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Genocide’s mark upon a tortured soul

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Special to The Times

“The man who has no mother’s form to form him is a sad man, unanchored man, vile and demoniac,” confides Vahe Tcheubjian, narrator of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s beautiful and disturbing second novel, “The Daydreaming Boy,” which details in stark terms the psychic aftermath of the Armenian genocide. Having written compellingly about the 1915-1918 massacre of more than a million Armenians in Turkey (“Three Apples Fell From Heaven”), Marcom turns her attention to the recurring distress of that event as played out in the life of one man.

A middle-aged, successful Armenian businessman living in 1960s Beirut, Vahe is haunted by his past. He watches idly, smoking cigarettes on the balcony of his apartment, his back cooled by the cracked tiles, as scenes from his younger years replay themselves. Raised in a Beirut orphanage after having been abandoned in the wake of the massacre, with no knowledge of his family, he has spent his lifetime trying to undo the memories of his youth. Over the years, he has managed to convince himself that the child Vahe, the orphan, did not exist. He has placed that young boy, and all the other people he knew back then, in a “walnut box,” he tells us: “I forgot them completely; I unexisted them and they accordingly disappeared from the box and then the box itself disappeared.”

But the past has a way of catching up with us even when we close it off from ourselves, and on Vahe’s 46th birthday his younger self reappears like some monstrous dark specter, and the film of his childhood begins “playing and replaying and forward and back,” until the memories threaten to unravel Vahe and the small comforts he’s found.

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He soon becomes a man who can do little else but indulge in fantasies, which alternate between scenes of nurturing comfort and graphic sexuality, of gentle tenderness juxtaposed with survival-driven cruelty. His desire for his lost mother’s loving touch converges with adult lust as he hungers after his neighbor’s teenage Muslim maid. He takes countless walks in the city’s zoo, imagining in the monkey Jumba a lost soul like himself, and he envisions viciously killing Jumba to relieve his own misery. Appalled at his thoughts, he wonders, “How did I become this sort of man?”

Slowly and artfully, Marcom reveals to the reader (and to Vahe himself) the suffering of his early life. When he was first brought to the orphanage, he recognized the Armenian word for “mother” but spoke only Turkish, the language of the enemy. Was his father a Turk and his birth the outcome of his Armenian mother’s rape? He knows nothing for sure. In the orphanage, he was taunted by the other boys, who beat out of him the only language he knew, until he found someone weaker than himself to be the object of their ridicule and cruelty. Vahe himself joined in the brutality visited on the newcomer, in an effort to shut off any tender feelings or signs of frailty. “I cannot bear it: the wars; the bloodletting; the untold things. I cannot,” Vahe exclaims as the memories flood back.

From his reverie on the balcony he moves on to a reexamination of his hollow, midlife years married to Juliana, with whom he lives comfortably in pre-civil war Beirut and in whom he cannot confide -- then on to explicit fantasies of sex and violence before winding his way back to what he can remember or conjecture about his origins. Eventually Marcom leads us into the 1980s and the destruction of Beirut by warring Christian and Muslim factions, mirroring Vahe’s own, interior self-destruction.

Marcom’s stream-of-consciousness writing is deft and impressionistic: “I am lying on my back and it comes back to me; harks back to that other summer 1915, the summer of our death and yet my birth two years later, mine own birth after the death of a race and our tongue.... How do I know something occurred if I myself have not been witness to it? How can the invisible history stories be so strong as to engender a hate that will lift a knife and plunge it into the flesh of another beast, a man; or to slaughter him with a rifle semi-automatic? ... I am no man to answer such questions, or even to posit them; I think: what did I do to deserve this?”

Marcom answers Vahe’s initial question -- “How did I become this sort of man?” -- by giving us his full and excruciating history, but that other question, the final one, remains unanswerable. Why do humans do horrible things to one another? How are we to survive such brutality -- except as Vahe has, by endeavoring to dream it all away?

“The Daydreaming Boy” is a dazzling and disquieting account of what happens when our dreamscapes stop working as a defense against the past, and the awful reality of what we do to one another reasserts itself.

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