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‘Fleeting City’ by Hovhannes Tekgyozyan (Mosaic Press, 128 pages, $18)
Mount Ararat (Ağrı in Turkish) rises behind the Armenian capital Yerevan.
You pick up “Fleeting City” by Hovhannes Tekgyozyan with some anticipation. The short novel promises something unique, billed as a taboo-breaking work by an important voice in a new generation of Armenian authors. Tekgyozyan is an award-winning writer, actor, and playwright, and “Fleeting City” is described as a kind of movie-novella, combining humor, mysticism and grotesquery.
The narrative centers mainly on Gagik and Grigor, two young men who appear to narrate a trip out of the capital Yerevan to Lake Sevan with a visiting Turkish traveler. The details of these characters are refracted through a bewildering prism of phantasmagorical impressions past and present. Scenes cut and shift abruptly, glimpsed through a dizzying array of perspectives. Tekgyozyan’s experience as a screenwriter is clear from the almost cartoon-animated quality of the description, at times like an animation on paper.
The impression is like a fever dream, where reality and fantasy are blurred beyond recognition. The grey and conflict-ridden landscape of post-Soviet Armenia is enriched with surprising, colorful imagery. Proustian reveries are provoked by the characters’ sensory experiences; time frequently collapses in on itself; motifs swirl in and out of the narrative. There is a kind of synesthesia at work, as the boundaries between senses become ineffable and ultimately evaporate.
Tekgyozyan leaves behind the themes of corruption and economics probed in more traditional Armenian novels. But does his cocktail of virtual reality, sexuality, suicide and drugs say anything original?
Unfortunately, its effect quickly becomes tiring. “The day changed—and fleeted… The night lights turned on—and fleeted… The café emptied—and fleeted… Valodik appeared at our table—and fleeted,” we read in one of the more coherent passages. There are many far less coherent ones: “My cut hair itched. The itch flapped in my throat. I flapped until the scissors fell out of the bull’s hand. The half-blunt blade tore the redness of Coca-Cola and hurled me home.” Tekgyozyan’s fantastical style has been compared with “Alice in Wonderland” or the movies of Tim Burton. Sadly, in “Fleeting City” such playfulness often slips into boring po-facedness.
Perhaps it’s down to the translation, but I found the experience of reading “Fleeting City” akin to the frustration experienced trying to read in a half-understood second language. You are constantly beset by a faint panic: What am I missing? Am I not getting that right? In the end I suspect there is little to actually get.
Tekgyozyan should be applauded for addressing themes of homosexuality in a traditional society in a unique and uninhibited way. But many readers will find “Fleeting City” an endurance test. Personally I limped my way to the end of the book. There is small comfort in the fact it only goes on for just over 100 pages.* Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here.