Saturday, January 10, 2009

October 2006: Novelists Orhan, James, and George… but mostly George

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature earlier this month ( Pamuk is a Turkish novelist of international renown and certainly deserving of the Nobel Prize. He is best known for his novels Red and Snow that take place in modern Turkey and, like many other prize winners, explores and exposes the everyday reality in a way no one else has quite expressed. In the case of Pamuk, he also belongs to a lesser class of winners not viewed favorably by the government of their country. Pamuk was persecuted and chastised in Turkey for violating Article 301 which that makes it illegal to express any view that denigrates the state or Turkishness in general.

Was Pamuk prosecuted? Charged? Acquitted? Almost prosecuted? Almost charged? Almost acquitted? I do not really know because the details were so convoluted and the law so arcane that I was simply confused by the details. There was an incredible amount of press coverage including the “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal” to name two.

Pamuk is, clearly, a national treasure that the Turkish state must, or at least should, now embrace. Why was he persecuted? He was persecuted because he had the audacity, strength, conviction, or iconoclastic nature to address the issue of the Armenian atrocities, deportation, or genocide in his novel, Snow. Many accuse him of doing this only to get the attention and garner the favor of the Nobel committee. Certainly the “deniers” of the genocide have this view, but so do some of the left who basically agree with Pamuk’s view that whatever happened needs to be openly discussed. Hopefully, this Nobel Prize will generate more discourse on the Armenian issue and ultimately lead to some resolution and closure for both sides.

I read an on-line editorial from the Turkish newspaper Zaman by Ali H. Aslan. It was distributed via the Armenian Workshop listserv of the University of Michigan, which is an open and academic forum to discuss Turkish and Armenian relations. Here isthe first paragraph of Aslan’s editorial:

The first Turkish novel, “Akabi Story” was written by Armenian Vartan Pasha in the middle of the 19th century and printed in the Armenian alphabet. What an interesting manifestation of fate is that the first Nobel Prize for Turkish literature has an Armenian element as well. Our successful novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was subjected to national anger after referring to events experienced by Anatolian Armenians during World War I in a way different than the ‘official history’ rhetoric, received this prestigious award.

This letter, however, is not about Pamuk but a new novelist. This novelist is older than Pamuk and certainly less known than the newest Nobel Prize winner. This novelist, like Vartan Pasha, is Armenian. I want to write about my friend George Mouradian.

George Mouradian is an amazing fellow. He is a most cool guy, friendly to all and one of the most congenial people I have ever met. He never has a bad word for anyone. He looks for common ground rather than who is right or wrong. This is a rare quality in the general population. I find it an even rarer quality among Armenians who love to mix it up in the politics of church and state, making “enemies” for life in the process. It would be easy to be fooled by this congeniality and miss the depth and breadth of his talents and interests.

I first recall getting to know George, a contemporary of my father back when he was organizing a Boy Scout Troop at our church, St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church in Dearborn, Michigan. I was on the older side of the boys in the organizing group and well established in my own Troop 223 based at Burns School. Rather than join the church troop, I opted to stay with my own troop where my friends Brad Lackie, Tim Miller and I were all pursuing the Eagle rank together.

But from that time, George and I have always admired each other and chatted whenever we saw each other. The friendship solidified when we both worked together in the Reliability Engineering Department of Rockwell International’s Automotive Division back in the 1980’s. See each other everyday, working together, chatting, and having lunch; we really got to know each other. I really came to admire George and appreciate the diversity of his interests and experiences.

I learned that on his honeymoon, George took his wife on a camping trip to Alaska. Back then in the 1950’s this was quite a trek with the last few thousand miles of the drive being dirt roads. I was in awe George thought of this and even more impressed that his wife, Rosie, went along with it.

I learned of George’s love of gardening. Actually, gardening might be too modest a description. When I visited his home, I remember thinking that his very large garden was really on the cusp of being classified as a small farm. Seasonally, his lunch would always include fruits and vegetables from his garden.

I learned that George was very good engineer with experiences in aerospace and automotive. In retirement, George has written two books on Quality Control and has travelled to Armenia to teach a master class on the subject.

A central passion for George, beyond his love of family, is his love and devotion to his Armenian heritage. He is proud to be Armenian, a student of Armenian history, and keenly interested in doing whatever he can to help preserve and perpetuate that heritage, certainly within his family, but in the Armenian-American community in general.

I saw the same passion in George’s father. Whenever, I would see Mr. Mouradian, he would always tell me something about our people for which I should be infinitely proud. He would say it with a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. For father and son, the glass was always full… not just half full.

In this last regard, George continues to grow and expand his horizon by becoming a man of Armenian Letters. Beyond the two works on Quality, he has penned two Armenian themed books.

The first, Armenian InfoText published in 1995, is a one volume Armenian themed encyclopedia. It is accessible to readers and enthusiasts of all ages. It is perfect for any young student preparing any kind of school presentation or report on Armenia. I am convinced George wrote this for his grandchildren to make it easy for them to learn about their heritage. For my children’s and eventual grandchildren’s sake, I am glad he wrote it.

Never to Die: I had reviewed Armenian InfoText for the Armenian press. Because of that review and our friendship, George contacted me in January 2005 to tell me he had written a novel, Never to Die. He wanted to see if I would review this book. Sure, I was happy to do it.
Never to Die is an ambitious effort. It is a tome of almost 600 pages. It is written in the model of the famous American writer James Michener of whom George is a great admirer. If you are not familiar with James Michener, many of his novels are actually two novels in one. He chooses an area, Mexico, Hawaii, the American West, or Alaska to name a few, and writes two novels in one. One is usually set in current times and presents a plot related to the region and its history. The second novel interspersed with first in alternating chapters provides the full history of the region. Often the book takes the title of the region e.g. Mexico, Hawaii, Alaska.

Never to Die is two books in one. The odd numbered chapters take place in the 1960s. A team, led by a French archeologist and his theologist wife, planned to search for Noah's Ark on the slopes of Mount Ararat. In preparing for their expedition, the French couple negotiated with a Boston based electronics firm to produce a kind of sonar that could detect oak beams that might lie buried in the glacial ice of the mountain. The firm developed the device and it was agreed that one of their engineers would join the team to man and maintain the sensitive device. As it turns out, the engineer is a young Armenian, Azad, fluent in English, Armenian, and Turkish.

In a plausible twist likely to happen in a novel, Azad meets two Armenians, a man and his niece, in the Araratian village of Dougubayazit, that serves as the base town to their base camp so to speak. The niece, Vartouhi, and Azad fall in love. The novel is a love story.

But, it is more than just your run of the mill love story while searching ofr Noah’s Ark. The Turks, being the militaristic paranoid control freaks we so easily portray them as, assign a Major Vehib to the team. This hard nosed patriotic lifer, considers the Westerners as giaours, infidels, and Armenians, like Azad, as enemies of his country. Azad and Vehib clash, bicker, and argue in the shadow of Ararat. So, this novel is also addresses the collective recent ugly and horrible history of Armenians.

In Never to Die, George weaves a wonderful story of love, hate nationalism and Biblical archeology... but this is only half the book, the odd numbered chapters. In the even numbered chapters, George presents the entire history of Armenia from 3000 BC to the 1915 Genocide.
The novel is a brilliant idea and an ambitious venture. George even approached James Michener himself to write it. But Michener was ill and failing and could not. So, George decided to write it himself.

As you may have noted, George asked me to review the book in January of 2005. It is now the end of October of 2006, and, believe it or not, this is the review!

What took me so long? It is quite simple. Every book James Michener wrote, well many of them, interested me. They interested me enough to buy them or check them out of the library and attempt to read them. The key word here is attempt. I have tried several times and have never ever finished a James Michener book. I do not know what it is. They are well written and usually critically regarded. Yet, I bog down in them. Sometimes, it is in the very beginning where Michener writes from the creation of the earth point of view. Other times, it is in the middle of the book when I am really into it and the narrative just goes into a holding pattern over the middle ages.

I was hoping the same wouldn’t happen with Never to Die… but it almost did. It took me over one year to finish it. George would write every month or so checking on the progress of the review. I felt totally stupid and considerably inept to always answer, “I am working on it.” I would even ask him a question or two about the latest passages I had read to provide evidence of the snails pace progress. George eventually stopped asking. He probably assumed that I didn’t like the book and didn’t want to review it.

Actually, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed both parts the story of Azad and the search for the Ark as well as the history of Armenia. Many of the things I read in the book have stayed with me. I was especially taken with his portrayal of the 17th and 18th Century Armenian communities in Poland and the assimilation of that diasporan community in the Polish population. There is an eerie parallel to what I have seen happen to our community in the United States.

It was interesting to see all things Armenian from George’s perspective. It is certainly laden with pride but not superiority. It is both noble and humble, looking forward with hope to yet grow again… Never to Die. This view was the same of my Great Uncle Rouben and much more evident in that generation. That view point has faded, sadly, but not with George.

Is Never to Die the best book I have ever read? Is the most well written book I have ever read? No. There were some awkward passages and phrasing. But, maybe that was simply because I know George so well and kept hearing his voice when I was reading it. Yet, it is the best written most interesting novel any friend of mine has ever penned. I learned a lot about my people and a bit more about George.

I also learned how to read a Michener book: a little bit at a time. There is so much information to process that I must simply stop reading and think about things for a while, digesting the information before reading on. I think I will next tackle Centennial and take a year or two to read it.

Anyone can write a book these days. Many people even express a desire to do so. Technology facilitates the writing and publishing of books. It can be written, edited and laid out i.e. desk top published on a PC. Then they can be published by what used to be called vanity presses. These personal publishing services have blossomed and grown on the internet. George published his book through one, AuthorHouse, based in Bloomington, Indiana. Beyond just publishing, AuthorHouse also lists the book on its website and handles customer orders e.g. It is pretty cool. Never to Die is even available on and many Armenian based bookstore sites.

So while getting a book published is much easier and cheaper than ever, one still has to write it. I am amazed that George did so and picked the Michener model to do so. Bravo and apologies for taking so long to both read it and review it. Somehow, Orhan Pamuk winning the Nobel Prize and learning of Vartan Pasha motivated me to do it.

Epilogue: I never know who will respond to these letters and what they may say or add. This month I am quite certain that another good friend and devoted reader will respond and ask “Marko, when are you going to profile me?” Someday Ara, someday…

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