Tuesday, February 10, 2015

All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

Ten days before the German army marched down the rue de Belleville in Paris, fourteen year old Maral Pegorian's family begins stockpiling food. Her parents know only too well the suffering during war, having survived the Armenian Massacres as children, during the first World War.

Maral and her sixteen year old brother Missak, live with their parents, Arniz and Garabed and her mother's sister, Auntie Shakeh in an apartment in Belleville, a suburb of Paris. People begin fleeing Belleville but Maral's parents, understand that marches supposedly to safety can lead to unexpected horrors. Maral's father states, "We're staying put. The last exodus we saw led straight to hell." Instead they decide to stay in their home to wait out the German occupation.  Their neighbourhood in Belleville is diverse, consisting of French from the Auvergne, Armenians, Greeks and Eastern European Jews.

When the Nazi tanks, armored trucks and black uniformed soldiers arrive, the Pegorians and their neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Kacherian and their sons, Zaven and Barkev and their daughter, Virginie, watch the ominous procession from the Kacherian's apartment.

In November, Missak, Maral, Zaven, Barkev and other young people including Henri and Jacqueline Sahadian, go to a rally at the Arc de Triomphe. The rally attended by thousands of lycee and university students is in remembrance of Armistice Day, November 11th, which the Germans are not keen to celebrate. When the Germans move to end the rally and their are shots fired, Jacqueline and Maral run to safety at the Armenian cathedral on Jean-Goujon.

Life continues on in Belleville despite the Occupation. Maral begins to find herself attracted to Zaven. She continues to attend the Lycee Victor Hugo with her friend Denise Rozenbaum who is Jewish. However, the school is not unaffected by the Nazis as Mademoiselle Levy, their Latin and Greek teacher is dismissed because she is Jewish. Missak begins working for the Resistance, chalking the walls in the neighbourhood with victory messages. He also decides to take a job as an apprentice in the printing shop. His passion is for drawing and not for school. Food grows scarce but the Pegorians are able to procure a laying hen from Maral's mother's cousins, the Nazarians who live in Alfortville.

Soon the Germans come to the rue de Belleville rounding up the Jewish families in the neighbourhood.  Maral suggests that the Lipski's leave their daughter, Claire with them, even though children are to go too. Maral goes to the Lipski's apartment  and they quickly agree to send Claire with the Pegorians. The Lipski's are taken, even though Sara Lipski is heavily pregnant, and Maral's friend, Denise Rozenbaum and her family are also rounded up.

Missak is shocked at what his family has done, telling them the Nazi's are filling buses on the rue de Belleville with the Jewish families to be taken to the  Velodrome d'Hiver. The Pegorians care for Claire but realize they will not be able to hide Claire for long. Maral brings food and clothing to the Lipskis at the Velodrome and they ask Maral to contact Sara's sister, Myriam in Nice. Missak arranges, through the resistance to get Clair out of Paris to her aunt in Nice. The Pegorians begin to realize they many have saved Claire's life when Missak tells his family the Jews are to be shipped to work camps in the east.

During the winter, Auntie Shakeh becomes terminally ill with tuberculosis. Dr. Odabashian tells Maral's mother that it is only a matter of time before she dies. Auntie Shakeh's death affects Maral's mother deeply and even after the forty days of mourning, her mother continues to be distraught and withdrawn.

Maral begins seeing Zaven that winter, after Shakeh's death, for a few hours every Sunday afternoon. Sometimes she has dinner at Zaven's home and one day his father, who is a shoemaker, offers to make Maral a pair of shoes. It is Barkev who traces her feet on a piece of cardboard and measures her for the shoes. Maral tells Zaven that she has always wanted to marry him and this leads Zaven to suggest they do so after she has finished her schooling. After exams are over in the spring, Zaven reveals that Barkev has been called up to report to the German's new mandatory work program, the service du travail obligatoire or STO. Zaven and Missak are too young to be called up but Barkev is twenty. Zaven tells Maral that Barkev is not going and that they are both going into hiding. By the following Sunday Missak informs Maral that both brothers are gone into hiding. It is a decision that will have dire consequences for both brothers and Maral, bringing devastation to both the Pegorian and the Kacherian families.


All The Light There Was is a tale of war, love,suffering and irreplaceable loss in a community too familiar with the horrors of war. The focus is on the experience of one family in the close knit Armenian community in Paris, through the eyes of a young girl who comes of age during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. Yet the novel demonstrates the wide ranging effect of the war on virtually everyone, making Maral's narration feel authentic.

The stress of the occupation weakens and eventually kills Auntie Shakeh as it rekindles horrific memories of what she endured as a child in Mosul. The Kacherians lose both of their beloved sons, Zaven to typhus in the concentration camp, Buchenwald, Barkev as a result of the great psychological trauma endured at the same camp.Maral loses her dearly beloved Zaven, her future husband, as well as  her best friend, Denise Rozenbaum and her family. Claire Lipski never sees her mother and father and sibling again. If anything, the novel demonstrates the vast changes, the holes in the lives of those left behind. And as Maral writes, "The war was a great factory of suffering, all of it fashioned by human hands."  In the midst of all the tragedy is the forbearance of Maral's parents, especially her father who believes that having survived the tragedy of the Armenian genocide, they will survive this calamity too.

The first person narrator, Maral Pegorian is a bright, ambitious young girl who considers many possibilities for her life. She has known since she was a child that she wants to marry Zaven Kacherian, but as she tells him when he asks her about marriage, she also wants to complete her education and perhaps "go to the ecole normale and become a teacher."

 Maral is also faithful to her promise to wait for Zaven. She does struggle with her attraction to another Armenian man, Andon Shirvanian, but when she faces the reality of her increasing attraction, she ends the relationship, telling him "...The war will be over any day now. I'll be expecting Zaven back. And it's not right that I should let myself have these feelings about you. It's not fair to Zaven, or to you."

Kricorian has indicated that the genesis for this novel came about during her research into various resistance groups, among them the French Resistance, for her second novel. She discovered a group of French Resistance headed by the Armenian poet, Missak Manouchian who is mentioned in All The Light There Was. Maral's father considers Manouchian to be "a hero and a patriot." when he learns that he has been shot at Mont-Valerian.

To learn more about the Armenian experience in France, Kricorian read the memoir of the famous French Armenian actor, Charles Aznavour whose real name is Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian and she also interviewed numerous Armenians who had been in the resistance under Manouchian. Soviet Armenians who were captured by the Germans were forced to serve in the Wehrmacht and sent to France to build fortifications along the Atlantic coast. These Armenians, represented by the character Andon Shirvanian in the novel, often met the French Armenians at social functions hosted by the Aznavourians, who attempted to convince them to desert the German army. Shirvanian, like many Soviet Armenians faced a no-win situation. When he was captured by the Germans, he accepted an offer to enter into the German army. This is when Maral first meets him. However, when he was shipped back to Germany after the Allies land in France,  the train he was on was bombed. He fled to the resistance in Belgium but they could not take him in as the Allies had made a deal with Stalin to return all Soviet POWs.  As a soldier for the Soviet Union he was expected to die on the battlefield defending the motherland, and doing anything less than that, such as being taken prisoner" would mean being shipped to a camp in Siberia. He decided to escape and find his way to France.

Andon creates a great deal of conflict for Maral in the novel. First she finds herself falling for him in the absence of Zaven whom she promised to be faithful. Then they meet again after they both know that Zaven will not be returning, but Maral now considers marriage to be not just about love but also about duty. After Barkev's death, Andon is still waiting but first Maral must come to terms with what he did during the war. This she does, as she explains to Jacqueline, "He was an Armenian prisoner of war who had a choice between dying and putting on a German uniform."  She now must face the disapproval of her brother, Missak and his wife, Jacqueline and possibly her father. Her sense of obligation to her son and her family are overwhelming. However, it is her father who helps her decide when he tells her that the responsibility for the decision is hers. He also tells her that in light of what he has experienced in his life, "you give people more room to do what is human." Maral's ability to do just that, allows her the chance to rebuild her life, while still honouring the memory of both Zaven and Barkev.

All The Light There Was could easily be a young adult novel, since the story is that of a young woman coming of age during World War II. The time period in the novel runs from 1940 when Maral Pergorian is fourteen years old turning fifteen to 1946 when she is twenty-one. The unappealing cover however is likely to miss this age group but will drawn in adult readers in search of a well written story with a satisfying ending.

Book Details:
All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt        2013
279 pp.

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