Antonia Aslan

"Skylark Farm"

(Reviewed by Mike Frechette JUL 25, 2008)

“How does a massacre happen? What liquor does blood become, and how does it rise to the brain? How is it that one acquires a thirst for blood?”

The Armenian Genocide evokes passionately different responses from different groups of people. The Armenians, of course, have no doubt that what occurred was genocide, and their ancestors had the stories and the scars to prove it. On the other hand, many Turks, whose ancestors are accused of the crime, refuse to label the event as such and have harshly censored some of their own citizens for suggesting that it happened. Even the French have entered into the fray, recently passing legislation in 2006 that makes it illegal to deny that the genocide took place. It is into the midst of this heated historical controversy that Antonia Arslan introduces her authorship to the world with her debut novel, Skylark Farm. With brutally graphic honesty and poetic prose, Arslan depicts a family’s survival in the face of the worst imaginable circumstances.

Her setting is the days leading up to the atrocity and then the genocide itself, which took place during World War I. Ottoman Turks, whose empire still existed at the time, orchestrated the crime. Armenians around the world commemorate the event on April 24th, the evening in 1915 when Turkish soldiers rounded up Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople, led them out of the city, and then executed them. Over a million others were either murdered or forced to march from their homes, dying from starvation and abuse along the way.

The Prologue implies that the novel features Arslan’s actual ancestors. The story begins with a little girl named Antonia visiting the Basilica of the Saint on her name day with her grandfather, Yerwant, years after the events of the genocide. Yerwant turns out to be a principal character in the primary storyline. The reader learns that as a child, he and his brother Sempad grew up in a small city in Anatolia, but Yerwant decided to leave for Italy at an early age because of an “evil stepmother.” Sempad, blessed with a better temperament, remained in his homeland, became a pharmacist, and married Shushanig with whom he had several children. Now grown, the two brothers spend many of the novel’s early pages working to reunite their families at Skylark Farm, a second home outside the little Anatolian city.

For those familiar with the genocide, however, knowledge of what is to come squelches any anticipated joy for this family. Before the reunion can take place, the roundup begins, and Sempad’s family manages to escape to Skylark Farm for sanctuary. Two soldiers and a lieutenant follow the family, though, and they summarily and brutally execute the men of the family upon reaching the farm. Arslan does not spare any details of this horrific massacre, and the passages it entails are particularly difficult to read.

The “Second Part” of the novel details the forced deportation of the women to the city of Aleppo and their eventual salvation at the hands of characters who had been following behind – Ismene, the family servant, and Nazim, a beggar from their little city who knows the family well. Together with Zareh, a somewhat estranged brother of Yerwant and Sempad who lives in Aleppo, Shushanig and the children survive their nightmare. The author documents the deportation with vividly disturbing analogies: “Every so often, a piece of bread was thrown the Armenians’ way as if they were dogs, from on high. Every so often, a spring, a little water. They always had to drink after the horses of the zaptiehs, and on all fours like animals, sometimes amid grotesque scenes of the troops entertaining themselves – shooting someone in the neck, perhaps, just to see the water redden.”

If it seems that this review has completely spoiled all of the plot details, please rest assured that Arslan does that herself, even before the story really begins. The novel is peppered with italicized passages that reveal the detailed fate of major characters. While an early review criticized this strategy for making the prose sound choppy, this reviewer thinks it particularly clever. By revealing details of the genocide before it even takes place in the novel, Arslan suggests that these horrific events have tainted the once innocent past as well. For instance, no longer can any part of Sempad’s life be remembered without recalling the awful death he suffered at the hands of Turkish soldiers. As a result of these italicized passages, the reader moves through the novel with a heavy sense of anticipated dread. It is the same dread that presses on all the memories – even the pleasant ones – of the surviving characters as they now move through the rest of their lives.

In the face of this dread, however, the novel provides a glimmer of hope, and not only because the family is saved from complete physical extinction. Arslan ends her prologue with the following sentence: “This is where I would like to end my days, resting on a step worn away by the feet of men, waiting for Someone to accept me, so that instead of vanishing into nothing I will travel toward the light.” This metaphysical sentiment prefaces Arslan’s story and echoes throughout the novel’s dismal pages. Even when life seems less than fragile and meaningless, when it seems that all life eventually leads to nothingness, there is somehow salvation from such a fate. For Arslan, the victims of the genocide live on, both in another world and in the pages she has so beautifully crafted. (Translated by Geoffrey Brock)

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Read a chapter excerpt from Skylark Farms at the Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Antonia ArslanAntonia Arslan has a degree in archaeology and was professor of modern and contemporary Italian literature at the University of Padua. Skylark Farms is her first novel and is based on the experience of her Armenian grandfather's family during the massacres. Skylark Farms is being made into a film.

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