Can an epic be simple and full of longing and nostalgia? Can it be gentle and childlike, growing with the reader as the protagonist also grows. Childhood and the fits and bursts of young love, frustration and that small bitterness of adolescence. Showing the reader what it must have been like, how things must have felt in a place so far and so different but yet nevertheless the same. “I mean that men have the same noses and eyes and hair. They are uniformly and monotonously alike in their outward appearance, and little physical differences that may exist are of no significance to the artist. But we all differ very tremendously in our thoughts, in our inner life, in our mysterious and true existence.”
So similar, but also so different. Because tremendous, perilous and petrifying tragedy leaves its permanent mark upon people. “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” is an extraordinary novel. It is written from the perspective of an Armenian child growing up in a Black Sea town of western Armenia, under the control of the Ottoman Empire. In a simple, childlike way it presents eloquently what a young man must have experienced, lived and seen and heard in the run-up to a genocide. Children are naïve and innocent and yet full of such grounded wisdom and persistent hope and faith; things to them do not seem to be strange, for they have nothing to compare them to and have entered into life with no assumptions. Those all are for the elderly – bitter and envious and greedy.
“The good world is renewed in children. In them takes place the miraculous resurrection of the race. The soul of the child is like the crocus that blooms in the sun. Therein lies the secret of that world-state we’ve been hearing and reading and thinking about.” In his epic, simple novel Leon Surmelian follows the protagonist through childhood and then into genocide, when his father and mother are murdered. And then the madness of what came after – displacement, disappearances, flight – to Batumi, to Dilijan, to Yerevan. Revolution, as the Red Armies advanced. Panic and the seeking out of refuge by young minds unable really to understand the gravity of their situation or the extraordinary moments in which they have been immersed. All this in a beautiful, simple prose that evokes the yearning of a man for his land – the deep canyons and grand mountains of the Caucasus and the ancient feasts of a people who existed upon the stony patch of ground since the time when Noah marched down off the mountain.
Truly, and I say this as a well-read fellow (and a writer myself), “I Ask You, Ladies and Gentlemen” is one of the most powerful, beautiful, haunting novels I have ever read. We writers learn early that a good book must start well, must have good beats, capture the imagination but – above all – must end in a triumph. “I Ask You” ends with a majestic explosion, and Chapter 24 – written directly from Leon to the reader – evokes all the power of the written word to channel the profound longing of a refugee for his homeland.
This afternoon, when I started reading that penultimate chapter, I called for my wife – who is Venezuelan, and is too a stranger forced to be far from the land where she was raised: the deep jungles and storied white-sand beaches, the festivals and the songs – and I read it to her out loud. It was hard to keep from tearing up, and neither of us were fully successful, for in these pages Surmelian captures the beautiful drama of flight and the terrible, desperate knowledge not only that one cannot go back, but even if one could – the past is long gone; and with it the places we once knew so well.