John D. Balian's debut novel is a coming-of-age tale interwoven with threads of Middle-East politics, culture and conflict

Having survived a string of harrowing misfortunes as a boy, John D. Balian drew upon his own experiences to create the inspirational protagonist of his first novel, Gray Wolves and White Doves. The desire to tell his life story under the guise of a novel was certainly compelling, but the 49-year-old author also sensed a need to throw fresh light on certain events that lie forgotten in the dingy, back chambers of history. Pursuit of these twin goals has resulted in an engrossing coming-of-age tale that is interwoven with threads of Middle-East politics, culture and conflict.

The novel particularly paints a picture of the internal conflicts in Turkey for the simple reason that Balian has had a ringside view of them. But he offers only thin-cut slices of history, Turkish or any other. “There are many historical references, but they are offered in calculated measures — a line here and a line there — so that the reader is not distracted from following the central thread of the story,” says Balian, who is touring India to promote the book.

Through his characters, Balian presents the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire — the forerunner of Turkey — and also describes events in the 1960s and 1970s that show the Turkish establishment's ambition to “mould the non-Turkish citizens of Turkey in the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the beliefs he personified.”

Responses from readers, mostly in the United States, have convinced Balian that he has succeeded in the effort to entertain and educate people through this work. “Many readers have written to say they were unaware of the Armenian genocide,” says Balian, an Armenian himself. “The Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany is a well-known fact of history. Not so the Armenian genocide.” (Around 20 countries and many scholars accept the Armenian massacres of 1915 as genocidal, the Republic of Turkey, however, denies it was genocide).

The central characters in the novel live under a cloud of uncertainty. They either nurse wounds that refuse to heal or they live in anticipation of danger.

The title of the book is aimed at capturing this tension. “It's meant to bring out the idea of predators and preys,” explains Balian. “Grey Wolves is a secret group in Turkey.” The Idealist Youth — a ultra-nationalist group — is unofficially called ‘Grey Wolves'.

Such references are bound to make the novel appealing to students of world events. In one episode, protagonist Jonah Ibelinian is swept into a pervasive panic at the Tel Aviv airport. In response to an explosion, waiting passengers fall to the floor. Jonah — who is caught in a flashback of his childhood — is slow to respond to the emergency and a policeman pulls the boy down to safety.

The terrified passengers soon learn a balloon had caused that explosive noise, but nobody is embarrassed.

Balian writes people lived in a climate of fear and they expected the worst, all the time. In this context, an oblique reference is made to the sensational hijacking of an El Al plane in 1968.

Considering he is a medical doctor working in a senior position for a big corporation, Balian's wide knowledge of history is impressive.

“I have always been interested in history and keep following world events. When I write, I just have to verify the facts.”

Given that he has also lived in parts of Europe and has put down roots in the U.S., Balian can be expected to deliver more historical novels that are spiked with autobiographical elements.

“Readers of this book have asked me to bring out a sequel,” says Balian. “For now, I want to focus on marketing this book.” His plans for Gray Wolves and White Doves include finding an Indian publisher and also trying to have a film made on it.

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