Feeding the Epic Appetite

A Summer Without Dawn

By Mark Heffernan

A review of A Summer Without Dawn by Agop Hacikyan and Jean-Yves Soucy

Published on October 1, 2000

A Summer Without Dawn
Agop Hacikyan and Jean-Yves Soucy
Translated by Christina Le Vernay and Joyce Bailey

Macfarlane Walter & Ross
$27.99
cloth
545pp
0-7710-3752-X

This novel is a work of adventure and historical fiction whose action focuses on the plight of an Armenian family in the crumbling Ottoman Empire during the years of the First World War. The hero of the story is Vartan, an Armenian reserve officer in the Sultan’s army. He is also a pharmacist, writer, father, and oud player. On the eve of the Armenian genocide, he is sentenced to death for writing treasonous articles against the new Young Turk government. His escape and search for his wife and son, who were deported along with hundreds of thousands of other Armenians, provide the material for this narrative.

The reader is presented with betrayals, imprisonments, murders, rapes; Kurd brigands and jealous harems; amorous female saviours, generous peasants, vengeful circumcisions, dervish musicians, and corrupt officials. It’s a collage of scenes which feed the appetite for adventure epics.

Works of historical fiction often fail to shift the reader’s moral centre of gravity; anachronisms and contemporary cliché are simply dressed up in exotic garb. Those writers who succeed in historical fiction, like Jean Giono (Horseman on the Roof) and Alejo Carpentier (Explosion in the Cathedral) have the subtle ability to reconstruct a credible subjectivity within the temporarily displaced universe.

Vartan is not religious; he shares the values of those modernized Ottomans who formed the Young Turk movement. Unable to develop their liberal ideas in the context of an empire under attack from all sides, they turned to totalitarian measures. There is an enormous tension exerted when traditional religious values and modern secularism clash. Vartan never experiences a conflict of values, and never reflects on the rich endowment of spiritual life which pervaded Islamic cultures. There is no psychological insight into the process which led Ataturk (a contemporary of Vartan), to denounce the religious orientation of the people. The President’s attack on traditional dress reminds one that modernization appears in convulsions of revolutionary fervour, accompanied by a profound disgust with the past.

Gentlemen, it was necessary to abolish the fez, which sat on the heads of our nation as an emblem of ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, and hatred of progress and civilization…A civilized, international dress is worthy and appropriate for our nation, and we will wear it. Boots and shoes on our feet, trousers on our legs, shirt and tie, jacket and waistcoat…

(Speeches by Ataturk, 1927, 1925, quoted from Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey.)

Historians like Lewis, still working under the shadow of Hegel’s rationality of the real, tend to exonerate the Young Turks (responsible for the death of more than a million Armenians) in the name of progress; Hacikyan, more justifiably, wants to anathematize them. On neither side does one gain much insight into the paradox of a modern age whose motor of positivist thought drives a machine with sickles attached on all sides.

This novel then fails to give insight into the historical period; as an account of the Armenian genocide, the piling up of disasters involves us in melodramas but fails to represent those horrors which the antidramatic concentration camp stories of Borowski, for instance, elicit so well; nor can the language be praised when it uses tourist brochure phrases to describe Constantinople. (“The capital was still a marvellous and mysterious city full of intrigues and passions…where anything could happen and often did.”)

One must conclude that A Summer Without Dawn is aimed at the entertainment industry. In this context the authors have succeeded in assembling those series of shocks which stimulate the nervous system and keep one’s fingers turning the page. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.

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