Sunday, November 15, 2015

Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me

Narine Abgaryan’s Люди, которые всегда со мной (People Who Are Always With Me) is the second book from a fun little “summer surprise” book package I received from Abgaryan’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. If the first book, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, can be described as magical realism, it might just be possible to describe People as a form of realistic magic: though People contains few touches of magic in its plot, Abgaryan’s warmth in portraying everyday twentieth-century reality, such as it is, in Berd, Armenia, feels like a unique form of writerly magic.

Describing People requires a unique form of bloggerly magic that I don’t think I possess. Given my deficiency, I’ll look at certain aspects of the book that particularly struck me. Abgaryan jumps around in time, and between a close third-person narrator and a little girl, who’s known simply as Devochka, or the Little Girl. (There’s a reason for that; I won’t reveal it.) The novel is told episodically, and it opens (pretty much, more on this below) with the Little Girl and her mother making a trip to a somewhat scary neighbor’s to buy milk. I love the Little Girl’s voice, talking about kasha she thinks tastes disgusting, a cow named Marishka, and how adults are pretty smart but really should haven’t dreamt up that disgusting mannaya kasha, the stuff I grew up calling Cream of Wheat. I loved Cream of Wheat as a child and I love the day-to-day details in People: there’s also a milk mustache, outhouse humor, and family photos. And differences in the smells of old and new buildings…

Maybe I read too much when I was hungry but I came away with particularly vivid pictures of family meals and foods: among other treats, there’s spiced dried meat known as basturma and dried sausage called sudzhuk, a scented bakery, and slices of potato with cheese, which, of course, made me craziest of all. More than anything, though, there’s family: mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts and uncles, aunties, grandparents, and friends who are so close they’re part of the family, too. All these people, of course, are who should remain with us—and, of course with the Little Girl—after their death. I have no idea how Abgaryan somehow manages to avoid sappiness when the Little Girl’s father tells her they will remain behind her, like wings. Somehow the word “lovely” fits the book doubly: not only does it contain beautiful accounts of daily life but it depicts love among family and friends.

People Who Are Always With Me covers multiple generations and Abgaryan includes historical references, some of which relate to the Armenian genocide and ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though many of the details in those passages are very good—there’s a pogrom in Baku and suspenseful travel at a dangerous time—and the characters’ experiences feel organic to the story, for my taste, occasional lines felt a bit too expository, too nonfictionish, for the novel, particularly in the very beginning. That’s a very minor complaint, though, given episodes where, for example, a doctor explains his atheism or the Little Girl is said to be too little to grasp the flow of time because each instant is infinity and eternity for her. In many senses, that’s exactly what the book is about: retaining an element of childhood, the part of life when, as the Little Girl’s mother notes, “you love everybody and don’t hold grudges.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Abgaryan gave the Little Girl’s mother the name Vera, which means “faith.”

Disclaimers: The usual. And thank you to BGS for the Abgaryan books, which I truly enjoyed. I should also note that I translated an excerpt from Abgaryan’s Three Apples for BGS.

Up Next: More books. A roundup about the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). I also somehow shoehorned in Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a major award winner. And, of course, a trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual.


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