What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, January 9, 2015

January 5, 2015 Issue

Raffi Khatchadourian’s absorbing "A Century of Silence," in this week’s issue, differs significantly from his previous New Yorker work, which is written in either the third person or the first-person minor. His new piece is written in the first-person major. The opening sentence establishes the point of view:

When I try to imagine my grandfather, the face that appears to me is a variation of a pencil drawing that hangs in my parents’ house.

Never before has Khatchadourian opened in such a subjective way. I find it exhilarating. I’m an avid fan of his work. His "No Secrets" (June 7, 2010), "The Gulf War" (March 14, 2011), "Transfiguration" (February 13, 2012), and "A Star in a Bottle" (March 3, 2014) are among the glories of New Yorker reporting – intricate weaves of fact, quotation, and detail. I’ve longed for him to write more in the “I.” And now he has.

“A Century of Silence” is an account of a trip that Khatchadourian made to Diyarbakir, in southwestern Turkey, where his Armenian grandfather spent most of his life. Diyarbakir was a locus of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Turkey’s government still denies the genocide. But recently, as Khatchadourian shows, Diyarbakir, led by its old town mayor, Abdullah Demirbaș, broke with state policy and began to revive the city as a center of multiculturalism, the main feature of which is the restoration of the cathedral known as Sourp Giragos, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.

Khatchadourian’s trip is a sort of quest. He says,

Hundreds of people began coming to Sourp Giragos every day, the visits minor acts of curiosity, atonement, remembrance, a reckoning with a distant Armenian identity. Some came trying to piece together family history, lost stories of survival. Last April, I packed a bag (and the old Bible) and made the journey, too—to solve the mystery of my grandfather’s survival, if possible, and to learn how the cathedral had been resurrected, how the city had so unexpectedly changed, and how a century of contested history could finally appear to be resolved.

My favorite passage in “A Century of Silence” is the last paragraph, a description of Khatchadourian’s visit to the ruins of another old church in Diyarbakir, called Sourp Sarkis:

I went farther into the church, making a list of the things that the people of Diyarbakir had left there. Dried scraps of bread. Automotive carpeting. An old shoe. A fragment of a transistor radio. Corrugated plastic, some of it burned. Where the main altar had been, there was a fire pit; among the ashes, a wrapper for a candy called Coco Fino and empty cans of Efes beer. A rusted wire. Coils of shit. In the inset of a wall, someone had arranged several stones in a neat line. Hundreds of daisies reached upward. And as the sun descended behind the high city walls the smell of grilled meat drifted over from nearby homes, and the sound of children playing began to fill the streets. A ball was kicked and it hit the side of a building and bounced. Some boys clambered over the wall that surrounded the church. Women left their kitchens, and climbed to their roofs to collect carpets that had been put out to air. TVs wired to satellite dishes came on, filling spare rooms with their ethereal glow. All of Diyarbakir, it seemed, except the church, drifted forward in time. Overhead, a flock of common swifts darted and circled among the old stone arches. Their black wings arced like boomerangs as they swooped through the ruins—above the piles of earth, the weeds and the wildflowers, all the trash—and their movements were ceaseless, careless, as if unweighted by anything.

That “All of Diyarbakir, it seemed, except the church, drifted forward in time” is very fine. It’s one of two lines I’d like to remember this story by. The other one occurs earlier in the piece. It’s unforgettable: “Mass violence was buried in the city like strata of rock.”

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