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Literature / Odinochka

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Odinochka: Armenian Tales from the Gulag is the debut novel of Armenian-American novelist Suren Oganessian.

Vartan Manukyan is a 29 year old prisoner in a Soviet Gulag in Siberia, who has just been given a death sentence; three nights in solitary confinement in a freezing prison cell. One of some 20 million prisoners who fell victim to Josef Stalin’s paranoia in the 1930’s. Odinochka delves into the mind of this single, forgotten prisoner, and unveils the story of a man haunted by memories of his youth, growing up in an orphanage in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, when the Turkish authorities began the process of genocide against their Armenian subjects. Caught in a siege in the city of Van, he and his young friends, foremost among them a little boy named Raffi who became like his little brother, were left with no choice but to participate in the city's defense; taking over menial work such as collecting used bullets to be recast, putting out fires or tending to the wounded as the adult men took to arms. The novel follows their attempt to make sense of the world around them in the harshness of the orphanage before the siege and during the turmoil of the war, and find an emotional escape through the stories they tell.

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  • Bilingual Bonus: The title, while in Russian, was the word used for a solitary confinement cell.
  • Break the Cutie: We see Raffi's innocent and lighthearted nature be chipped away over the course of the siege.
  • Child Soldier: While not called upon to participate in actual fighting, the orphan "Boy Scouts" are given the jobs that the adults can't do anymore. In addition, young boys are being used as couriers to relay messages to the invading Russians who they hope will liberate them.
  • Disappeared Dad: Vartan's father was drafted into the Ottoman Army for their doomed 1914 Caucasus campaign; as an Armenian this was virtually a death sentence.
  • Downer Ending: The book was in part dedicated to the 20 million people who didn't escape the gulag, after all...
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: This process is only accelerated by Vartan's hypothermia.
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  • Greater-Scope Villain: Jevdet Bey, the blood-thirsty governor of the Van Villayet, and his superiors the Young Turks, are the villains but don't appear in the story personally. Josef Stalin counts as this in Vartan's present.
  • The Gulag: The present-day segments take place here (present day being December 1930).
  • The Hero Dies: It is left ambiguous, but one can assume that Vartan feeling warm and hallucinating at the end of the novel means hypothermia is finally taking him .
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Raffi and Vartan become this, even considering each other brothers.
  • Historical Domain Character: Herr Sporri, Dr. Clarence Ussher and his son Neville, Aram Manukyan and General Vartan were all real people.
  • How We Got Here: We only find out some of the details on why Vartan is in prison later on in the novel.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Played realistically, as it's when Vartan finally stops shivering and begins to feel warm in his ice cold cell that we know he's coming down with hypothermia.
  • Orphanage of Love: Somewhat. Herr Sporri, the German director of the orphanage in Van, at least does his best to make the orphanage a nice place to live, but food shortages and typhoid outbreak make this difficult. It's far from being an Orphanage of Fear though.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Every one of the orphans have some kind of a tragic backstory, in fact it's mentioned they sometimes make a game of who's is the worst. However, later on once the war reaches closer to home, they start getting orphans who survived their villages being ransacked...
  • Shoot the Dog: The defenders of Van are forced to take drastic measures to outlast the enemy; including sending dogs with lanterns around their necks out of the city at night to be shot at by the Ottomans who think it's a person fleeing the city. This is the fate that befalls "Zangi", a stray dog that Raffi takes a liking to.
  • Story Within a Story: Vartan's flashbacks to the Siege of Van are this; and on another level, the stories Vartan tells to Raffi in his flashbacks are a story within a story within a story.
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