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A River of Guilt

Draining the SeaDraining the Sea by Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Reviewed by Jane Ciabattari
Los Angeles Times

It's unsurprising that Micheline Aharonian Marcom, whose first two novels, Three Apples Fell From Heaven and The Daydreaming Boy, explore the massacre of Armenians nearly a century ago, has turned her attention to Guatemala.

She is among a growing number of contemporary novelists writing about the inhumane landscape of genocide. The title of her new novel evokes the military's savage "scorched earth" policy toward Guatemala's Maya population during the most gruesome years of that country's 36-year internal conflict. About 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Maya, were killed, most with incredible cruelty by paramilitary "death squads." "The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea," noted Gen. Efrain Ri;os Montt, who led the 1982 coup that precipitated some of the worst atrocities. "If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea." (The phrase is rooted in a pronouncement of Mao Tse-tung's: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.") Rios Montt was simply building upon decades-old policy; in 1970, one of his predecessors, President Carlos Arana Osorio, made a similarly chilling comment: "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."

Marcom's incantatory voice shows promise in the opening pages of Draining the Sea. Her unnamed narrator is a lonely American man, half-Armenian, who collects garbage, which often includes canine corpses, in Los Angeles. "He drives along the streets of this city, to the sea and up the tarmac hills, along the remote spoors of the Santa Monica Mountains, which are today the 405 Freeway, and here he is a driver and the world is seen and separated by glass, plastics, metal, and it is speed he seeks, and a girl also...." He fantasizes obsessively about an Ixil girl he calls Marta, brought to him in 1983, in the basement of the Polytechnic School, in Guatemala City, where it seems he was complicit in the interrogation and torture of suspects: "I am aroused when I see you and when I see you I burn you with my cigarettes and I cut off your hands before I kill you, tomorrow, because I have been officially trained and educated in these things, because it is my job."

As the novel progresses, he addresses Marta with endearments, speculates about her after assignations with prostitutes, compares her to his Armenian mother, descended from survivors of the Armenian genocide. He begs Marta's forgiveness, implores her sympathy, pities himself: "Love me back, come back to me, make your way back from the dead corners of your republic and the interstices of historical rendering where you have been: buried: please return; I am sorry, I swear it, sorrow's sorrow is my fleshy foolish history..." This soon strains the limits of a reader's empathy.

Marcom's fractured narrative -- mixing shards of the narrator's memories (rape, torture, dismemberment) with images of other atrocities and the narrator's familiar comforts (ice cream, reality TV, his "green and padded armchair") -- becomes increasingly incoherent. By my third reading, I wished for a search engine that could unwind the narrative knots and tease out their strands so I could make sense of them.

An accompanying timeline signals the author's overarching intent. She begins with 10,000 BC. ("Seafaring culture in modern-day southern California") and moves forward, through the centuries, to the 1915-17 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and on to the Guatemalan slaughter. She includes maps and photographs (of the Polytechnic, where torture and interrogations took place; the cemetery in Acul, site of a massacre of Maya villagers; the narrator's ancestral village of Kharphert).

Emphasizing the facts behind her fiction, Marcom samples "collected phrases" from key documents, including Guatemala: Never Again!, the April 1998 report of the Human Rights Office of the Guatemalan Archdiocese, which broke the silence with heart-rending testimony from survivors and witnesses, and Guatemala: Memory of Silence (1999), the 3,600-page report of the U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification, which confirmed the genocide. In an afterword, she notes, "As stipulated by the peace accords, the CEH [Commission for Historical Clarification] was not allowed to name individuals responsible for human rights crimes in its report. This book is, in many ways, an interrogation into untold or denied histories -- it is, however, a work of fiction."

Despite her worthy intent, Marcom's ambition here overshoots her execution. Perhaps she needed more time to distill her material. It is not an easy matter to push against the boundaries of language to express unimaginable horror. More likely, her design is flawed. Yoking the Guatemalan genocide with the Armenian one -- and with the extermination of Southern California's indigenes, the building of the Los Angeles aqueduct, the transformation of the Los Angeles River into a concrete "river freeway" and the alienating effects of modern life -- is a tall order.

And there are no glimpses of courage amid the depravity, no recognition that human rights workers, survivors, witnesses, investigators (including judges) and at least one brave bishop risked their lives to extricate the truth from a labyrinth of lies, cover-ups, terror and intimidation.

Draining the Sea is a noble effort but so flawed as to be largely unreadable. A redeeming factor: It spurred me to reread The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman's 2007 account of the Guatemalan military's murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, two days after he released Guatemala: Never Again!, and Victor Perera's Unfinished Conquest(1995), an eloquent history of the decimation of four Maya villages in paroxysms of state-sponsored terrorism. I recommend them both.

Jane Ciabattari, author of the story collection Stealing the Fire, is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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