This is an unputdownable, haunting read that left me with the same shattering feeling I had after visiting Auschwitz or the former Romanian communist prison in Sighet. Originally published in Bucharest in 2009 by Polirom, the book has been translated into over twenty languages and it is a chronicle of the tragic destiny of Armenians, inspired by the stories of Varujan Vosganian’s grandparents, refugees who escaped the Armenian genocide to Romania.
Dozens of stories of tradesmen, princes, scholars, priests and shepherds are intertwined to depict a portrait of the Armenian soul – wise, kind, caring and creative – while trying to make sense of history, time and suffering. The stories of Harin Fringhian’s will, General Dro’s weapons, or operation ‘Nemesis’ to assassinate the Ottoman leaders responsible for the genocide, could each be, in their complexity, the subjects of a separate novel.
Vosganian’s writing is visual and poetic, filled with metaphors and symbols. Images such as his grandparents drinking freshly ground coffee in their garden; the Armenian cemetery in Focsani; the faces of children dying in the Syrian desert; the smell of roasted walnuts and spices or the sound of laments from refugees: all of these have stayed with me.
The book often refers to official documents and survivor testimonies, and discusses sensitive themes such as repatriation, deportation, mass-graves and the forced collectivization in Romania. Thus, The Book of Whispers is a book of the oppressed and the dead, but also a book of life, survival and healing. At times, it feels as if the book itself could be a collective character in the story, the bleeding soul of a nation. And since the oppressed and their tragedies are all connected – Armenians, Jews or Romanians – it could be considered ‘the book of everything’.
The devastating description of the Armenian refugees’ journey to extermination, from Marmura to Deir-ez-Zor through the ‘seven circles of death’, named after the seven camps in the Syrian desert, might stir deep reflections over the meaning of humanity, identity and sacrifice. As a Romanian-Armenian, Varujan Vosganian wrote the book as a history of Armenians, but also as a history of Romanians, who were the first nation to welcome Armenian refugees after the 1915 genocide. As a writer and a politician, he understood that raising awareness about the genocide is best achieved through culture, not politics.
The deep meanings of ‘whispers’ are revealed gradually: symbols of fear and secrecy, but also of love and death, they are ultimately ‘voices of the heart’. The author, a poet himself, believes that for an oppressed nation, their Poet becomes their leader. This is especially true for Armenians, who chose the date to commemorate their genocide to coincide with that of the assassination of their national poet, Daniel Varujan: the 24th of April.
This is a novel of biblical proportions, one to compare to with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; The Book of Whispers is written with ‘sweat, blood and tears’ and is fascinating, painful and necessary.
Reviewed by Cristina Muresan
The Book of Whispers
Written by Varujan Vosganian
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth
Published by Yale University Press (January 2018),
Cristina Muresan is a Romanian writer from Transylvania, based in London. In 2015 she published Angel Dust, a book of poetry and short stories. She is also a blogger and holds a PhD in International Relations. Read her blog here.
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