The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis

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ArmeniaThis is the first historical novel I’ve come across which tackles the issue of the Armenian Genocide, the hundredth anniversary of which was commemorated earlier this year.  It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it covers a very important subject.

Up to 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.  Only 29 countries officially recognise what happened as genocide.  Many regional parliaments and assemblies do too, and only Turkey and Azerbaijan officially deny that what happened was genocide, but most national governments are reluctant to commit themselves, perhaps due largely to the fear, given the situation in the Middle East, of the possible consequences of upsetting Turkey.

France has taken the lead in trying to persuade Turkey to change its position; other countries, notably the Republic of Cyprus and Uruguay, have also done much to ensure that what happened is recognised; and the Pope spoke out about the subject in April … as a result of which, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  Rather bizarrely, most of the coverage of the centenary commemorations in the English language media seemed to centre on the visit of Kim and Khloe Kardashian to the memorial complex in Armenia.  I am not a fan of the Kardashians, but they did speak very movingly about the genocide and their sadness that it isn’t properly recognised.

No-one who was actively involved can be alive now, and no blame can be attached to modern-day Turkey and its people … but the subject remains extremely sensitive in Turkey, and, especially given the present situation in Syria and Iraq, most governments dare not risk confrontation with the Turkish authorities.  So it’s very unlikely that there will be widescale recognition any time soon that what took place was genocide.  But it was.

Moving on to the book, it was one of these which flip between different time periods and different sets of characters: we had the British granddaughter of a woman who’d survived the Armenian Genocide finding a series of letters written by her grandmother, shortly after the grandmother’s death in the mid-1980s, and part of the book was narrated by the granddaughter, part by the grandmother via her letters, and part by the grandmother’s brother, who, unbeknownst to her, had also survived and was living in Cyprus.

Much of the stuff set in the 1980s wasn’t particularly good, quite honestly.  It was just all too easy for everyone to find their long-lost relations, via a series of highly improbably coincidences and a few phone calls.  And no-one seemed the slightest bit upset to discover that a lifetime of lies had been told about someone’s paternity.  One aspect of which was however shown very well was the pressure put on some of the younger generation to stick to the old ways and remain within, and, in particular, to marry within, the Armenian community, even if that wasn’t going to make them happy.  That’s something which is common to many minority communities, and I’ve known families torn apart by it.  Happily, in this case, the Armenian grandfather eventually accepted that his granddaughter should marry for love, regardless of ethnicity or religion or anything else.  Another was the long-term psychological effects on those who’ve been through such a trauma, and how depression and anxiety can strike them even decades later.

The parts of the book which covered the events of 1915 and the years immediately following it were much better – and very. very sad.  We saw men killed, women and children deported, women abducted and raped, deportees being massacred, and deaths from disease and from the sheer difficulties of making such long journeys in a harsh climate and without food and water.  Then we saw the survivors being scattered across the globe: Cyprus, Britain, the USA and Lebanon all featured in this book, and, of course, the Armenian diaspora covers a myriad of other countries too.

The book didn’t actually mention the issue of recognition of the genocide, even though that’s usually the first thing people talk about when the subject’s mentioned.  Maybe the author didn’t want to seem to be too political: it’s an extremely sensitive subject.  But she’s done a good job of telling the story in the form of a novel, and I hope that a lot of people will read this book.  It’s a story which deserves to be read.

 

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