Harry Harootunian is a Detroit born Armenian-American distinguished historian of Japan and scholar of Marxist theory at the University of Chicago and New York University. Born to a family of Armenian Genocide survivors in 1929, Harootunian achieved renown in academia for his pathbreaking studies of early modern Japan and Japanese cultural and intellectual history.
Not particularly known for his work on the Armenian Genocide, which he readily admits in his recently published memoir by Duke University Press, Professor Harootunian has nevertheless managed to produce a book of profound depth and beauty. It is equal parts a personal memoir, a sociological examination of the Armenian Genocide and its often unexamined psychological effects on survivors and their children, and a meditation of what it is to be a second-generation immigrant in a country ensconced in mythic self-glorification.
Prompted by the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Harootunian examines his roots and familial history. He tries to understand the silence of his parents about their life in the Armenian villages of the Anatolian hinterlands in the Ottoman Empire, and more importantly, about their hellish experiences as survivors of the Armenian Genocide. But it is there that our author encounters his biggest challenge, a challenge he comes close to resolving, but one that in the final analysis provides no more clarity than when he first set out on the road. By the close of the book, it still remains a kind of mysterium tremendum, equally unwieldy and fascinating. As he puts it,
The decision to not share these memories and experiences with the children is still a mystery. It could have been the enormity of experiences, its virtual unbelievability, a negative fable from the Tales of the Arabian Nights, putting into question the credibility of occurrences that exceeded the capability of children and anything they might be able to grasp.
It is not to say, however, that we learn a precious little. It is a silence that speaks louder than many an uttered speech.
No less fascinating than the silence of his parents, which Harootunian attempts to unmute with elegance and certain poetic rhythm, is the process itself and the methodology employed. In a “normal” memoiristic enterprise, a writer’s source material would be the personal memories of the author, past correspondences, memories harvested from his siblings, relatives, and perhaps close friends and colleagues.
Yet Harootunian is confronted with what can only be described as a persistent absence of evidence. His parents, now long deceased, had refused to deposit any sort of ‘remembrances of things past’ with their children, imagining these memories to be a burden the carrying of which was not to be outsourced to their unwitting progeny under any circumstance. What then the author is left with is an assemblage of fragmentary information, more often hearsay than solid fact.
Confronted with this reality, Harootunian is left with no option but to employ the powers of his imagination to fill in gaps in order to achieve some semblance of coherence in an otherwise “splintered narrative.” Yet even after much reconstruction, the author remains agnostic, never entirely sure whether this imagination has yielded anything resembling the truth, even if faintly.
The predicament of what we may call “unsure knowing” was especially the case with his mother, Vehanush. Having grown up in a German missionary run orphanage, she had adopted its rigid Protestant ethic and a corresponding detached emotional world that emphasized stoic perseverance, contributing to her silence. As Harootunian puts it: “What I have been able to piece together from disparate fragments of information and hearsay is not, by any means, her complete story and is at best an outline. For this reason alone, it must stand as much as a recomposed narrative as a verifiable account.”
Her “disciplined silence,” as he calls it, refused to be probed and prodded. Similar is the story of the author’s father, Ohannes. Though less disciplined than Harootunian’s mother, Ohannes remained equally as silent on his life before the Genocide, only occasionally letting in his children on the carefully chosen episodes from a bygone era and land, if only because he did not reject these memories, cherishing them instead and treating them as something worthwhile. Yet, much like his wife, Ohannes would remain silent on the central formative event of his life, the Genocide.
Although the book is largely a memoir, it is also more than that. In trying to understand the heritage of silence he and his siblings had inherited from their parents, Harootunian attempts to understand the catastrophe that befell the Ottoman Armenians at the turn of the 20th century. If he could not understand the impenetrable silence, he could at least try to understand what lay behind it.
What we have as a result is a loosely Marxist interpretation of the Turkish destruction of its Armenian minority, which elevates economic and financial rationales over other traditionally accepted motivation; (organic nationalism, religious antagonisms, ancient hatreds, etc.). Though never dismissing these other factors in toto, Harootunian makes a powerful case by situating the Armenian Genocide as an example par excellence of what Karl Marx has called “primitive accumulation” or “original accumulation.”
In this framework, though Armenians were a hated minority, their wealth, real or imagined, was far more attractive to the Turkish ruling class than their blood. In the final analysis, it would be these two elements that would jumpstart the modern Turkish republic, its original sin being an original crime – genocide. In this respect, Harootunian’s book becomes a standing rejoinder against Turkish denialism and silence. He reminds us that not all silences are equal.
The silence of the criminal is much different from that of his victim. Both victim and criminal embrace silence for different reasons, but whereas the silence of the victim can contain seeds of redemption, the one embraced by the criminal only serves to compound his crime. More than anything else, it is his guilty verdict.
Reading Harootunian’s book, I kept thinking how his attempts to recover the silence of his parents and make them speak resembled watching a silent movie. We see characters move and speak, but we are not entirely sure what it is that they are trying to communicate, if anything. In this regard, what the author is doing is akin to putting subtitles to the film — through an act of will, imagination, and yes, love. In his effort, the author assumes multiple roles: now he is a hard-nosed historian, now a Biblical prophet proclaiming timeless truths, now a poet, and in everything, a faithful son in search of the comforting voice of his parents in a grim shadowland.
Artyom H. Tonoyan, Ph.D., is a Research Associate at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.