Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 03/3/13 5:38 AM

Book review: Gray Wolves by John Balian

Against all odds

A roman á clef about triumphing in troubled times.

Dr. John D Balian’s running-close-to-the-bone story is definitely a fable for our modern times, that perseverance, a refusal to give in to the most adverse circumstances will eventually lead one to one’s destination. Hanna/Jonah Ibelin, born to a poor Armenian farmer in Anatolia, Turkey, loses his mother to Turkish firing early in life and from then, carries a mother-shaped hole in his heart wherever he goes. It’s a hard childhood, a harder adolescence.

Hanna’s life is not moving in an upward trajectory, not right now. His family splinters and moves apart. He is sent to Istanbul with his siblings and there it is a stark life, dotted with poverty and danger. Next stop is a seminary in the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem and, at times, seems like he has exchanged the Istanbul pot for the Holy City fire.

Bullying, ostracism, victimisation, calling down the wrath of a powerful cleric on his little head; at times, it takes all Hanna has just to survive. Hope comes in sundry guises, only to be doused all too easily. Rather inevitably Hanna turns rebel, subversive, even contemplates acts of violence as he struggles to find a stable niche.

The eventual escape from Jerusalem comes via Bavaria and Sweden, then Paris and then, to a better life as a medical student in the United States, though the last bit is the off-the-page story. (Balian attended Columbia University on a full scholarship and received a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. He has worked for the United States Food and Drug Administration and currently works for a US-based global corporation.)

Politics, terrorism and war are thick strands Balian weaves through his story and though all of it is a convincing account, the author, perhaps deliberately, delves just that far into the maelstrom and no further. But it’s all there: airport bombings, Turkey in the deep shadow of the Ottoman glory, West Asia politics, cycles of conflict without resolution.

Setting his book in the early 1970s, Balian employs an old-fashioned style of storytelling, which works very well for the tale being told. The heroes are heroes, the villains are villains and there are no visible grey areas. The slow obliteration of Armenian history and culture in Turkey is documented on a personal scale and is a vital addition to diaspora literature.

Gray Wolves and White Doves is a good read, even if the title of the book is just that bit off-centre; at times, the wolves-at-his-heels analogy seems forced. Where it fails is that it doesn’t really move the reader in the way, say, Louis de Bernieres’ Broken Wing does. But then, when matters are deeply personal, maybe it is hard to be very objective.

This ran in THE HINDU`S LITERARY REVIEW of 3 March 2013.



bookfictionJohn Balian

Sheila Kumar • March 3, 2013

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