Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Werner Sollors reviews The Unspoken as Heritage

Harry Harootunian. The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 178pp.

Review by Werner Sollors

11 November 2020

Combining family memoir and political analysis, this elegantly written and intriguingly structured book by a well-known historian of Japan confronts a parental legacy of “determined silence,” examines the author’s own socialization in Detroit, and presents the genocide of more than a million Armenians in the light of Karl Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation.  

It must have been a hard book to write. The obstacle Harootunian faced in writing a memoir of his parents, Ohannes der Harootunian and Vehanush Kupalian, was that he and his two sisters knew little of their parents’ lives so that the task became one of “writing a memoir of parents I did not know.” Harootunian reads a set of striking family photographs that are inserted into the book almost as one would interpret images of strangers. His father was born in an Armenian village near Harput, where most members of his extended family were murdered. To his children he mentioned by name only one sister who had died of pneumonia before the genocide. Fighting in the brigades of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation the father returned to his village and discovered that his entire family had been killed and “even the fruit trees had died.” Yet he revealed this only once, to his oldest granddaughter, and never told it to his children. Harootunian’s mother, whose favorite movie was Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Flemming, 1939), never looked back and never even mentioned the name of her own mother. Hence the word “question” appears frequently, and there is even a page-length series of questions in this book. The unanswerable questions about the “aborted past” of his parents and the “diminished lives” they had to live make this melancholy memoir strangely affecting, perhaps all the more so because of its open-endedness.

Harootunian draws much more sharply his own recollections of growing up as an American-born son of immigrants in Detroit, “cast into playing the unsought role of hybridity.” In school his “unpronounceable name” signaled his difference. Drawing on Theodor W. Adorno’s critique of the melting pot in Minima Moralia, Harootunian employs his intermittently present professorial voice and offers a scathing critique of idealized views of immigrant assimilation. He finds that his own assimilation into American life was “provisional, never completed.” He felt like a stranger to the American orientation toward a permanent present, “free of everybody’s past, always presuming an end of history in the new land and its dedication to endless progress.” One senses in these pages the roots of Harootunian’s decision to become a historian, and perhaps the very remoteness of seventeenth-century Japan from his own family history may have attracted him to this specialization. When asked by his father why he did not draw on his knowledge of Armenian and study a subject closer to home he answered that he refused to be put in an “ethnic box.” His self-assessment in retrospect is touching: “I did not want the genocide to define my life, even though it had already done so without my clearly recognizing it until much later.”

In this book, however, Harootunian devotes a chapter to the Armenian genocide. He engages with other historians and draws on published sources, eyewitness accounts, memoirs and novels, among which Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh receives an extensive reading. The core of Harootunian's own argument is a thought-provoking attempt at understanding the Armenian genocide––and genocides more generally. He takes his cue from Marx’s concept of “original accumulation,” but unlike Marxists who understood this notion as marking only the historical transition from the feudal to the bourgeois capitalist order, Harootunian views it as a process that can appear at different times and in many places. It is, he writes, “a formula combining genocidal murder and massive theft” and is typically “directed by some form of political authority, whether an emergent state or failing empire.” Seen this way, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians “was an exercise in the massive accumulation of money wealth, which in large part had been acquired before capitalism and would be transmuted into capital.” It transformed Turks “overnight into a bourgeoisie” and became a “template” for subsequent genocidal programs.

For readers interested in the problem of genocide, in the silence of survivors, and in second-generation immigrants, The Unspoken as Heritage offers richly rewarding reflections from the point of view of someone who has confronted unanswered questions that have lingered from his childhood. The epilogue offers an aphoristic verdict on twentieth-century history: “History, like laughing gas, manages to temporarily anesthetize us to the actual horror of its pain. Then it kills us.” At the end Harootunian writes that he is still grieving his parents’ passing, “but now for the lives they might have had.”