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Worth a read

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...


Armenian News Network / Groong
March 5, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian

				  1

Antranik Dzaroukian was best known as the energetic editor of the
Beirut based and very highly regarded 'Nairi' periodical. But he was
also a poet and novelist.  His best work is, I think, 'People Who
Skipped Childhood', an autobiographical story of his experiences in
the deserts and orphanages of Syria.  Dzaroukian carves out episodes
of childhood life in which want, hostility, bitterness, hatred and the
thirst for revenge predominates in place of those more tender and
joyful emotions we normally associate with our early years. The
orphanages with their harsh regimes and minimal Amenities buried all
innocence and joy. Aged between 6 and 8, the boys who inhabit them have
already learnt to live as adults, as primitive adults. At 6 they are
cold and hard, self-seeking, greedy and selfish. They have no choice.
As a condition of survival in their world of scarcity, of want and of
misery, they have to suppress all altruism, all softness and tenderness.
Thus the vicious fighting over a tiny morsel of bread, the thieving and
the bullying.

It is Dzaroukian's virtue that he does not assert the plight of these
young boys with clichid and meaningless sentimental phrases so
frequently evident in our literature. Instead the drama of their souls
unfolds through descriptions of events of daily life. Despite the
bitterness of their lives, through each description, of even the most
sordidly Darwinian scene, there lurks among theese boys a hidden
yearning for tenderness, love, human companionship and human solidarity.
But alas these lurk only in the background, like buds denied water.
They do not flourish. But neither do they do they perish - even at the
height of the selfish struggle for survival. In these perfectly
conveyed stubborn flickerings of human dignity, in the images of human
nobility in the darkness of the orphanages, we sense the enormous
tragedy of those who survived the genocide. Here dwells the pain of
life without a childhood. But here, too, is the dream that endures
even in the worst hell.

			      * * * * *

				  2

Kourken Mahari (1903 - 1969) was a poet, novelist and playwright who
suffered enormously. A refugee and orphan from Van, he ended his days
in Yerevan but only after lengthy and debilitating sojourns in
Russia's Siberian prison camps. Nevertheless he wrote prolifically,
though much with questionable value. Yet his 'On the Threshold of
Youth' is another valuable autobiographical memoir of childhood and
youth, a gentle, well-written evocation of life in Van and Yerevan
which gives us a vivid sense of what it meant to survive the holocaust
as a young orphan.

Mahari's account frequently throws sharp, but always sideways glances
at the social and political issues of the day. Neither these nor the
religious, cultural or national issues of the time feature centrally
in the volume, but as a record of a vanished history of an epoch of
blood and pain, it is moving and in places beautiful. Mahari draws
portraits for the readers charming snapshots of 'ordinary', but really
extraordinary, figures who struggled against impossible odds to
survive and live. For these remnants of the genocide, orphanages were
the homebases from which they sprouted in search of a new life.  There
are those among them who became great poets and writers.  Yet the ones
we remember most are the teary orphans with their hopes, their hunger
and their tattered clothes, their little loves and, most importantly,
their large dreams.

			      * * * * *

				  3

The first and the last of Vartkes Bedrossian's 'Four Novelettes' are
genuine, truthful and realistic renderings of aspects of the lives of
ordinary, 'non-party' men and women in Soviet Armenia. Bedrossian was
a talented writer who managed to circumvent the art-destroying
parameters of the 'Soviet Socialist Realism'. As a result we have some
fine and sensitive accounts of the alienated existence of Armenian
youth in the latter stages of the Soviet era.

In 'Lived and Unlived Years' a dispirited journalist is asked to
investigate the suicide of two young lovers who have been denounced
and expelled by the youth wing of the Communist Party. Rebelling
against the Party's pre-determined 'line' on the issue, his search
reveals the stifling nature of the prevailing 'socialist morality'. In
reality it is no more than Armenian religious prejudice and old
peasant morality modified and re-dressed in socialist clothing. The
couple apparently betrayed both family and Party honour by making love
in the village field, so they were hounded by family and party and
driven to despair.

The last story 'The Last Teacher' is of the same quality as the
first. Here the scandal of a striptease by some students leads us to a
gripping tour through the corrupt hierarchy of the educational
system. Learning by rote replaces creative thought and the students'
interests count for naught as teachers are concerned only with
maintaining discipline and seeing the day through without undue
mishap. Into this deadened, spiritless, anaemic world walks a figure
of genuine honesty and integrity. Mamian's efforts for the children,
his humane responses to events and his relations with local parents
bring forth a vivid portrait of modern Armenian life prior to the
collapse of the Soviet Union.

Peppered with sharp observations about life, the individual psyche
and the human condition, these stories cast a reflection on human
life beyond the boundaries of the Soviet society within which they
were written.

			      * * * * *

				  4

Medieval Armenian Popular Songs, a volume first published in 1956, is
a truly splendid anthology of some 140 well-annotated Armenian folk
songs from the Tenth to the Seventeenth centuries. The editor, Assadour
Mnatzaganian, opens it with a brilliant introductory essay delving into
the now remote world of the Armenian peasantry during these long, harsh
and brutal centuries.

Written in clear Armenian and pleasantly free of tiresome dogmatism,
Mnatzaganian reveals the human world behind allegorical tales of
battles between heaven and earth, the clashes between the seasons and
behind the stories of peacocks, birds and sheep. All the pain and the
suffering, the anguish and the despair, but also the hope and the
optimism of the ordinary people echo in these songs.

Mnatzaganian quotes Maxim Gorky to the effect that folklore often runs
parallel with official history, filling out the latter's gaps,
especially in relation to the lives of the 'lower orders'. This book
reinforces Gorky's observation. Almost all aspects of life - labour,
love, the wonder of the seasons, issues of religion, war, conquest and
emigration and the slave's eternal struggle for freedom - feature in
these songs, some of which attain the finest artistic form.


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Mr. Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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