Sunday, August 30, 2015

Munching on Abgaryan’s Three Apples

Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky) was a perfect summer surprise: Abgaryan’s literary agency sent me the book, which quickly won me over with gentle humor, sadness and happiness surrounding births and deaths, and a remote setting in Maran, a village of (mostly!) elderly people in the Armenian mountains. Three Apples is both magical—with mentions of dreams and even a bolded reference to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—and a bit gritty, thanks to accounts of day-to-day and historical hardships. Beyond all that, any book where characters live right over an abyss gets my attention.

Three Apples begins as Sevoyants Anatolia (we go last name first here) settles in to die a little after noon on a Friday; she’s bleeding heavily. Though Anatolia is so prepared to die that she’s readied clothes, she soon agrees to marry Vasily, a widower and blacksmith who brings her a new scythe, proposes marriage, and quickly moves in. This is all unexpected for Anatolia, a childless widow and former librarian who shelved books by color and loves French and Russian literature, with the notable exception of Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina thoroughly disgusted her.

Abgaryan tells of the village’s residents through stories of famine—one little boy foresees deaths and the village later receives supplies, including a white peacock that ends up living right at that abyss—and of the plagues of flocks of rats, mice, and flies. The peacock, the dreams, the humor of yeast (much dissed in Maran after having being received from the outside world) thrown into the outhouse (never, ever throw yeast away like that!), and the magical happening that comes toward the end of the book are all wonderful in multiple senses of that word, both for comic relief and because, well, life is magical… but the everyday side of life’s magic, something that sounds pretty cheesy when described in those terms, works simply and beautifully in the book, and appealed to me even more.

I loved, for example, Anatolia and Vasily’s quiet lunch with their neighbors, where there’s little talk beyond asking for salt and clinking of cutlery: “Анатолия впервые ощутила жизнь не как данность, а как дар.” (“For the first time, Anatolia sensed/appreciated life not as a given but as a gift.”) And I loved that a young visitor (an in-law) to the family that lives by the abyss feels “размеренность бытия” (literally a measuredness of existence, a slow sort of rhythm or regularity to things) that comes to her from the nearby forest and the people. Passages like these sum up the book’s charm, particularly when life is busy for the reader: the measured routine of life in Maran, where, hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any Internet, and the quiet company of friends are what hold people together.

On the last page of the novel, there’s a mention of circles of life that resemble ripples from rain drops, where “…every event is a reflection of what came before…” I ripped that from the middle of very, very long sentence that ends with three apples waiting to be dropped to earth from the heavens, as is traditional at the end of Armenian fairytales: “одно тому, кто видел, другое тому, кто рассказал, а третье тому, кто слушал и верил в добро”—“one for the person who saw, another for the person who told the story, and the third for the person who listened and believed in what is good.” It’s a fitting end to a book with so much that is good—both universal and specific to Maran—that’s worth believing in.

Disclosures: The usual. Thank you to Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency for the book! I’ve heard a lot about Abgaryan’s “Manyuna” books for young adults and was glad to be introduced to her writing through Apples.

Up Next: Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I also enjoyed tremendously. Zuleikha is the first of the Big Book finalists that I’ll write about; I’ll also write a summary post about three Big Book finalists I just can’t bring myself to finish (!). And then another of Abgaryan’s books, People Who Are Always With Me, which is also very good, and a fifth Big Book finalist, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e.


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