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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Orhan's Inheritance" by Aline Ohanesian

   4 Stars

This year marks the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Armenian Genocide, an event which the Turkish government denies.  Here’s a novel based on the events in Turkey in 1915, giving both Turkish and Armenian perspectives.

Review of Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Orhan Türkoğlu returns to his home village in Turkey when his grandfather dies. He learns that he has inherited the family business, but the family home has been left to an unknown woman, Seda Meltonian, who resides in an Armenian nursing home in California. Orhan travels to the U.S. to meet Seda in hopes of getting back his ancestral home and learning about her connection with his grandfather Kemel.

The story alternates between 1990 and 1915. Orhan’s story, of course, is set in the more contemporary time period. Seda and Kemel’s stories are revealed in flashbacks to the last years of the Ottoman Empire when able-bodied male Armenians were killed or forced into labour and when women, children, the elderly and infirm were deported and sent on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

This is a timely novel since this year marks the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Armenian Genocide, an event which the Turkish government denies. Six years ago, I read Summer Without Dawn by Agop J. Hacikyan so I knew a bit about the massacre which scholars believe may have been the model for Hitler’s Final Solution. Ohanesian’s description of events beginning in 1915 will inspire readers to do further research into Turkish and Armenian history.

The author presents history from both Turkish and Armenian perspectives in both the past and the present. We see how the lives of Kemel and Seda are swept into chaos. Both of them make choices that impact their lives but both are also victims of political decisions. We understand and sympathize with both of them. Then we see how their descendants have been affected 75 years later. It is for a reason that William Faulkner is quoted at the beginning (“The past is not dead; it’s not even past”) and that Kemel tells his son that he wants to “meld my past to your present.” Though one could understand a temptation to blame Turks, that is not the case. Seda speaks about there being good Turks who “had nothing to do with what happened to my family.”

Certainly, a major theme is how one should address wrongs of the past. How should Armenians deal with what happened to their people? Surely, it is important that the story of the Armenians be known; Seda’s niece mentions that Armenians want to tell their stories not just to themselves but to “’the rest of the world.’” Seda, however, wants to leave the past in the past and she tells Orhan that her niece “’has too much past in her veins and you have none.’” How should the Turkish people of today be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors? Should there be a public apology by the Turkish government? But simply saying one is sorry is not enough as Seda says: “’But sometimes empathy is not enough. Sometimes empathy needs to be followed by action.’”

The book is beautifully written. I loved sentences like “Time and progress were two long-lost relatives who send an occasional letter.” And the imagery is so effective. Orhan describes life in his village where “every person, object, and stone has to have some sort of covering, a layer of protection.” As it happens, history is also covered up, and Orhan has to get to the truth, an action like “peeling . . . off . . . an ill-fitting coat.”

This book should appear on must-read lists. It entertains: it contains a lot of suspense as there is much mystery and danger. And it teaches about a historical event not well-known. Readers cannot but be emotionally drawn into the story as Orhan learns about the true nature of his inheritance.