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Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian – Highly recommended

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (1997) French title: Le chien noir du destin.

Today, I had decided to write my billet about Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate. Coincidentally, I also listened a radio program about Charles Aznavour today, and he’s a very famous member of the Armenian diaspora and I first heard about the Armenian genocide through him.

I could write a lengthy billet about this book that tells the story of the Balakian family and of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It would be too long and wouldn’t entice you to read the book. And it would be a pity because it’s worth reading, really.

Balakian opens his memoir with his childhood in New Jersey. He was born in 1951 and he talks about his grandmother, his parents and his family life in suburban New Jersey. His family customs are different from the WASP boys around him in his bourgeois neighborhood. This part of the book reminded me of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The two writers describe a different way-of-life between them and the WASP children. They had formal meals, the relationship with between parents and children were different. The fathers especially have a different way to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity is less macho, I should say, for lack of a better word. Balakian says it quite well:

In the world of my friends’ dads, my father stood apart. No backslapping or hearty handshakes, or greetings of “old buddy” or “man.” No polo shirts or khaki pants or slip-on canvas sneakers, or buddies for gold on Wednesdays, when doctors were supposed to be riding the fairways in orange carts and lime-green pants and white visors. No weekend cocktails with the McKays or the Wheelers. Nor did my father joke with me about macho ideals, the kind that Hemingway and John Wayne embodied. He made no jokes of the kind my friends’ fathers would tell, in sly moments when mothers were out of the room and fathers and sons bonded. Because he was 4-F in World War II owing to high blood pressure, something he never mentioned, he had no war stories either.

This very attaching part of Balakian’s memoir is a testimony of growing up American with immigrant parents and trying to fit it, to be as American as the others. While his family kept some family traditions, they also immersed themselves in the American way-of-life.

Balakian never heard anything about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 until he was in his twenties. His awareness of the massacre didn’t come from his family and at home, it was total silence about these events. Slowly, he will investigate and research his family’s past, describe the genocide and work for its recognition.

Part of his memoir comes back to historical facts, describing the Armenian people, where they lived, what was their status in the Ottoman Empire. He describes the genocide and it’s absolutely awful. 1.5 million people were eliminated in appalling circumstances. It is comparable to the Nazi methods (Balakian said that the laissez-faire of other countries and the Turkish methods inspired Hitler) The refugees became stateless. And even worse than the crime is the fact that for a long, long time, no country acknowledged this genocide.

As Charrey and Lipstadt have written, the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

I also loved the part when Balakian visits Lebanon and Syria, going back to the places of the massacres and on the trail of his grandmother’s stay in Syria before emigrating. It’s a very moving passage, chilling too.

At first, he didn’t understand why he’d never heard of the Armenian traumatic past before reaching adulthood. But his journey through history helped him understand his family better.

At some place in their minds my parents must have found the real issues of being Armenian too hard, too painful, too absurd. As my aunt Gladys had put it, “It was a pill too bitter to swallow, a pain too bad to feel.” In affirming the American present, my parents had done their best to put an end to exile. In the suburbs of New Jersey, they found rootedness, home, belonging. Yet, the past was a shadow that cast its own darkness on us all. The old country. I realize now that it was an encoded phrase, not meant for children. Spoken by numbed Armenians of the silent generation. It meant lost world, a place left to smolder in its ashes.

Reading Balakian memoir is a way of resisting against those who would like to erase this genocide and keep going as if it never happened. It happened and we, European countries, should be ashamed of the time it took us to acknowledge it.

Highly recommended.

  1. Vishy
    April 22, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! This looks like an important, powerful book. It is sad that the Armenian genocide is still not spoken about much and there are still people who deny it. It is one of the tragic events of the 20th century. I loved the quote you shared from the book. Very moving and poignant. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Like

    • April 22, 2020 at 8:47 pm

      Hello Vishy
      I think it’s an important book and it was a shocking and painful journey for Peter Balakian. He doesn’t tell much about his feelings about the discovery of his family’s history, just that it helped him understand his family better. (parents and aunts)

      It’s worth reading and I’m really glad our Book Club picked this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 22, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Great post Emma. What a powerful book. I can’t understand these deniers, whether of this or the Holocaust or any number of other awful massacres. Truly, there is a blindness among some humans,,,

    Like

    • April 22, 2020 at 8:50 pm

      It’s a powerful book. Some passages are terrible to read but like for the Holocaust, it’s a small discomfort we have to bear and reading it contributes to keeping the memory of this massacre alive.

      1.5M people in one country. The number is mind-blowing and undeniable. They should not be forgotten.

      Like

  3. April 22, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of the Armenian genocide. This sounds a really powerful book to explore what happened and doing so through his family sounds very moving.

    Like

    • April 22, 2020 at 8:58 pm

      Perhaps you’ve never heard of it because UK doesn’t recognize these massacres as a genocide. (according to Wikipedia)

      At least, have a look at the Wikipedia page about the Armenian genocide, it’s an important part of European history.

      And then there’s Balakian’s book, easy to read and very interesting as it combines his personal history with researches about his people and this genocide.

      Like

  4. April 22, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    For some reason I had remembered that you would write about a book by William Saroyan (as part of your book club) but I must have invented that, or confused Saroyan and Balakian. I’d never heard of Balakian, but I’ll look up this book. I’ve heard many terrible family stories through some Armenian friends of mine.

    Like

    • April 22, 2020 at 9:04 pm

      I’ve never read Saroyan but he sounds like a great writer.
      Black Dog of Fate is a good book. I loved how he started by his childhood and his growing up as an Armenian-American and then took us through his journey into this awful past.
      I knew about the genocide before reading this of course (French people do thanks to Aznavour and various parlimentary works for a recognition of the genocide by France) but the details about the deportation and what the Ottomans did to them is unbearable.

      Like

  5. April 26, 2020 at 11:12 pm

    We have an Armenian friend with a *very* Anglo name. Apparently as part of the genocide, the Turks made the survivors take Turkish names, to obliterate all traces of who they really were. In adulthood, this friend refused to take that name but could not resurrect his family’s real name because no one was alive to say what it had been. So he chose his own.

    Like

    • April 27, 2020 at 10:29 am

      That’s a terrible story.
      I think you’d be interested in this memoir, it sounds like something you’d read.

      Like

      • April 27, 2020 at 1:33 pm

        Yes. It’s a bit difficult to get books from overseas at the moment because there are so few flights in and out of the country to deliver freight, but when things are back to normal…

        Like

        • April 27, 2020 at 1:53 pm

          I’m lucky to enjoy ebooks, especially when I read in English.

          Bookshops have started to re-open through “click and collect”. Independant bookstores had already created a website “chez mon libraire” that allowed readers to order online from various independant booksellers. Now it’s used for their click-and-collect activity. I’m happy they’ll be able to sell book again.

          Like

          • April 27, 2020 at 1:56 pm

            Oh yes, we can get books easily enough if they’re published in Australia, or already here. Some do click and collect, others home deliver, and some just post as usual. But both booksellers and publishers are warning about delays if it’s an overseas title.

            I know I could do Kindle. But especially at the moment, I want to support Australian booksellers not some American behemoth that doesn’t even pay tax.

            Like

            • April 27, 2020 at 2:00 pm

              I know, that’s why I never buy books in French on the kindle. The ones in French come from independant bookstores.
              The ones in English I download on the kindle.

              Like

              • April 27, 2020 at 2:12 pm

                We are like-minded on that!

                Like

  1. May 3, 2020 at 10:38 am
  2. October 10, 2021 at 7:20 am

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