This sweeping work of historical fiction begins in moral anguish. The novel’s protagonist, Vartan Balian, cannot decide whether to flee with his family on the eve of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
Ever since the 1915 Armenian Genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottomans, relations between Turkey and Armenia have been damaged beyond repair. Efforts in October 2009 to establish a historical commission in Turkey, modeled on South Africa’s truth commission, were widely considered to be doomed from the start. In the international arena, countries like the US, intent on preserving a critical Muslim ally in the Middle East, have refrained from using the term “genocide” so as not to antagonize Turkey. With fears of liability for war crimes paralyzing efforts in Turkey and abroad to document and tell the truth about the Armenian genocide, culture can play a critical role in educating the world about these events, which are still not widely understood.
Agop J. Hacikyan and Jean-Yves Soucy’s A Summer Without Dawn makes an important contribution to such truth-telling. This sweeping work of historical fiction begins in moral anguish. The novel’s protagonist, Vartan Balian, cannot decide whether to flee with his family on the eve of the events of 1915. As a political writer, he “had fought and worked against despotism for so many years, had climbed on podiums, had written pages and pages, had waited, hoped, believed and tried to imbue others with his faith,” only to be swept up in the Ottoman plan to rid the empire of his people.
A cosmopolitan intellectual, pharmacist, and Ottoman Army officer, Vartan realizes a few hours too late that his elite status will not save him from arrest. His mother-in-law, stunning wife Maro, and their six-year-old son Tomas must leave an elegant home in the town of Sivas, where Muslims and Christian Armenians have lived together peacefully for centuries. They join hundreds of thousands of Armenians being “relocated” to the Syrian desert. Eventually 1.5 million would die as the world looked on.
The Balian family (without the imprisoned Vartan) merges into a long column of deportees—“thousands rolling and raising dust . . . [as] thick-bellied, dark-blue clouds gathered to the west, forming a gigantic mountain range above the real one, which was now disappearing into a grayish mist.” Descriptions of the beautiful, harsh Anatolian landscape make the forced march even more vivid, while scenes alternating between the march and the torture of political prisoners—innocent adult Armenian males—serve to recreate the terror.
An intimate and engrossing family saga, A Summer Without Dawn draws the reader into the story of the twentieth century’s first genocide with an immediacy that makes the unfolding of atrocity palpable. The novel tacitly concedes that the story it tells is not morally comprehensible; instead it lays bare the inexorable results of a volatile mix of ethnic hatred, political and personal ambitions, policy decisions, and the moral failure of many individuals. With its exacting realism, the novel shows how fear and self-protection drive small-scale players to implement genocidal policies. For example, when Gani Bey, one of the most influential Ottoman officials, arrives in Sivas, the local police commissioner, Mustapha Rahmi, remembers that “this man’s changes in mood could end a career and his displeasure could lead people to prison or worse.” Rahmi has just murdered the town’s mayor under Gani Bey’s secret orders and makes sure to demonstrate particular zeal when torturing Vartan and other imprisoned men in front of Gani Bey.
The authors skillfully interweave rich historical and political context to help orient readers less familiar with this terrain. One such description is of the pivotal town of Ayntab, protected by a fortress on a hill first built by the Roman emperor Justinian and later rebuilt by the Turks in the eleventh century; it is “where all the cemeteries lay—Muslim, Christian, and Jewish.” This distilled depiction illustrates both the region’s consistent occupation by shifting empires and the confluence of cultures that has made this part of the world so rich and volatile. Hacikyan and Soucy also provide insight into the heroic but doomed Armenian resistance, whose efforts include firefights with Turkish troops to enable some deportees to escape; resettlement of Armenian orphans and reclamation of children sold into servitude; and dispatches to the international press and sympathetic governments. A few in-country foreign diplomats and clergy take risks to provide help, but their efforts are ultimately fruitless without international intervention.
This narrative is full of suspense and high drama, thoroughly engaging for all of its 500 pages. Still, certain incidents border on melodrama, as when Vartan, disguised as an itinerant musician in a troupe of whirling dervishes, performs in the same town where the Ottoman governor Reza Bey is holding his wife and son captive. The historical details are astounding—and heartbreaking—enough on their own; there is no need to manufacture scenes like these, with their conspicuous reliance on coincidence. This is not the tale’s only weakness, however. While the novel, on the whole, neither flinches from nor exploits war rape and sexual violence, it falters in its sometimes stereotypical depictions of women within the governor’s harem. The authors portray Riza Bey’s mother-in-law as conniving; his first wife as all-knowing, yet acquiescent; his second wife as greedy and fat; and his young, third wife as a petulant nymphomaniac. The authors invest little energy in depicting the Turkish wives, taking them for granted in much the same way their richly portrayed husband does. The Armenian women, however, are portrayed with greater emotional depth and moral rigor: they bravely try to preserve life and face death on the forced march; risk their lives as resistance members; and directly defy their Turkish oppressors.
The love story of Vartan and Maro—and the compromises both make to survive physically and emotionally—exemplifies this complexity and drives the narrative. Exquisite descriptions of place convey the characters’ passion for the land and for each other. Constantinople, the mysterious multicultural meeting place of East and West, is a seductive setting for the novel’s somewhat predictable denouement. Vartan and Maro’s relocation to this labyrinthine city provides another way for readers to experience the total, wrenching, tragic loss this history represents for all Armenians. Two excellent translators work with a light touch, allowing language to heighten, rather than obscure, the story’s unfolding.
A Summer Without Dawn serves truth in several ways and thus is a success by literary and historical standards. It manages to combine historical and political accuracy (no small feat in treating this subject) with a decidedly literary commitment to create a compelling and sustained emotional reality. The reader readily identifies with the worldly main characters, who have shopped in Paris and agitated for reform in Constantinople. And by placing two victims and a perpetrator in a love triangle, the authors force us to confront the complexities of survival, the lived experience of good and evil. Such treatment demands that contemporary readers ask themselves questions about how they might have acted under the circumstances. And the book’s insistent focus on everyday life amidst political conflict cultivates deep empathetic reading. At a time when reconciliation appears doomed by politics and uninspired diplomacy, A Summer Without Dawn is a powerful—and essential—challenge to the world’s continuing apathy.