Ravens before Noah

Written by Nazareth Seferian (trans.) Susanna Harutyunyan
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

Susanna Harutyunyan (b. 1963) is one of Armenia’s most acclaimed writers. This novel is a complex, multi-layered work that chronicles some of the most tumultuous periods of 20th-century Armenian history. It is set in the Armenian mountains between 1915 and 1960, focussing on the Armenian genocide of 1915 and later Soviet domination and oppression, interspersed with local legend, folklore and superstition.

An old man and a newborn baby escape the Hamidian massacre in Turkey in 1894 and arrive in a remote abandoned village, where they hide in relative safety. The village soon becomes a haven for others fleeing danger and persecution. The villagers survive in this sanctuary, cut off for years from the outside world. The baby grows into a young man, Harout. One day a young pregnant woman arrives, having survived torture and rape by Turkish soldiers. Harout falls in love with her, but when she gives birth to twins, problems arise for all the community, as it is felt that the babies should be killed to eradicate the shame of their conception.

It is a challenging read. For a start, the reader really needs to know something of Armenian history to understand why this group of people have ended up in the mountains. Then the fractured narrative makes it sometimes difficult to pin down exactly where we are. Elements of magic realism, although consistent with Armenian folklore, make for an unsettling reading experience for the outsider, and the ending is inconclusive. Nevertheless, it is a compelling read, with the eternal story of displacement and dispossession at its heart. The young woman becomes emblematic of women’s sufferings in war and the stigma and shame they are forced to carry as a result of male violence and societal prejudice. A valuable insight into Armenian history and culture.