A story of genocide tugs at the heart

June 09, 1994|By Polly Paddock | Polly Paddock,Knight-Ridder News Service

It is one of the 20th century's most horrific -- if least-known -- chapters: the systematic annihilation of more than 1 million Armenian men, women and children by the Ottoman Turks in 1915.

The Armenian genocide was the prototype for Adolf Hitler's "ethnic cleansing" of Germany. Yet the slaughter was never officially accounted for, as Hitler's was at Nuremberg. Its legacy has lived on, mostly in the hearts and souls of its survivors and their descendants.

And it has provided 31-year-old Carol Edgarian with the fodder for her remarkable first novel. Ms. Edgarian -- a Connecticut native whose father was a first-generation Armenian-American -- spent 10 years writing it. And what a stunning debut it is.

"Rise the Euphrates" is a powerful, haunting novel that lingers in the imagination. It is a story of victims and betrayers, fear and yearning -- and the family ties that bind us in what Ms. Edgarian describes as a "vicious, wondrous spiraling -- which, if never questioned, locks the generations in a web of infinite expectations, lies, shame, hope."

The tale, set in present-day Connecticut, is narrated by 33-year-old Seta Loon, born here of an Armenian mother and "odar" (non-Armenian) father.

Seeking her own identity, Seta looks back to her grandmother's girlhood in "the first Christian nation on earth, a nation where God himself had settled Noah's ark."

Her grandmother, Casard, was 9 years old in 1915 when Turkish soldiers overtook her town. Seizing her father and torching their home while her baby brother slept inside, the soldiers dragged Casard and her mother to the town square.

There, in "the night without end," they witnessed unspeakable horrors: the Armenian bishop stripped and hung from a makeshift cross, his body set upon with knives; five schoolgirls strung up by their braids, jostled until their bodies bobbed, then beheaded with one swoop of a soldier's sword.

Afterward, Casard and her mother joined the death march into the Mesopotamian desert. At the banks of the Euphrates, they were ordered to jump in or be killed. Casard's mother jumped to her death; at the last second, Casard let go of her mother's hand and escaped.

Eventually she came to America, where she wed another Armenian immigrant and had a daughter, the beautiful and troubled Araxie.

But the past holds a death-lock on Casard. As granddaughter Seta sees it, "her loss was untouchable and omnipresent," something she could never speak of.

Except once . . . at the baptism of baby Seta, named for Casard's dead mother. There, Casard "pressed her mauve painted lips to my ear and filled my empty soul with her truths."

Now Seta must bear her grandmother's legacy -- and undertake the mission Casard has given her: to learn her grandmother's real name. "Casard" is a corruption of what the French nuns who rescued the child called her; in her mute terror, Casard forgot the name she'd been christened with.

So the granddaughter goes about her childhood in modern-day Connecticut, haunted by the horrors of a time and place she can only imagine.

When Seta is 11, Casard dies. Even as Seta reaches adolescence, discovers boys and watches her parents' marriage crumble, she feels the urgency of her mission growing.

Only by finding her grandmother's name, Seta realizes, can she ever be free to find herself.

"Rise the Euphrates" is a tale carried almost entirely by women: Casard, Araxie, Seta and the Greek chorus of elderly Armenian ladies who keep the old country alive in their stories.

It is also a tale of women -- mothers, daughters, granddaughters and the often tangled threads that bind them. "The daughter assumes what is unfinished in her mother's life," Seta reflects -- -- and, perhaps, in her grandmother's.

Ms. Edgarian's writing is masterful. She describes Armenian as "the language that always made me think of hands in rich dirt," a keening cry as "the sound of a man's heart turned out like a sleeve."

And when Seta finally comes to understand that the legacy is something she can never shed, the prose is lyrical enough to make you weep:

"I was then and am now their Armenian girl. The men and women with their sad, croaky tunes of deeds and misfortunes, massacres and floods, kneading their bread and counting their sheep. . . . They pull me back, marionette on strings, so I might be going about some business in my new life, say, walking to my car, or in the drugstore aisle buying shampoo, and . . . they give a gentle tug and . . . the bottom drops out of me, and the River, that riparian ache that is in me always and forever begins rising, just as it did when Seta, the first, felt her dress rise over her head, as she dropped under the muddy water like a stone. . . . "

Title: "Rise the Euphrates"

Author: Carol Edgarian

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 370 pages, $22

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