Review: PAPER MOUNTAINS by Jonathan Maiullo (Armenia)
Paper Mountains: An Armenian Diary
(Peace Corps memoir)
Jonathan Maiullo (Armenia 2008–10)
Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
My Armenia is not a country. . . . It is a place without a physical form. It is a collection of events shaped by external pressures.
Jonathan Maiullo was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia from 2008 to 2010. He taught English classes in Yeghegnadzor when he wasn’t exploring the country on foot. After his service, he taught English in Paraguay, among other places, and hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016. He was an actor, and he studied veterinary medicine. He changed his name in 2001 from Dickerson to his grandparents’ real name that was changed upon immigration to the U.S. (I love that, being of Italian descent also.)
What struck me most about this writer is his ultra-keen observations. He’s a verbal camera. He writes as though his Peace Corps experience is not really about him; it’s about Armenia.
I didn’t want Armenia to mean anything to me. . . . But Armenia was too demanding. It didn’t permit such passivity and intentionally threw obstacles in my path so that I had to keep my eyes open.
Maiullo’s diary is divided into seasons, not a stilted chronological account of his daily experiences.
I try to write about the entire day, but when I sit down to write something about it, I find that all the flavor was in the individiual moments . . . some daysare just paced out in sentences rather than paragraphs or pages.
This diary consists of vignettes couched in changing climates. The first day of winter he sees “ . . . the snow drifting down like small white leaves in the dark.” In spring “ . . . birds jostle each other” on his windowsill. In summer with its “dry rippling sun,” he walks over the dusty stones of Transcaucasia. “As I walked, this dust coughed out from under my shoes and settled around my ankles.” And “. . . the melancholy of the autumn sky stretching out, long and pacific, looking like two blank and mysterious calendar years unfurled.”
During Maiullo’s second year in Armenia he describes the seasons that have now become familiar to him, remembering the previous year when everything was new, and he realizes the ways in which he had changed since then.
Maiullo uses original verbs and a vocabulary that brings every visual snapshot into focus: “ . . . butterflies skittering”; “ . . . red poppies burning”; “ . . . dice galloping across the board”; “Long sails of laundry fly gaily between the stones.” “A gust of wind pulled the water from the rock face . . . pushing empty bottles down the mountain.”
Every RPCV remembers when you first meet your host family; your name is called and a stranger steps forward to claim you. “It was like some bizarre adult adoption scheme. . . . We were overwhelmed by the otherness of our hosts.”
Then there’s the elation of finally being placed in a home of your own, in Maiullo’s case a small apartment in the town of Yeghegnadzor in southern Aremnia, a place where he could “. . . come home and turn on the music after work, smoke and watch a movie at the same time, get up at night to pee without getting dressed.”
Maiullo struggled with the language “If I don’t get used to this language, it’s going to be a rough couple of years.” But he does. And eventually finds himself meeting some Armenians in Tblisi and other Armenian enclaves and is thrilled “. . . to have the chance to talk to people that you can understand and, in a small way, relate to.”
Maiullo hikes as much as ten hours a day, meeting peasants outside their shacks, while sometimes a BMW or Lada from the city offers him a ride, which he usually refuses. He’s an indefatigible hiker (most of the time) exploring rugged mountains and treacherous terrain. The picture on the cover shows Maiullo, a dark, bearded shadow against bright mountains, looking like a wary wolf or, as he describes himself, a “bedragged wildebeest.”
In Armenia, not many people sport anything like a beard, even the occasional mustache is rare. I get a lot of people asking me what the hell I’ve got a beard for, as if I was actually using it for something.
Walking becomes a meditation inspired by “craggy mountains . . . in the fading sunlight.” He shares philosophical insights upon meeting a guard dog that threatens him.
. . . it sometimes seems that perhaps possessions and the desires that stem from them are all crap and all of us are just barking frenetically in front of junk that has no value, trying to keep others away from our patch of matted grass and scattered holes.
With his skateboard he becomes the village pied piper, showing the kids how to do it, including one brave little girl. He has a hard time relating to rather shallow young men of his age who generally are focused on vodka and sex, but he gets along just fine with old people, children and dogs.
There’s a hysterically funny story about his Kruschev-era bathroom faucet breaking, spewing raging torrents of water to the ceiling, while he “stood there stupidly” until he found a neighbor’s father who banged the thing back together, then invited him upstairs for strawberries.
The most frightening story happens when Maiullo hikes to the border of Nakhicevan, a remnant split from Azerbaijan to the northeast, where hostilities have simmered since 1994 after Armenians fought for Nagorno-Karabakh. He is approached by soldiers with rifles, subjected to frightening interrogations and arrest at an army base. His biggest problem was trying to explain why he would be aimlessly wandering around the mountains. Nobody does that! He is finally released on probation after signing a confession he could not read, then an officer escorts him off the base and flags down a car to drive him back to his village, a humbled man. People give him a list of things that are unsafe, including “pretty much everything [he] does.”
I was fascinated to read about the intriguing history of the Transcaucasus, since I recently discovered the heroic Imam Shamil who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War of 1817–1864 that involved many ethnic groups including Armenians, Chechnyans, Dagestani and Circassians in the never-ending wars of Muslims and Christians.
Maiullo takes the reader into his confidence. You get to know him. Sometimes he is nostalgic for America, especially the food, like most PCVs. He romps around a map of memories, mostly of restaurants, through myriad points of the U.S. Sometimes he’s ecstatic for no obvious reason; or sad about unfortunate things that happen to innocent people or a dog he loved.
Whenever I review a book I read with a pencil, marking in the margin a turn of phrase that impresses me. I marked up almost every page of this book with exclamation points like fence posts next to sentences and paragraphs !!!
I get the sense that the author is humble enough to accept literary criticism, such as minor editing flaws that I detected. While reviewing books I often get stuck, indignant, on editing errors. But in the context of this superb writing, I thought “who cares.”
Maiullo closed his service and his book by reminiscing. “I’d really like to write something meaningful. Something that describes the life I lived in Yeghegnadzor . . .,” and then eloquently describes his kaleidoscopic memories of shifting colors and scenes. His book is more than meaningful. It is a soulful gift to everyone who reads it.
Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs. (amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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