The aesthetic and thematic concerns of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s layered and contradictory novel The Daydreaming Boy hinge on a single paradoxical sequence where the book’s protagonist experiences a flash-forward to his own death. The story begins in Beirut, May 1964, with the forty-six-year-old Armenian man Vahé Tcheubjian lying on his back on the balcony outside his flat, smoking cigarettes and “daydreaming” about his dreary life. Vahé’s thoughts are such that they cause him to imagine an alternative existence on his own island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Then, “at the last, in the moment before he is unable to think any longer (the moment before the boy who is holding a pistol to his neck and fires the gun and unmakes the thinking), he is sitting in his salon and it is nineteen and eighty-six and June and wars.” This unexpected foretelling strikes hard. What are we to make of it? Complicating the question, many pages later Vahé returns to the moment in his own voice: “when they come for me I will be ready: tomorrow or twenty-two years from now when this place erupts again with the chimes of war” (134).
The final pages of the book approach the moment of Vahé’s death but, interestingly enough, we never witness his execution. Instead, the narrative circles back to a defining event from Vahé’s past. Vahé remembers the first time he saw the “sea as a boy of five on the transport from Kharpert overland to Eregli and then Eregli to Beirut via locomotive” (72). A young orphan of the genocide, he suffered expulsion from Ottoman-controlled Anatolia, and for that reason, the “vast blue belt of the sea” stands as a psychological, existential, and historical barrier, blocking him from everything that “he cannot know” about his origins, his mother, and his motherland, Armenia (109).
Earlier in his life, Vahé maintained a Christian outlook and believed that he would learn the facts, the truth, in the afterlife: “As a child, Mother, I looked forward to the dying and your form awaiting me at gates wide and heavy metal . . . As a boy I dreamed of it often and as a man I kept it in the back of my mind” (178). However, Vahé seems incapable of achieving death in the novel. Rather, he seems to be caught in a temporal loop where he must forever live out his horrid existence. Indeed, the novel gives us Vahé as a man enduring a kind of eternal purgatory—“I have lost God and Paradise” (177–78)—a perpetual lying-in-wait, with him daydreaming on the balcony, caught as it were between earth and heaven, a prisoner of space and time. The balcony railing underscores his incarceration, a figurative cage which mirrors the literal one that imprisons the chimpanzee Jumba on display at the zoological gardens. Vahé frequently sits outside Jumba’s cage to share cigarettes with the ape, the two of them smoking, two closely related beings, both of them captives, both mistakes—a refugee and a cigarette-smoking chimp.
Like many refugees, Vahé arrives in Beirut full of expectations of a new life. However, his memory of his arrival as presented in the opening passage of the novel is shot through with foreboding and doom: “We are naked like Adam and . . . the long sea rises before us . . . Clothes stripped and bodies for the sun and sea and we run . . . to the Mediterranean . . . we thirst and we drink the water . . . The water swallows us” (3). Vahé’s supposed baptism here comes in the form a symbolic drowning as opposed to an Edenic rebirth. Although he may have “believed that when I died all would be revealed: the killers, my parents and theirs also, and everything understood as if in a history book” (179), he is a “man undone by history, unhistoried by it” (109).
All that follows in the novel might best be understood as an imaginative reconstruction in which Vahé makes multiple “histories for his undead mother (undead because not lived)” (109). Vahé even tells us: “all of it is me; all of it mine own images, mine own pictures (like the moving pictures); bold; brilliant; in colors, gray—what I think; see; dream up” (201). In this way, whatever Vahé dreams up can never be anything more than a kind of distorted truth: “it is as if I see you . . . through a veil of water and this water (seawater) refracts the light and it is all incorrect” (183–84). The doubt is all the more present for Vahé since he was born in 1917 at the end of the genocide and never observed the atrocities firsthand. “How do I know something occurred if I myself have not been witness to it?” (200). For Vahé, history remains a remote abstraction that lends him to experience feelings of nonexistence, of being “impossible.”
His dreamlike repetitions take the form of a familiar conceit: walking as a metaphor for thinking. Vahé goes to the zoo to sit with Jumba and also takes late-night walks to avoid intimacy with his wife, Juliana. Otherwise, his perambulations are more mental than physical. “I walk around in my mind like a man walks across an open field. I am slow and deliberate” (63). We come to learn that his quality of mind, his obsession with the past, is a recent phenomenon and stems from a specific source, Vostanig, a fellow orphan at the Bird’s Nest. It would seem that Vahé, a cabinetmaker by profession, had managed to lock his painful memories about the orphanage into a symbolic container. “He and the others from that time and place placed in a walnut box (I made it) . . . I unexisted them and they accordingly disappeared from the box and then the box itself disappeared” (25). This act of forgetting has proven effective, until the “picture of Vosto” “reappeared like some monstrous dark film specter” nine months earlier in September 1963 on his forty-sixth birthday” (25). He goes on to say: “Now I see him and often” (25).
To contextualize “Vostanig’s spectral return” (184), Vahé references a passage from W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants: “It is said by some that the dead are ever returning to us in an unending cycle of vengeance and despair. I press into my mind as if to find them there . . . And they do come back to me, each one in his time” (67). Let us not miss the point. Both Sebald and Marcom are concerned with the haunting aftereffects of genocide.
Little surprise, then, that like a “film playing and replaying forward and back” (25), Vahé dreams up multiple and contradictory stories about Vosto in the same way he does about his unknown mother. In the novel’s opening passage, he tells us that Vosto arrived in Beirut on the train with him, a memory which is contradicted later in the novel when he recounts first seeing Vosto outside the gates of the Bird’s Nest. If nothing else, these sequences underscore Vosto’s function as Vahé’s double. Perhaps the characters even constitute a single person, since certain experiences are attributed to both orphans. For example, one or both boys suffer verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at the orphanage.
That said, other aspects of Vosto’s life are cast in complete narrative uncertainty. Is he alive or dead? Is he an actual person or simply a fabrication of Vahé’s imagination? On several occasions in the novel, Vahé tells us that Vosto died many years ago. Not surprisingly, Vahé provides several versions of his death, including one where he throws himself into the ocean. We are led to believe that Vosto is deceased, but later find Vahé encountering Vosto on the streets of Beirut on at least two occasions; both times the latter shines his shoes. Is this Vosto? How would the narrator be able to recognize him after so many years? The man speaks to Vahé in the “dead language,” but does this make him Vosto? Perhaps Vosto is indeed a ghost? Vahé provides no answers. Instead, he compounds the funhouse possibilities.
Despite this claim, one crucial fact holds true: Vosto is always a figure of weakness. Thinking back to Vosto in the orphanage, Vahé makes a revealing admission: “How we longed to kill him” (67). The powerless boy sought to become a powerful agent by extinguishing any weakness inside himself, just as the man will go on to poison Jumba in a type of mercy killing. Past cruelty has shaped Vahé. Despised and brutalized at the Bird’s Nest, Vahé has become a man incapable of love, a trapped “beast” who dominates and brutalizes weaker others. “I have begun to understand that this thing which has long been in me, this beast, vogel, is of course my own flesh and blood despair and my inability to change what has come before (to change what will come after)” (184). Murder Jumba he may, but the “unflying unfeathered beast” (199) will never break free from inside him and rise to air like smoke from his cigarettes. All-consuming, the sadistic impulse can never be satiated despite the trappings of middle class respectability: “it wants more and more—so that . . . beast became mine and I could never get it out, not with all the bodies of girls, the sweeties, the good wife, a flat on Rue Makdissi, walnut boxes and mahogany tables, new shined shoes—it is with me perpetually in this life like an inheritance” (199).
Put differently, Vahé has inherited a structure of mind that causes him to compartmentalize the concrete, phenomenological details of memory and “notmemory” into the individual sections of this novel, much in the way he kept his few possessions inside a wooden box at the orphanage: a piece of twine, some marbles, and a photograph. Each section is separate and distinct. Taken as a whole, then, everything in the book is both true and not true. Muddling the lines between text and world, the only photograph in the novel may or may not show Vahé at the orphanage, notwithstanding the fact that Vahé says: “I have no photos in my possession from my time in the orphanage” (60). A blurry image of a group of boys, the photo lacks an identifiable context and seems to fit the category of what Roland Barthes calls the “unary” photograph in Camera Lucida. Barthes writes, “The Photograph is unary when it emphatically transforms ‘reality’ without doubling it, without making it vacillate (emphasis is a power of cohesion): no duality, no indirection, no disturbance.”
Duality, indirection, and disturbance come with Vahé’s restless “daydreaming,” his determination to dream himself into a coherent being, Vahé “seeking the words that could say it, could answer all of the questions, could find the answer” (189). The problem, the angles of saying and seeing, are in constant flux, causing each section of the novel to project like its own motion picture. As Vahé tells us, “each looking seeking takes me down a different path, a new byway, and all of it runs to nothing (to the sea) because perhaps the reason the words were not right for the saying . . . is because the words themselves cannot do it: cannot say it right” (189).
Perhaps only the “dead language,” Armenian, can “say it right,” provide Vahé with the means to fill in the absences, gaps, and silences of history. The numerous compound words sprinkled throughout the novel—notfish, notlistens, notfeeling, unexisted, notspeaking, notbirth, notdead—suggest the absent language.
Despite his incapacity to name the world as a “New Adam” in Beirut, Vahé manages to achieve a feeling of place, belonging, when the final section of the book opens in the city in 1986 during civil war. Vahé still resides in his apartment, which is now in the wrong part of town because of religious and political factionalism. Vahé, a “boy out of time” (59–60), finally achieves long-desired agency when he refuses to leave his flat. That refusal means that he must die. The entire chapter is told in the future tense as a kind of prophecy. “How can the invisible history stories be so strong as to engender a hate that will lift a knife and plunge it into the flesh of another beast, a man; or to slaughter him with a rifle semi-automatic?” (200). However, in the closing lines of the book Vahé is resurrected: “and he would get up from the chair and he would walk out the balcony doors and lie on the cracked white tiles because it is cooler on the tiles” (212). Never quite born, never quite alive, never quite dead, Vahé will forever daydream in a speculative limbo, a dream within a dream. We are left to question, because “just as knowing is impossible, the man is impossible” (177).
Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank, which won the CLMP Firecracker Award, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was nominated for the Dublin Literary Prize. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the novel Rails Under My Back, which won The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short story collection Holding Pattern, which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. His second collection of stories, Fat Time, was published in 2020. Allen is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.