Book Review of:
Bagdasarian, Adam, FORGOTTEN FIRE, New York: Dell-Laurel Leaf, 2000, pp. 282.
by Kevin Stoda
I admit to not having lived in the states over the past 15 years. So, it now comes as a suprise to me the kinds of books that are being read back in the public schools in the land where I grew up. They include fiction that deal with rape, genocide and hopelessness.
On a recent visit there in September, I picked up FORGOTTEN FIRE by Adam Bagdasarian . This fictional account is based on the life story of Adam's uncle, Vahan Kenderian, as a victim of the Armenian Holocaust in the collapsing Ottoman Empire and Turkey of the 1910s. This first novel by Bagdasarian was voted Best Young Adult Book in 2001 by the American Library Association.
Within the first few pages, the reader quickly one moves in Vahan's world from a position of priviledge in a family of priviledge to a life of terror in Western Turkey on the scale of Jerzy Kosinski's (1965) THE PAINTED BIRD (set in Poland of the late 1930s and 1940s under Nazi occupation and during the Jewish-Gypsy Holocaust). By the way, Kosinski's book is considered one of the best reads ever on the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. TIMES magazine calls it one of the top 100 books ever written in the English language. Bagsdasarian's book tells of many similar woahs but comes out more optimistic as a whole, i.e. in contrast to the world portrayed by the main protagonist in Kozinsky's work.
Vahan Kenderian's world is set in the period of a systematized genocide carried out under the control of both Ottoman and Turkish Nationalists who oversaw the disappearance of 1.5 million Armenians--with millions more sent into exiles. First, the 12-year-old Vahan sees his father disappeared by the police. Then his older brothers are shot in the head by soldiers in his own back yard. Soon the rest of the family is marched to a hotel where hundreds of Armenians are stuffed into suffocating room. Meanwhile, women are taken from these rooms one-by-one, raped and then killed.
A week or so later, the rest of the remaining still-living (but now zombie-like) women and children are forced on a long march and some are shot and murdered on the way. They watch their grand mother is killed in front of their eyes at a stream and they know inwardly that by this junction their father has been murdered in the same way. Finally, young Vahan and his still younger brother are told by their mother and remaining sister to flee into the night while the prisoners and their guards are sleeping.
Like in the tale of THE PAINTED BIRD, where "[t]he surreal carnival of violent depravity is made all the more horrifying" as "when seen from the point of view of a boy", the boy Vahan in FORGOTTEN FIRE travels from village to village trying to survive or make simply make do. He finds people to help him along the way, but many more thousands-and-thousands of Turks around him are just impending and constant threats to his life.
Even some of the people who appear nice are really villains. Vahan has more than a fair-share of close calls and at one point needs to climb through a toilet to escape his guards. At another time, he finds a young Armenian girl to be a sort of substitute little sister only to watch her being raped to death by guards whom he was workign with at that time.
Other times, only through begging as a dumb mute and by pretending he is who he is not can the young Vahan survive. Once he even dresses as a girl.
Yet, as prescribed in Viktor Frankl's classic logotherepeutic autobiography of MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING, Vahan is slowly able to recover or find feelings of peace and joy in both (1) his memories of loved ones, like his sister or mom, in his past and (2) in his occasional hopes and dreams of a real future with some sort of new family.
In summary, as in Kozinsky's THE PAINTED BIRD where the young gypsy (or Jewish boy) flees from place to place in Nazi-occupied Poland, Bagdasarian's protagonist remains often "wide-eyed like a camera with its shutter stuck open, [whereby] he witnesses atrocities and degradation, sexual and otherwise, that beggar the imagination." Nonetheless, "Vahan loses his home and family, and is forced to live a life he would never have dreamed of in order to survive. Somehow Vahan's incredible strength and spirit help him endure, even knowing that each day could be his last."
It is in this optimism and continued understanding that Vahan sense again that he is a human being. It is in this manner that Bagdasarian differs greatly in his story telling from his forerunner Kozinsky. Bagdasarian is also quite the bard with words. For example, the words of Ara Sarkisian, who is a copper worker whom Vahan stays with a week:
Sarkisian shares: "'Time takes everything, Vahan. But, your hear, your heart, your character, your faith, do not belong to time. So build your home here,' he said touching his chest. 'And make that home strong, make that home beautiful. Then you will always be safe, and you will never be alone.'"[p.188] For Vahan, who is held together only by memories of his family at this point, a new hope of a future family can be built on a heart that renews his strength to move on when times get worse.