- Ararat by D.M. Thomas
Gollancz, 191 pp, £6.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 575 03247 2
Not since Arnold Bennett, Elizabeth Bowen and Vicki Baum can a novelist have looked so readily for resonance in the name and function of hotels. After his world-beating Freudian serve with The White Hotel here is D.M. Thomas again, standing on the baseline at the start of his new novel in yet another hotel setting. The Soviet poet, Rozanov, is sharing his bed with a blind woman whom he has arranged to meet because he fancies a literally blind date, and she is a fervent admirer of his verse. The hotel is in Gorky, so lacks character: you will not expect to find it among Mr Rubinstein’s Quaint Little Hotels of Britain and Europe, as might have happened with Thomas’s previous hotel by the lake where ‘your son crashed through my modesty, a stag in rut. The staff were wonderful. I’ve never known such service as they gave.’ It is a caravanserai of convenience only. Rozanov is by no means a reluctant rutter – hardly anyone in Thomas-land is – but on this occasion he is too bored by his admirer to perform until she appeals to his other talent. He is an improvisatore, grandson of an Armenian storyteller who perished in the genocide of 1915. ‘Ararat’ the tale takes shape on his lips between night and morning in the hotel bedroom armchair. The twin peaks of his desire, to borrow the soft porn expression, are those of Mount Ararat itself, the sacred mountain of the Armenians, which lies beyond the Iron Curtain (from the point of view of a Soviet Armenian) because it was annexed by the Turks.
Vol. 6 No. 4 · 1 March 1984
SIR: Is this plagiarism? In my history of Armenia, published in 1980, I wrote thus of the sufferings of the Armenians of Moush in 1915: ‘fingernails pulled out, limbs twisted, teeth knocked out, noses beaten down; and the wives and daughters were raped in public before their broken menfolk’ (page 211). In D.M. Thomas’s novel Ararat (1983, shortly to be issued in paperback) one of his characters speaks of ‘teeth knocked out, nails pulled out, limbs twisted, noses beaten down, the rape of wives and daughters in the presence of their menfolk’ (page 37).
Christopher J. Walker, page 212: ‘From the villages … around Moush the men were rounded up on 10 July … special forces … herded them into concentration camps and bayoneted them all … the women and children … were driven out of the city into specially prepared large wooden sheds … these were then set on fire … Before the massacre of Moush 60,000 Armenians had been living in the town and surrounding villages of the plain; very few survived. D.M. Thomas, page 37: ‘We rounded up all the male villagers from around Moush on 10 July: herded them into concentration camps and bayoneted them. The women and children we drove into large wooden sheds and set fire to them. Of the 60,000 Armenians who had been living in Moush very few survived.’
C.J.W., page 213:
Men were separated from the rest, and killed on the spot. Women and elderly men had to go on … Many were attacked in the early stages of the journey, and their clothes were taken from them. When they reached the Kemakh gorge … their hands were tied behind their backs. The order was given to kill them by pushing them over … probably 20,000 to 25,000 Armenians of Erzindjan were slaughtered, and of these about half at the Kemakh gorge.
D.M.T., page 38:
Soon after we left the town, we separated the men from the others, and killed them. The women and children went on. Many were attacked in the early stages of their journey and their clothes taken from them. When they reached the Kemakh gorge, overlooking the Euphrates, we tied their hands behind their backs. I gave the orders to pitch them over into the gorge. Probably 25,000 Armenians of Erzindjan were slaughtered, about half of them at the Kemakh gorge.
On page 217 I quoted from the memoirs (1946) of Professor Leon Surmelian.
I saw a woman’s nude body in the river, which was rather shallow here. Her long hair floated down the current, her bloated white abdomen glistened in the sun. I noticed that one of her breasts was cut off. Further up I saw another body, this time a man’s; then a human arm caught up in the roots of a tree … When, some minutes later, I looked at the river again, I saw a long, long band of frothy blood clinging to its banks.
It was rather shallow, and I saw a woman’s nude body in the river. Her long hair floated down the current, her bloated white belly gleamed in the sun. I noticed that one of her breasts was cut off. I was therefore sure it was not the responsibility of my own troops. I saw other bodies, and a human arm caught up in the roots of a tree … Then I saw a long band of frothy blood clinging to the bank.
Historians expect their books to be used and quoted from. I’m not so sure they expect their words to end up almost verbatim in the mouth of another author’s fictional character. My version of the events of 1915 had been worked over with care from long, verbose originals. If Mr Thomas had wanted authenticity, he could have read those originals, and worked from them himself. If he had sought imagination, could he not have used his own faculties, rather than mine and Professor Surmelian’s? Thomas acknowledges in his Author’s Note that my book is ‘the principal source for factual details relating to the Armenian massacres and diaspora’. If that is meant to appease me for what follows, it doesn’t.
Christopher J. Walker
Vol. 6 No. 7 · 19 April 1984
SIR: It is clear from the quotations in Mr Christopher Walker’s letter (Letters, 1 March) that D.M. Thomas’s Ararat contains more or less verbatim borrowings from Mr Walker’s writing as well as borrowings from those Armenian memoirs cited by Mr Walker in his book. There is a curious parallel here with Mr Thomas’s treatment of material from Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar in The White Hotel. As I pointed out in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (26 March 1982), Mr Thomas did not confine his borrowings from Babi Yar to the Dina Pronicheva memoir: he also drew on Kuznetsov’s own vivid descriptions of wartime Kiev. The nature of his indebtedness is typified by this short example: Kuznetsov’s ‘Some elderly women were wearing strings of onions hung round their necks like gigantic necklaces’ becomes Thomas’s ‘Some of the old women carried strings of onions round their necks like huge necklaces.’ Defending his methods in an interview with Isabel Hilton of the Sunday Times, Mr Thomas said: ‘Had that account been from Kuznetsov as a source, then it would have been a literary transplant.’ Quite so.