Book Review | Mutual in Love Divine

Mutual in Love Divine
By Pete Najarian
Regent Press Printers & Publishers, 2021
176 pp.
Paperback, $25

Dear Pete,

It was a pleasure reading your new book Mutual in Love Divine, which is in a way an epilogue to your creative autobiographical trilogy: The Artist and His Mother (2010), The Paintings of Art Pinajian (2015) and The Naked and the Nude (2017).

Even though you have always included pictures of your paintings, illustrations and sketches of models, portraits of family members and family photographs in your previous books, in this book they are more extensive than ever, adding to the work’s overall aesthetic appeal even though they might not be directly related to the stories within. But as I kept reading, one thing struck me the most as I looked back at your work, the fact that you have been repeatedly writing and rewriting the same stories in almost all your books: same content, even identical stories, but different narrations. Most notable are the stories of your mother, a child survivor of the genocide. She looms large throughout your books and becomes a central persona grounding you, giving you a sense of security and direction, but also a persistent loss, as she recounts her childhood memories before the deportations, stories of the vineyard, and of her parents and her artistic brother. We read stories of her deportation, loss of family members and eventual survival as an orphan. And then stories of her new life when she is brought to the United States as a picture bride from her orphanage in Lebanon by her future mother-in-law and married to a man she had never met, 13 years older than her. We read about her relationship with her mother-in-law and her husband’s tribe of Diyarbakir Armenians in West Hoboken, how she left her first husband with whom she already had a son to marry his cousin who eventually became your father. Pretty courageous and daring stuff considering the times in which she was living. 

You have also been writing and rewriting about your relationship with your disabled father, with whom you could never communicate due to his stroke and loss of speech when you were just three and a half years old. In all these stories, we sense the centrality of loss on multiple levels. The absence and loss of a father due to his inability to communicate. The loss of extended family members due to the deportations and genocide. The loss of heritage and home(land). Repeatedly writing and rewriting the same stories suggests that you want to find a way to write a better version of those same stories to overcome your sense of loss and your insecurities, your grief and your pain, and to complete your search for a metaphorical home and eventually find peace within. But ultimately, writing for you becomes a way, an attempt of transcending the horrors of history and memory. However, we need to bear in mind that remembering by itself is not enough. To be able to go forward and transcend the nightmares of the past, we need to also invent. It is worth quoting Monique Wittig who wrote in Les Guérillères, “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollections of it, remember… You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” Your efforts of supplementing the memories of your mother are ever present in your work, thus your efforts of repeatedly rewriting the same stories are a means of invention. Same stories, different narrations, where memory becomes a recovery tool supplemented by invention. For you, invention within your writings becomes a never-ending process.

In the first chapter entitled “The Minor Third,” your fears and insecurities come through on multiple levels. They come through in your love of music when you describe listening to “the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, composed not only for the victims of the Purge but the nightmare of history itself, since that’s what music was also about, the wail and cry even wolves and whales will sing when they lose each other and search for home” (15). Through the “AUM a Buddha would hum to the void until the silence would hug me like a father and I would never be afraid again” (14). And they come through in your attempts to make your father whole again, lighting candles as a kid in church until the day of his death. Since perfection is never achieved, I can see you rewriting these same stories repeatedly until the very end. 

Your continual reworking of the same material reminds me of Arshile Gorky’s paintings, The Artist and His Mother. As you know, he worked on two different versions, on and off from 1926 until about 1942, from the same photograph of himself and his mother taken in Van in 1911, four years before the deportations and genocide. Repeatedly repainting and revising those two versions were also a way for him to come to terms with the loss of his mother and his home(land). His mother died of starvation in Armenia following their deportation from Van, and painting was a way of keeping his relationship with her alive. It seems he too could never finish his works, fix them in time, because if he did then his relationship with his mother would end. As he said, “I don’t like the word, ‘finish.’ When something is finished, that means it is dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it for a while.” Just like Gorky used the photograph as raw material for his paintings, you have used the stories of your mother as raw material for your creativity. Both narratives (whether in visual or written form) are connected to the genocide, to displacement and loss. Both are also connected to a search for security and a way of keeping the loss from being swept away by history. Gorky was able to articulate his loss and tried to come to terms with it through his paintings. But your mother, being illiterate, has not been able to write her own stories. Being a good storyteller, she has conveyed them to you, and you have become the writer, the artist, of her stories. By lovingly writing and rewriting her stories, you have internalized them and kept your relationship with her ever alive, just like Gorky did with his mother. Your mother looms large in your stories as Gorky’s mother looms large in his paintings. And it is no coincidence that the title of your first trilogy is also The Artist and His Mother, featuring on the cover one of your paintings based on a photograph of your mother sitting in an armchair with you at her feet. The process of turning photographs of a mother and child into artistic works is present both within you and Gorky. And is it sheer coincidence that your mother’s older brother, the youthful artist, was of the same age as Gorky? Your uncle was a budding and precocious artist whose life was tragically cut short on the death march, and yet he lives on in your stories. Your first book in the trilogy, The Artist and His Mother, is dedicated to him: “To Uncle Boghos, who disappeared on the death march,” and “the chalk of his bones became the ghost of art” (45). It is interesting that you picked up painting late in life, possibly as an attempt of finding continuity with your uncle, the artist, undoing the loss that you have endured. You see him as your avatar, “who could have taught [you] how to mix a palette and make even his death beautiful” (45). Both your and Gorky’s creative works have in their background the ghosts of the Armenian Genocide and its reverberations and the passing down of intergenerational trauma. And both of you have used art as a means of transcending the horrors of history. But in the end, it seems even art was not able to save Gorky. He hanged himself in the prime of his artistic life. And yet you persevered due to your resilience, much like your mother. You transcend the narrative of history by transcribing the stories of your mother and of your speechless and absent father. Ultimately, you become the artist, the scribe who trans-scribes the stories they could not write themselves.

Of course, you also write lovingly about your father, with whom you were never able to converse during his lifetime. He passed away when you were 10 years old, and only then were you able to communicate with him by becoming a writer and developing your creative powers. In the chapter titled “Song,” you explain how you became a writer after your father died: “when there was no need to pray for him anymore, though my writing would be like a prayer over the candles to the void behind the alt[a]r” (43). Your father’s stroke, disabling him and taking away his speech, affected you tremendously. A speechless father was too much to bear for a sensitive child. This lack of speech author-izes you to write: “…who knew what my father, who sat so silent in the corner, might be thinking of his little boy to whom he couldn’t speak and who couldn’t speak to him, my father to whom I would be writing for the rest of my life, as if he were the very silence of the cosmos” (13). You constantly attempt to write to him as a way of compensating for his silence, of coming to terms with his loss and absence, and of making him whole again. Through Brahms’ First Symphony and your first nocturnal emission, you describe how “the cosmos opened and the light poured through, and the old cripple was now the lame god Hephaestus himself saying through Brahms that there would be no more elegies but only triumph and apocalypse, as in the triambos [thriambus] to Dionysus and the apokalupsis in the unveiling of the Grail” (15). Through the creative powers of a writer, you could do anything: undo the wrongs of the past, disclose the true path and open the world for a rebirth. Through mythical and religious images, you invoke triumph and revelation, helping you overcome your fears. Your fear of becoming psychologically crippled has overwhelmed you to such an extent that we read of your constant struggles to overcome it through writing. We encounter this same theme in your first book, Voyages (1971), where you end with an imaginary conversation with your father: “‘I’m not going to be crippled, Papa!’ ‘My son,’ he said, ‘I never wanted you to be. Why did you think I did?’”(150). We read a similar conversation with him at the end of the first story of Mutual in Love Divine, even though 50 years have passed between the publications of your first and latest books. “‘You’re not a cripple,’ he said, ‘you never were a cripple, let go your fear and dance the dance of the ages, let go, let go!’” (16). The latter version is more poetic, and yet it is the same theme: trying to overcome your fears of becoming psychologically crippled. And it is no surprise that the cover of Mutual in Love Divine is again one of your paintings, this time based on a photograph of your father sitting in an armchair and holding you in his lap. Throughout, we see your attempts to resurrect him from his ills and make him whole again.

Your stories about your father moved me deeply since I also lost my father when I needed him the most, right when I migrated as a teenager to this country and felt like a stranger in a strange land, always trying to find a connection to my new environment, always feeling in the background the loss of a home(land), always seeking a sense of security, a grounding in the ever-shifting landscape of identities. I also would never be able to hug my father and therefore have tried to become like him in other ways. At one point, I wanted to hug you in compensation for the loss of a father, a pain that we both have had to endure. My father, like your mother, was also an orphan of the genocide who ended up at the Bird’s Nest orphanage in Lebanon. You write that the death of your father created a void inside you that you could not fill. I can say the same about the death of my father. You write: “I would be writing this same story for the rest of my life: to be a man like who I had wanted my father to be” (23). You also write the same thing about your mother. “My mother’s childhood in the vineyard was my Garden of Eden where her memories would blossom into the story I would be writing for the rest of my life” (45). Writing and rewriting stories are indicative of how you try to come to terms with loss, first experienced by your mother and then by you. It is common for artists to paint or write multiple versions of the same subject matter, and each artist does it for their own reasons. In your case, I feel you repeatedly rewrite the same stories as an attempt to redeem what has been lost. The loss of a homeland, and the loss of a father. Without redemption, there cannot be a recovery of what has been lost. Hence, you make constant attempts at redemption since redemption becomes a heightened form of recovery, an effort to recover a lost element of life not as an item in itself, but as an item charged with old and new meanings.   

Without redemption, there cannot be a recovery of what has been lost.

The loss that you write about is not only confined to your family members and heritage. It also extends to friends. You have three intimate stories that are each in the form of an epistolary: “To Norm,” “Dear Cathleen” and “To Ellen Pinsky.” The letters also become attempts to redeem what has been lost, in this case your friendships. Ultimately, your books are searches for redemption on multiple interconnected levels: personal, familial, national, and that of humanity. The crippling of your father, on a familial level, symbolizes what happened to the Armenians on a national level. In the patriarchal society of Ottoman Turkey, the Armenian men were not able to protect their families, their wives, their children, and ultimately their homeland. The first step that the Turkish government took in 1915 was to round up all the intellectuals and community leaders (all men) and exile them to their deaths before embarking on the deportation of the rest of the populace. Without leaders, the nation could not defend itself. As the patriarchy was decapitated and crippled, the actualization of the genocide became feasible. As a result, the Armenians were massacred and deported without any substantive resistance, and in the end, they lost their ancestral homeland. The loss on a national level has been so severe that the ramifications can still be felt today. We see the extension from your crippled father to the crippled Armenian nation due to the loss following the genocide. And the women were the ones who had to rebuild the nation through their resilience, arduous work, and perseverance. Following the stroke and eventual death of your father, your mother was the one who worked in factories and supported her family. Similarly, my grandmother, who was also widowed, had to raise her three sons by working as an outpatient nurse, making sure that they had the resources to succeed in life. Your family story becomes the embodiment of our national history.                                                 

Throughout your stories, we encounter the search for father figures, writers you looked up to and tried to emulate. You wanted them to replace the father you never had. And when you first started writing, Hemingway became one of the first father figures in the story about your father: “to be a man like who I wanted my father to be, and now the question of who or what I was writing to become more urgent than ever” (23). But in the end, you would not write like Hemingway because he had issues regarding his feminine side that he tried to cover up through his machismo, issues that were never resolved through his writings. Whereas you have been genuine and open about your labored relationships with women, your wounded masculinity, and issues regarding the image of your crippled father, all of which you tackle repeatedly throughout your writings since they are all intertwined. The work of masculine self-fashioning requires engagement with sexuality and its necessary other, women. And that is why you write about your fears of becoming a cripple, an emasculated and impotent man, in parallel to your sexual and emotional anxieties regarding women, which are cogently encapsulated in your letter to Ellen Pinsky. You mention about your psychological “sickness” and your “breakdown” and tell her how you are intimidated by her beauty and intelligence, and the reasons why you have stayed single: “How beautiful you were and how afraid I was of you [emphasis added] when you were so quiet while I would talk with Robert as if I knew what I was talking about, yet I never talked to you as if you would know how full of crap I really was. My sickness had become so virulent by then I was headed for a breakdown, yet you were not aware of this and never would be. I had been sick since I was a child, always feeling inferior to friends like Robert and afraid of women like you [emphasis added], which was at the root of why I would never marry and would live alone for most of my life” (145). The sickness you reference is your insecurity regarding women and the root cause for not being able to get married, feelings that you are not shy in expressing. Your insecurities are rooted in the abandonment by your mother when she had to take care of your father after he had his stroke. On the other hand, Hemingway who married three times, had issues with his gender role. He liked women with short hair and tried to come to terms with his feminine side through gender role reversal, something that did not match with his public portrayal of his own masculinity. But you come across as vulnerable and genuine, the opposite of Hemingway, even though you always wanted to emulate him. 

It is interesting that, from all of Hemingway’s works, you picked his unfinished novel The Garden of Eden to expand on in one of your stories “Song.” The Garden of Eden showed for the first time Hemingway’s interest in developing androgynous characters within his novel, and ideas of sexual transference and gender role reversals. You believe it would have been his most important work had he finished it. (Perhaps you found it important since it deals with stories related to the relationship of the protagonist as a child with his father and is, like your own stories, full of conflict). But Hemingway had been working on it for 15 years, from 1946 until his suicide, resulting in a manuscript of 800 pages that still remained unfinished. It seems he could not resolve the core issues of androgyny and sexual transference within himself in a way that would enable him to finish the novel, especially since it concerned how he perceived and dealt with the transsexuality of his son. As a child, Hemingway’s mother had dressed him as a girl, and now that his own son had become transsexual, he could not manage all the emotions that it brought out in him. He constantly fought with his son throughout the years he was writing The Garden of Eden, and in the end, he even stopped talking to him. The manuscript exists in three irreconcilable versions of different lengths, and yet, ultimately, there was no finality. For many years, none of the versions were published, and when the longest version was finally published posthumously, two-thirds of it was removed. The book was published as a severed and castrated piece. On the other hand, you have published all the versions of the stories dealing with your father. No matter what, you never severed your ties with him. On the contrary, you have always been in constant communication with him. You have kept him alive. You succeeded where Hemingway failed. Through your writings, your efforts to resolve the issues that you had with your father were finally fruitful, whereas Hemingway’s efforts to deal with his son’s transsexuality were not. In the end, he took his own life with the same shotgun that his father had used for his suicide.

I guess Hemingway chose a fitting title for his book since the image of The Garden of Eden invokes themes of human progression from innocence, bliss, harmony and eternity to loss, misery, sin and death—all Biblical themes of the Fall. And with the Fall comes attempts to find redemption, a constant struggle to regain what has been lost, a search for salvation and deliverance from original sin. Hemingway felt he had to regain what he had lost, his image of himself regarding his sexuality, his gender role, and most importantly his relationship with his transsexual son. His attempts were unsuccessful, hence the unfinished state of his novel. For a diasporan Armenian, the genocide and loss of our homeland is the original sin that we are born into, a sin that we all need to redeem in our own ways. Your writings are a model of how redemption and deliverance can be achieved through artistic expression.

The themes of loss and redemption run through many of your stories. In your chapter about Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, you write that your mother’s childhood in the vineyard was your Garden of Eden, where her memories would blossom into the story you would be writing for the rest of your life. Throughout your books, we see your constant efforts to transcend through art the horrors of history on multiple levels. Foremost among those horrors in your work is the Armenian Genocide. Your stories and novels are, therefore, not only sites of history and memory but also sites of redemption. Authoring novels is akin to freeing yourself from the burden of history, a theme that you bring up in several of your works. We read your descriptions of that horrific burden that has been passed down to you and to us all. In your first book, Voyages, you write, “the years of a long history… all the shit piled up on top of my life” (132). We see similar expressions by authors from nations to whom history has not been kind, which brings to mind Joyce’s attribution of a similar thought to Stephen Daedalus on the perceived burden of history: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (Chapter 2, when talking to Deasy). In Hishadag, about your experiences in Armenia in 1988, you discuss “the nightmare of history that would never cease” (18) when writing about the transgenerational hatred between Armenians and Turks. In the preface of the same work, the protagonist refers to himself as “a cripple with a history of genocide” (17). But the horrors of history are not the exclusive burden of Armenians. They apply to all humanity. As you say, we are all the product of massacres and rape. And the art of our civilization is of war and suffering and of redemption, starting with the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Bible, all the way to the horrors of the modern age. You use allusions to various art forms (literature, films, paintings) to convey your message, but most pertinent are your references to Blake’s Milton and Dante’s Paradiso, portraying art as a catharsis for our unenlightened state and an attempt to transcend the horrors of memory that history has bestowed upon us. In the end, art becomes a means for redemption from the past, redemption through the process of aestheticization.

The title of your story “Bresson’s Donkey” is fitting in demonstrating how you incorporate artistic creations when dealing with ideas of redemption and sin. It is also a story where you develop your theme of “sickness” and “breakdown” that we encounter in your letter to Ellen Pinsky. The title refers to Au Hasard Balthazar, the French film directed by Robert Bresson. The film is the story of a donkey’s life and death in rural France, Balthazar being the baptismal name given to him by the young children living on the farm, one of whom is Marie. We follow the donkey as he is acquired by different owners, most of whom treat him cruelly, and we follow Marie’s relationship with the donkey. She is raped by a boy who is jealous of Balthazar because she loves the donkey, and she eventually dies from shame. Her father dies from grief, and her grieving mother tells the rapist to leave the donkey alone since she considers him a “saint.” The film ends with the arrival of a shepherd with his flock, and we see Balthazar being surrounded by the sheep with their bells jangling as he lays dying from a gunshot wound. Marie and Balthazar are united by their pain, innocence, and mortifications before their death. According to various critics, the film is full of religious imagery and spiritual allegories, allusions, and metaphors. After all, Christ rides a donkey into Jerusalem after which he embarks on his journey to his crucifixion. Many critics interpret the deaths of the protagonists as moments of transfiguration and absolution of humanity from sin as they are accompanied by a passage from Monteverdi’s Vespers, with the death of Balthazar symbolizing “a glorious return to the eternal, a revelation of the divine,” as cited in James Quandt’s essay. We read about these religious imageries and their significance most astutely in his analysis that first appeared in The Hidden God: Film and Faith, and then in your story we see similar allusions to religious imageries. When you first saw the film, you were taken by Balthazar’s eyes that “would later reverberate in the visionary scene where a flock of sheep would gather around him as he lay dying” (48). And you ask: “What was it in the donkey Balthazar’s eyes that was like an illumination all art wanted to attain” (48), and what was that vision and how could you discuss it with your film study group? And one day you found the answer in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, “where the dove of the Holy Ghost was spreading its wings above the figure of Christ as John the Baptist raised a cup to his head, and its stillness and quiet led to how I felt at the end of Bresson’s film that led in turn to when I was a child in the little church where I would light a candle at the side of the alt[a]r where I would look into the alcove at a small painting of a Jesus as I prayed” (48). You would go to church and pray for your disabled father until he died, after which there was no need to go to church anymore, and “yet his death would stay inside [you] in a void [you] couldn’t fill” (53). With his death, you became a writer and started cultivating your path to come to terms with your loss and transcend the darkness of history. It is a beautiful way of tying artistic creations to the resolution of your pains and absolution, just like the film did. Several episodes in your book recount how you came to write Voyages, your family story with the genocide in the background, and why and how you became a writer. These aspects are particularly evident in “Bresson’s Donkey,” where we see you developing your writing skills and using them as a tool to transcend the pains of history on all levels: personal, familial, national, and humankind. We get to read the root causes of your anxieties, and yet writing becomes your salvation, your redemption: “And it was the crying of my breakdown that would untie the knots that had crippled me and washed my eyes like baptism as if it were the crying of the centuries of genocides and the nightmare of history. My breakdown had started from a breakup with a woman that was not its real cause but like a crack of a seizure from deep in the prehistory of my father’s stroke when my mother left to care for him as if she had abandoned me” (53). Eventually you recovered and finished your book, and the key was the last sentence, the conversation with your father on not wanting to become a cripple. There would be many more breakdowns and break-ups with women, and yet at the end there will be a redemption. You write: “I would see Balthazar again and again with his suffering transformed in an illumination like Piero’s Baptism” (54).

Your stories have a certain rhythm to them, a subtle way of connecting pieces of multiplicities. You succeed in bringing in various historical events, literary works, and artworks and creating a wholeness. I like how you connect certain aspects of your stories as you conclude them. For example, in “The Candle,” your brother, who is on his deathbed, pulls you close to his face, and you feel his whiskers like when he cuddled you when you were a toddler. It is a fitting description that brings an extra layer of genuineness to your feelings toward your brother who you looked up to. Your efforts in retelling the story of your brother are also connected with what cannot be recovered and yet must somehow be redeemed. In the story titled “Yellow, yellow is both the name of the horse and your mother’s favorite color. It is a wonderful way of connecting two disconnected entities, bringing a story to a harmonious ending.                               

I found the ending of “After the Massacre” very emotional since it dealt with the end of the Najarian family. You have always seen yourself as the amanuensis of your family stories. You say it in your first book Voyages. And here, you stay true to your role. We read the story of your family and how you have become the last of the Najarian family after the massacres. The family Bible, brought over all the way from Diyarbakir, symbolizes the family heritage and the connection to the homeland. It was promised to you, and yet we see it lost to people to whom its Armenian script is illegible. And the fact that you do not have any children makes the end of the family very poignant; a poignancy that is heightened in your account of the earthquake that took place in Armenia in December of 1988. You were there, at the scene, helping with the rescue efforts, and you saw death and destruction up close, face to face. And then you transition to your encounter with Svetya, the prostitute who visits you. You write: “After so much death my hunger for her felt even more intense, as if this were the last time it would be gratified” (166). After witnessing so much death and misery, I envisioned you would bring forth life with a woman, add a soul to the Armenian nation. But even your sexual relationships become dead ends, copulation with a prostitute that does not lead to any procreation or regeneration. We sense again the end of the Najarian family. With no children, you will be the last in the line. And yet, you were able to pass your family’s history down through literature, a literature that will outlast individual human lives.

I was very much moved by the last story of the book, titled after your cat Juju, which expresses your affection toward her and all that she had to give you by just being a cat. As you enter your eighth decade and look back at your career as a writer, the story becomes a coda for all your experiences and creations, showing you coming to terms with life and all there is to it. Finding beauty through her, “the killer of birds, herself beautiful” (167).

Best regards,


Hrag Varjabedian

Hrag Varjabedian

Hrag Varjabedian is an International Visitor Exchange Specialist at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. The title of his dissertation is “The Poetics of History and Memory: The Multiple Instrumentalities of Armenian Genocide Narratives.”
Hrag Varjabedian

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