March 4, 2011

"Gilgamesh" by Joan London

"Gilgamesh" is the title of a novel by an Australian author Joan London, written in 2001. It has won The Age Book of the Book of the Year Award for Fiction; Australian Premier’s Award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The book is very interesting and also contains descriptions of real places, people and events, like Mr. Five Percent, Zaqian Street, Lenin Square (now Republic Square) and State Conservatorium in Yerevan. Joan London also has used words in Armenian which are like spices of the soup. You want to read the continuation of each page of Gilgamesh. I couldn’t wait when I’ll find time again to take that book into my hands and read. It was an incredible feeling.
Cover of the book

Gilgamesh is a story of an Australian woman who falls in love with an Armenian man and comes to Armenia to find her beloved. On a tiny farm in the far south-western Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her mother and her sister, Frances. One afternoon two man, her English cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archeological dig in Iraq. Leopold and Aram captivate Edith with tales of exotic lands and cultures-among them, the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia.

Two years later, in 1939, Edith and her and Aram's son, Jim, set off on a journey of their own, to Soviet Armenia, where they are trapped by the outbreak of war. This is the storey of encounters and escapes, of friendship and love, of loss and acceptance. Beautifully marrying the intimate scope of a life with the enormity of war, Gilgamesh
examines what happens when we strike out into the world, and how, like the wandering king, we find our way home.

Other covers of Gilgamesh

Below are some interesting parts from the book.

Parts from the book:

... The girls had never seen men cook before. Leopold was patient, stirring and tasting, his podgy hands strangely delicate. Aram was quick and precise. He made Armenian bread, yeastless loaves flat and round as plates.

...You know where is Armenia, Edith?...It was Soviet Armenia now, ruled by Moscow, but it had a culture of its own that went back thousands of years. It had been the fate of this tiny country in the Caucasus mountains to be overrun by Mongols, Turks, Persians, now by Comunists, but it remained the oldest Christian state in the world. For Armenians, Armenia was the motherland, as perhaps England was for Australians?

... 'How did your parents die?'
That was the question she had been wanting to ask him most of all. The question you never asked. You didn't talk about the dead. He shook a cigarette out of a crumpled pocket. His parents had been killed in the Massacres in Turkey in 1915. They had lived in the town of Diyarbekir, on the Tigris, in eastern Turkey, where generations of his father's family had traded in spices. When he was three years old Turkish gendarmes had come taken his father to the city square and hanged him. He and his mother were marched in a convoy of women and children across the desert to Syria. By the time they reached the Euphrates, his mother, like most of the convoy, was dead. Some Syrian Christians rescued him and took him to Aleppo. ... What you must understand, he said is that more than a million Armenians were slaughtered in Turkish Massacres, and nobody came to their aid.

...'Armenia', she said to Jim in the darkness of their room. 'Armenia'. There was no one else she could say the word to. She liked the symmetry of the word, the way it started as it ended, with an 'a'. She thought it had an optimistic sound.

... 'There's an old man in a private car at the back of the train. I think he must be very rich'.
'Oh yes he is rich! Haven't you heard of him? They call him Mr Five Percent. He makes oil deals for the British and Americans and Russians - maybe the Germans - and he always keeps five per cent for himself.'
'He is Armenian?'
'Yes , the Armenians are very proud of him. They're always hoping for patriotic donation. ... He has his own special car kept for him. They say that during the Armenian massacres in 1896 he escaped from Istanbul on the Express, dressed as a Turkish peasant with his baby son wrapped up in a carpet!'

... -'I'm on my way home, to Armenia.'
-That's where I'm going! Are you Armenian?'
He was smiling at her. 'I was born in Yerevan.'
-'How are you traveling there?'
-'I take a boat across the Black Sea to Georgia. Train to Tiflis. Then the train over the mountains in Armenia.' Ronnie's route.
His name was Hagop Essayan. He suggested they travel together.
-'You speak very good English.'
-'I learnt it in my studies in Yerevan and on my travels. But Armenians are quick with languages.'

... Hagop lifted his head to listen, his hand beating gently on the rail.
'The doudek. Listen. The long single note to hold that note is very hard. There must be an Armenian abroad.'
'Do you play doudek?'
'I used to. I played many instruments. I was a student of music once at the State Conservatorium in Yerevan.'

... Zakian street was short and quiet, lined on one side by five storey apartment blocks and on the other by a grove of slender yellowing poplars, the Twenty-Six Commissars Park. At night so still you could here the clock strike a few blocks away in Lenin Square. ... The facade of the apartment block on Zakian Street was genteel, built like most of the buildings in Yerevan from blocks of pink tufa, the local volcanic stone.

... Of course it was known she was
odar, a stranger, but Hagop had set off a rumour in the block that she was Tati's granddaughter. Tati meant grandmother and everyone called her that. ... Little Nora Gasparyan had befriended Jim, she lived in the apartment beneath Tati's, with her parents who both worked in Yerevan wine factory.

... The car wheezed up the Yerevan hills onto a plateau, surrounded in every direction by giant snow-capped mountains. The popular-lined road passed settlements of wooden houses, State farms, with ragged sheep grazing beneath cables and pylons, and, in the valleys, the smoking chimneys of factories. Nevart pointed out the looming peak of Mt Ara, named for Ara the Beautiful, an ancient Armenian king. An Assyrian queen fell in love with him but when he wouldn't marry her she went to war with him. He died, and she had his body carried to the top of this mountain, where she believed he would come to life again. But he didn't. His was an eternal sleep.

... Bedros had arranged everything. A woman from the village served them youghurt (matsun) and dolmas and lavash bread made fresh in a pit down the street. They drank tea on the porch sitting in a line up of old chairs. Here in the clear cold air they could see beyond the orchard to a valley folded between great bare rocky hills. Far away you could just make out the cone-shaped roof of a little stone church. Behind it were mountain picks lost in drifting cloud.

... August 12th, 1942
Dear Leopold,
Do you remember the hot day that was like summer when we went swimming, and the sea was smooth as a lake, as far as the eye could see?
In summer here the sun is a little high with fire-ball. There's a haze of heat over Yerevan which covers the hills. Ararat rises above it like a giant cone with an icecream tip. There is an icecream seller in Lenin Square, ringing his bell. But Yerevanis aren't in an icecream mood these days. In the evenings all that people do in parks and squares is talk of invasion. The Germans panzers have nearly reached Rostov. That's about five hundred miles north of Yerevan as the crow flies.
All that I would like to do is to go swimming and forget everything.
There's Lake Sevan in the North, it's a famous summer resort for families, but who would go north now? And only party members could afford it. Besides, most families are only half families now. All the men, apart from the old or the lame, have gone to fight the Germans. Three hundred thousand Armenians are fighting in Russia's great patriotic war. Stalin says there is to be no retreat. Anyone running back will be shot.
The avenues and the cafe's are empty of men. Women queue for buses to the factories. Women drive buses. Women distribute the ration cards and serve behind counters in the government stores. It was a woman who come to show our apartment block how to tape our windows against explosions, and to explain the importance of the blackout. Women rush along the dusty streets in overalls and headscarfs. There is no one to look at them any more. Anyway they are too tired and worried to think about being looked at.
In the evenings it's so hot in the apartments that the women gather in the courtyard. They turn kebabs over little outdoor fires . There's the smell of charred peppers and eggplant. There's no meat any more. Children play evening games and the sparrows go mad in the trees. It's so light that women hang out washing, or water the vegetables. All along the back steps, women sit calling out to one another as they soak their feet or dry their hair. Then at nine o'clock they all rush inside to the corridor outside the apartment with wireless, to listen to the news.
. .

Discover what will happen in the end yourself by reading the book ....

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