‘In the Name of the Father and of the Son’, a novel
by Vahe Berberian
156pp, 1999, LA, California, USA, $15
Armenian News Network / Groong
May 15, 2000
By Eddie Arnavoudian
‘Every story has an end and every end, its story. This is the story of an ending. The story of my father’s ending’. Thus begins Vahe Berberian’s latest novel ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son’. Like his first novel ‘Letters from Zaatar’ this one also casts a critical eye on aspects of contemporary life in the USA. Hrair, the narrator, a teacher at an Armenian school and amateur actor, reconstructs the history of his relationship with his father beginning his account at the point when their humdrum existence is disturbed by a prostitute seeking refuge from her violent pimp. As the story unfolds Vahe Barbarian, with his simple, fluent and agile Armenian, reveals features of that complex of emotions which constitute the perennial drama of father-son relationships.
The family home in which father and son live alone is a cold and barren place. It has none of that sense of security or human warmth we normally associate with the concept of home. It is in fact no more that a physical convenience. Despite their physical proximity father and son are in reality remote, isolated, emotionally paralysed, full of suppressed mutual anger and silent bitterness. But then Jamie the prostitute appears: a catalyst who shakes up their ossified, ritualised everyday life and brings to the surface suppressed loves, feelings and needs. Indeed ‘the girl’, as Jamie becomes known, will prove Paul Nizan’s dictum that ‘There is no desert in human life over which the grass cannot grow again.’ She proves but in a manner that would startle even the most imaginative reader.
Hrair’s harshness and indifference to his father is stunning but captures well the hostilities that bedevil such relations. In a moment of bitter disillusionment with his once idolised father he remarks ‘I came to realise that my father hardly ever startled me with his wisdom’. For Hrair ‘the main driving force’ in his relations with his father ‘was the desire to annoy him, to upset his peace of mind’. He ‘sought revenge from him for lacking any rage or anger, for lacking any sense of pain or emotion.’
Yet his father Haroutyoun is a moving and tragic presence in the novel. He is a gentle and cultured man. As a lover of literature, he owns a wonderful collection of Armenian books, and back in Beirut he ran a bookshop and did so with a sense of mission. But the civil war forced him to flee after losing a son, and then his wife. In his new home, a USA of assimilating Armenians, Haroutyoun finds no meaningful role to play. His literature and his cultural ambitions are irrelevant to the new generation. Indeed it is here in the USA, that Hrair increasingly realises that in his own eyes his father ‘had lost any intellectual standing’ and ‘was reduced to a mediocrity.’
Haroutyoun is condemned to loneliness, and lives a rootless and purposeless life. His dejection, his grim and soulless existence is typical of the fate of an older generation uprooted and relocated in far away, unfamiliar and alien lands. They are men and women of truncated lives, desiccated and withdrawn into themselves. Trapped in a dead past, Haroutyoun indulges in piling book upon book in his already book-crowded house. But these books, despite enclosing between their covers all the vitality and wonder of human life, become a prison isolating him from the real flow of life and emotion.
While the father is typical of an older generation of immigrant, Hrair embodies the alienation and disappointment of the younger. Life has dulled his senses, stifled his natural êlan and taken the edge off his thirst for creation. His father, Lebanon, the war, Hollywood and the years, ‘all conspired to pull the rug from under my dreams’. Touching thirty he is ‘tamed and chastened’ living a ‘calm and superficial’ existence and lacking the energy to ‘broaden the boundaries of my mad enthusiasms’ or the daring ‘to push out the boat and live with the consequences.’
But he has not lost that human instinct to challenge fate, to pursue the unknown in the hope that it can override the deadly boredom of the present. This desire in him manifests itself in an impulse, for which ‘there is no descriptive word in any language’, the impulse to ‘consciously, knowingly, make a wrong choice’ fully aware that it could have ‘fatal consequences’. Vahe Berberian coins the Armenian word ‘larkel’ to describe just this impulse in Hrair’s action when he agrees to take into his home an unknown prostitute knocking at his door.
The action does indeed have dramatic and fatal consequences. It transforms relations between father and son and effects something of reconciliation, enabling the revival of bonds of love before Haroutyoun’s death. Indeed Hrair writes that ‘one of the reasons I did not throw her out was that she brought some colour and life into our two-bedroom apartment and for the first time connected our daily lives with America as it existed.’
But the America that Jamie brings into their narrow world is no real enticing alternative to the barrenness of their domestic life. Besides brutal pimps beating up 16 year old girls and the deadening monotony of everyday life, we witness here a Hollywood ‘full of crippled youngsters who, in search of stardom, leave home with nothing but a bus ticket and travel to California as if on a ride to heaven. The lucky ones end up as restaurant waiters. The others gather on street corners, teeth missing and veins abused, and still chew the cud of their dreams.’
Evidently we must search elsewhere for the realisation of our dreams. The melancholic and somewhat resigned conclusion to the novel however offers no resolutions. But we can infer one. It has often been noted that literature protects and preserves memories and hopes of happier and fulfilled lives that can be realised in better times by future generations. Hrair inherits his father’s library, and protects it. These books which once ‘weighed heavily on my shoulders and were suffocating me, preventing me from escaping from the past’ are now treasured. Indeed, Hrair adds to the collection by writing his own. Perhaps he too is adding his bit to the stock of hopes and desires for the future. In his case the dream of a fulfilled father and son relationship.
It is impossible to conclude a commentary on this novel without noting a remarkable phenomenon. For an author who has something to say about human life it takes a certain sort of courage to write in western Armenian, in an age when this beautiful form of communication is fast vanishing, with readers dwindling at an even faster pace. Yet those who do not read Armenian, or having the ability to nevertheless fail to read this novel, will lose something of value.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for Haratch in Paris and Nairi in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in Open Letter in Los Angeles.