian girlfriends as a way of entering the in-crowd of her schoolmates. Eager for sexual experience, she is first attracted to an Armenian boy. Later, the son of an Italian family proclaims his anonymous affection by painting her name in conspicuous spots all over Memorial. When he finally declares himself, they meet at first in secret and later she is accepted by his family.

By this time George Loon, Seta's father, has moved out of the house, and Seta is angry to find that the tightly knit Italian family thinks of her as an orphan. George has left because Araxie has been unfaithful. He takes an apartment in town, keeps in touch with his children, most particularly with Seta, whose "difference" is accented by this physical separation of her parents. But this is not the end of George's and Araxie's story, which must be left to the reader.

Ultimately, Seta crosses the continent to California, where she goes to college and does not return to Memorial for 15 years. Once there, with a new life beginning in and for her, she is welcomed by "the old ones" just as she was bidden farewell by them on her departure.

"Rise the Euphrates" is a novel that takes a little time to engage the reader in all of its complexities, with its detailed concentration on what is essentially Armenian in every sense--religion, food, social conventions, dress. What is given here is only an indication of both the self-contained world that it creates within another, often hostile, world, and its main characters as they deal with anger, guilt, and--ultimately--hope. Casard's secret name summarizes all of this, but one must read what goes before its revelation to earn this knowledge.

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