From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky
by Matthew Spender
Knopf, 417 pp., $35.00
Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky
by Nouritza Matossian
Overlook, 576 pp., $40.00
The year is 1908, the place Khorkom, a small village set 5,500 feet above sea level amid the spectacular mountains and valleys of western Armenia. Sedrak Adoian, a Christian Armenian from a prosperous family of traders, is emigrating to America. Early one morning he wakes his small son and daughter and leads them to a wheat field by the shores of Lake Van. Sitting on the ground, they share a last meal of eggs and flat bread. Before kissing his children goodbye, Sedrak presents his five-year-old son Manoug with a pair of pointed wooden shoes of the sort traditionally worn by Armenian men; he then mounts his horse and disappears into the mist, never to return.
Two years later, Sedrak’s young wife Shushanig Der Marderossian Adoian moves with her children to Van, the region’s capital city. She is leaving to distance herself from her husband’s family, who have been treating her harshly in his absence. The move is only temporary. As a matter of family honor, Armenians who have emigrated to the US save enough money to bring their relations, even distant ones, to the New World. Sedrak will send for his family as soon as he can. Shushanig and her children wait.
But the years pass, and in 1915, with the major European powers distracted by the Great War, the Turks step up their persecution of Christian Armenians. The government’s aim is to eliminate non-Turkish minorities from the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the extermination of all Armenian males twelve years of age or older. Between 1915 and 1918, one and a half million people perish through deportation or massacre in the worst act of genocide in this century before Hitler’s.
As the Turks lay siege to Van, neither the Red Cross nor the American missionaries who run the school where her son has been educated can protect Shushanig and her children. Amid scenes of almost unimaginable horror, they flee for their lives. In mortal danger every step of the way, the family trek with thousands of other refugees toward Russian Armenia in the northeast, sometimes crossing wild ravines piled high with the bodies of the dead. Attached together by a rope, they march toward Mount Ararat and the relative safety of the provincial town of Yerevan, 150 miles from Van.
There they are destitute, and yet no help comes from Sedrak, now living in relative prosperity in America. As the temperature sinks to thirty degrees below zero during the winter of 1918-1919, they face starvation. Ill and undernourished, Shushanig has surrendered to a despair more lethal than malnutrition or cholera. At this moment she receives a letter from her husband proposing that she abandon her children and join him in Rhode Island. Lying on a pile of rags spread over the dirt floor of a derelict house, she dictates a scornful refusal. As her daughter Vartoosh later recalled, “Mummy was speaking. She was saying, ‘Write that I can never leave Armenia. That I …