Book Review: Skylark Farm and The Exception

My recent interest in foreign fiction — works originally written in a language other than English — continues to pay dividends. In the last two weeks, it produced two wonderful works, Antonia Arslan’s Skylark Farm and Christian Jungersen’s The Exception. I’ll leave it to those smarter than me to determine if there’s any significance to the fact that both these translated works have genocide as a main theme.

Skylark Farm, translated from Italian, is based on the “obscure memories” of the experiences of the author’s family during the Armenian genocide in Turkey at the beginning of World War I. The first part of the novel, in which we meet each of the characters and actually learn the fate of most of them, starts the weakest. Yet as Arslan details village life and neighbors in run-up to the late May 1915 attacks on the Armenians and the initial massacre of the men in the family, she draws us in.

Skylark Farm is an Arslan family property in Anatolia. Sempad, the village pharmacist, is sprucing up the property in anticipation of a reunion with his brother, Yerwant, who left for Venice 40 years before. Unfortunately, the reunion plans coincide with the outbreak of World War I. The Ottoman Empire sides with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Armenians are seen by the Empire as a threat to national security.

Just as the attacks on the Armenians are to begin, Sempad’s family and friends gather at Skylark Farm. As they assemble for group photos and a picnic, a group of Turkish soldiers arrive. Just prior to describing in full detail events the massacre of the men in the group, Arslan asks some of the questions raised by this or any similar event.

How does a massacre happen? What liquor does blood become and how does it rise to the brain? How is it that one acquires a thirst for blood? Those who taste it are said never to forget it.

The ensuing scenes are ones from which we would like to avert our eyes and ones which give no answers to the questions. The events at the farm are just part of the blood that will be tasted and not only at Skylark Farm. The men of the village are killed and the women and children, including the rest of Sempad’s family and his sisters, must attempt to survive a forced march to Aleppo, Syria.

The recounting of the horrors of that march, efforts made to assist the family and the eventual escape of a few family members to Venice and Yerwant is the focus of the book’s second part. It is the most effective part of the book as a simple, present tense recounting seems to bring a sense of authenticity and immediacy to the brutality and horror — and occasional kindnesses.

The Exception, translated from Danish, does not relate a specific tale of genocide although it asks many of the same questions Arslan raised. Jungersen takes a broader look at the issues of evil and human nature through the eyes of four women who work in the fictional Danish Center for Information on Genocide.

Anonymous e-mail death threats — speculated to have been sent by a Serbian war criminal — is the spark that ignites this exploration. Yet the book is not built around ethnic- or racial-based violence and torture. Instead, the story, often told in overlapping narrations by each woman, grows from the slights, real or perceived, and rivalries that give rise to office politics and conflicts in any modern office. The structure erected around this seemingly mundane framework is exceptional. Jungersen’s Rashomon-like exploration of human motives and the range of evil tends to enthrall. To simply stamp the book with the label “psychological thriller” is to undercut its power and vision.

In the course of educating us about various genocides of the 20th century, several of which seem largely unknown, systematic brutality is the means by which The Exception allows us to examine and consider the workings of the human mind, particularly the psychology of evil. Not only does the book take a macro view — asking what causes seemingly ordinary and normal human beings to butcher their neighbors — it also takes a micro view, contemplating not only whether such a trigger exists in every individual but pondering whether we all engage in evil but merely deny it.

The technique of each woman relating their own version of what is occurring — and the issues of their past and present — provides differing perspectives on those issues. Equally important from a narrative standpoint, it freely enables the reader to both suspect and empathize with each woman throughout the book. Yet at bottom seems to be the philosophical questions of whether we are all capable — or guilty — of brutality and evil and what may lead to it. While I might quibble with some of the steps Jungersen takes near the end of the book, they are easily forgiven in light of how he so easily engages us in contemplating troublesome and seemingly eternal issues of human nature.

Given that only approximately three percent of the books published in the United States are translations, it perhaps should not be surprising that works within that group are a literary equivalent of the best and the brightest. Still, that alone does not account for the potency of both Skylark Farm and The Exception. In fact, The Exception could rank among the best single works of fiction published in the U.S. this year.

A single dead man was once a breathing being, was once alive, and what’s left of him is a corpse that can be honored; a hundred thousand dead are a heap of rotting flesh, a pile of manure, more nothing than nothing, a foul, negative reality of which to rid oneself.

Antonia Arslan, Skylark Farm

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