Why would an Australian author of Anglo-Scottish extraction create a fictional Armenian private eye? For novelist Stuart Campbell, former university Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor of Linguistics, the answer is two-pronged.
Firstly, Campbell’s wife Sara is half-Armenian and half-British. Over the years, Campbell has met many of her diaspora family in Australia, France and the U.S., including at least one genocide survivor. “I vividly recall a family reunion in France trying to untangle who was whose cousin,” he says.
Secondly, the author made the unorthodox choice in 1971 of taking a degree in Arabic and Russian languages, which provoked an interest in the diaspora community in Egypt as well as the Armenian presence in the USSR.
In 1973, the couple travelled to Egypt where Stuart would study Arabic at Cairo University and Sara was reunited with her Armenian grandmother. Within weeks of their arrival, the Yom Kippur War broke out and the seeds of Stuart’s novel Cairo Mon Amour were planted.
However, it was not until four decades later that the concept took shape. “I wanted to write an espionage thriller built around the Egyptian plan to launch a surprise invasion of Sinai,” he says. “At the same time, I wanted to pay homage to the plight of the Armenians, who had been a deep and enduring interest for me since the seventies.”
Hence, Pierre Farag was born: Armenian mother, Coptic father, a man who lives in the shadows, working as a private eye and translator. Most of his relatives have left for Glendale or Sydney. He’s Butrous in Arabic and Bedros in Armenian, but goes by the name Pierre for reasons that he never reveals. Pierre’s Armenian identity acts as a vehicle for the Egyptian noir style Campbell has tried to create: “I drew on themes of themes of dislocation and loss to achieve this.”
In fact, Pierre has some basis in reality: “There was an Armenian man who visited my wife’s relative in Cairo. He wore a beret and dark glasses, and was said to have been in prison under Nasser. He never said much. Nobody in the family can remember him, and I wonder whether I imagined him. But he lives on in my novel.”
Coincidentally, the mid-point of writing the Cairo Mon Amour came in April 2015. “I happened to visit the Armenian Genocide Centenary Exhibition in Paris at the time,” Campbell says. “I was very much spurred on to complete the novel by the outpouring of international support for the centenary.”
Cairo Mon Amour will be published in London by Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd. in late June 2017. More information at www.cairomonamour.com.