Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Family of Shadows by Garin K. Hovannisian

I was in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.  I was presenting a paper at a conference on Reliability Engineering.  We decided to make a vacation out of it, be tourists, and visit family.  The only family we had in Los Angeles at the time were the Hovannisian’s: Uncle Richard, Aunt Vartiter, Raffi, Armen, Ani, and Garo.  Richard’s maternal grandmother Sara was a first cousin to my paternal grandfather Aram.  In Armenian terms, this was relatively close relations.  We were proud to be close with them because Richard G. Hovannisian was a renown scholar, one of the first Chaired Professors of Armenian History, and author of several books focusing on the turbulent post World War I era of the short lived Republic of Armenia.
Raffi had married Armenouhi a few years earlier.  They had a son Garin, named for the Armenian city which is currently Erzurum, Turkey.  We happened to be there for his agra hadig and had the opportunity to attend this centuries old Armenian tradition.  Agra hadig?  On the occasion of a baby’s first tooth or agra, a meal of hadig is prepared which is a cooked wheat dish for this tradition.  The child is placed on the floor and several objects in front of the child such as a book, scissors, money, and other objects.  The first object the child touches foretells the baby’s future profession.  If a book is selected, the child will become a scholar.  Scissors would signify a tailor to be.  A hammer means a carpenter; a small shovel means farming, money a banker or businessman, gold a jeweler, and so on.  I believe traditionally there were supposed to be five set items, but over the years and more so in these modern times, the objects have changed to suit the professions of today... or those that mothers, aunts, and grandmothers think are appropriate.

The whole point of this long preamble is not simply to point out the bias of being related in reviewing Garin’s book but to point out what Garin chose at his agra hadig.  The young Garin, son of Raffi and Armenouhi, the grandson of Richard and Vartiter, chose a book.  The ladies oohed and aahed that Garin would grow up to be a literary man, a scholar, a lawyer, a historian, or any of the wondrous possibilities the choosing of a book implies.  I remember that hadig and specifically Garin’s choice more than I do the speech I gave the next day.  That is the magic of this Armenian experience.
Here it is some twenty five plus years later and I am reviewing Garin’s book, Family of Shadows.  I pre-ordered five copies of the book and began reading it as soon as I received it.  In short it was fascinating, engaging, and well written.  I might have read it in one sitting but for the need, at key points, to put it down and reflect on what I had just read.

The first thing I noted about the book was Garin’s candor.  Amongst Armenians, at least the Armenians I have known, image is everything.  We were taught not to air our dirty laundry in public.  This applied first and foremost to family and secondly to anything Armenian.  No matter the level of family, organizational, or national dysfunction, putting our business on the street was not something we were supposed to do.  It was a taboo.  It was something that I can still see my grandparents generation shaking their heads at and hear them admonishing such behaviors with “vays, chés, and tsuks.” So, when I read the first passage showing the shortcomings and revelations of a less than blissful marriage of his great-grandfather, my right eyebrow arched upwards.  I wondered how this candor would play in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Yerevan.

The candor however was surprisingly well done.  The flaws or shortcomings, which we all have, were stated frankly and not dwelled upon.  From his training as a journalist, Garin reported but did not dwell on or judge.  The revelations made the history and people more real.  I loved The Black Dog of Fate, but really had a feeling of “our family is better than yours" when reading it.  Garin’s candor made it easier to relate to his family as real people dealing the familial foibles we all experience.  This makes their contributions to family and nation all the more inspiring.

Regarding the Republic of Armenia, we have to remember that Garin had a front row seat to the entire existence of the Republic being Raffi Hovannisian’s son.  He saw how his father was treated by both the people and the “regime” running the country.  Many Armenians take a view of “our government right or wrong.”  The reasoning follows that we have to support it because it is the only government we have.  I have even seen a few e-mails criticizing Garin for seriously taking the government to task.  But, again, he is simply reporting the grim and gritty reality of a country run by oligarchs and a government more interested in consolidating their power and wealth than in building a viable Armenian nation.  In reality, Armenia today is no better than other third world countries.

We tend to forget the selling off of factory equipment that was the economic base of the former SSR.  We have, as a nation, downplayed the assassinations of eight opposition politicians in the Armenian Parliament.  Our country right or wrong?  Yes, our country, but Garin reminds us to insist that on and demand that the country act right and noble as many of us value our storied history and spirit.  The 1998 assassinations in Parliament are a national disgrace.  How do we forget this?  Gloss over what happened?  We need to own up to this and other dysfunctions and demand better and more from our leaders.

This book moves along deftly covering the history of the Armenian people and the Hovannisian and Kotcholosian families from the Genocide of 1915 until today in 278 engaging pages.  Garin has narrative style and soul of a novelist combined the discipline of a journalist.  Everything important is covered in just enough detail.  Nothing important was left out and no vignette was written to the point of tedium.

I feel as a reviewer, I have to provide some criticism or else I am just a distant cousin gushing over the book.  I did find some of the sentences awkward and hard to understand even after reading them several times.  This is all proofreading and editing.  Also, until the last chapter, I could see the seams of the outline in the writing.  Another ten or twenty pages could have been added to provide smoother segues and transitions.  OK… this is pretty lame and petty in terms of finding any faults, errors, or omissions.  It is that good a book to me.

The best part of the book for me was the very end; the last chapter.  The writing and message took on a most poetic and moving nature summarizing the struggle of nation and his families’ involvement in that.  Where are we going?  How will we get there?  Should we give up?  Never.  This change began when Garin noted his father listening to an old Hussenig folk song that is my absolute favorite.  To me, and apparently to Raffi at that moment, it captures the essence of what has been taken from us and what we all hope can be regained in viable and truly independent Armenia.

I cannot wait to read more from Garin Hovannisian.  I see a very promising career for this young and talented writer.  I hope that, at some point, he follows through and writes the book he hinted at:  the story of his grandmother Vartiter.


  1. Beautifully written.

  2. Your review is spot on.

  3. A very nice review of Family of Shadows. I'll pickup a copy.

  4. Well done but I wish you had outlined the book under review. A thumbnail sketch of the Hovanissians would be invaluable, especially from the pen of a distinguished scion of a distinguished sire who,in turn , is also an eminent scion of an eminent sire!

  5. Hovannisian’s ‘Family of Shadows’ Released in Paperback, Translated into Armenian