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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 May 24, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1 In the early 1960s, freed of some of the earlier political constraints a few Armenian authors managed to deal with aspects of 1915 with a degree of artistic integrity which avoided that vulgar patriotism and chauvinism which destroys creative potential. Among these works is a volume entitled "The White Book" by Soviet Armenian author Hratchia Kotchar, who tragically died in 1966 at the age of 55. A collection of two short novels and a number of short stories, The White Book is a reflection on the power of national identity and on the human will to live. The most substantial work in the volume is The Yearning, a vital and honest recreation of Soviet Armenian life in the 1930s, with the genocide as the living backdrop to the story. Arakel is an ageing refugee from Western Armenia who precipitates a political crisis after illegally crossing the Soviet Armenian border into what was once an Armenian province. He is driven by a powerful yearning to visit his birthplace and pay homage to his family's burial grounds. A beautiful piece of writing, the story evokes the striving to revisit, remember and thus regain and revive those things and places which shaped the lives of the older generation of refugees from 1915. It is also a truthful portrayal of the daily life of these peasants, now settled in villages in Soviet Armenia. Finely captured are the clashes between generations, between families and between political factions who use the political crisis Arakel precipitates to advance their particular interests and supporters and bring down their opponents. All levels of society are depicted, warts and all, from the central state apparatus in the capital Yerevan down to the village council with its squabbling leaders. The harsh and bureaucratic response by senior and junior government officials to Arakel's queries determines the fate of many an individual and family. A commendable feature of the work is a realistic depiction of Kurdish individuals, one that escapes the parameters of a widespread racist mythology. This is a hymn to human life. Nahabed, the other short novel, is not as polished and perceptive. But it does recreate the pain, the despair and the rebirth of hope, home and hearth which followed the massacre of 1915. While Nahabed as a character is close to a caricature, this does not detract from the warmth and the humanity which his experience exudes. His experience during the holocaust traumatises Nahabed. He is gripped by despair and a fatalistic resignation to his oncoming death. Yet, despite this he remarries in virtual old age, produces children and begins rebuilding life. This transformation is portrayed with some power, verve and emotional depth. What lends it a profundity and cogency is that Nahabed's rebirth is not driven or sparked by some metaphysical or supernatural 'inner' realisation of the value of an abstract human life. It is the product rather of social pressures, social solidarity, of family concerns and of local community support. However deep their despair, communities of people must live and when they do, they pull along with them even the most despairing and hopeless of individuals. * * * * * 2 'Highways of Suffering' (Sovetakan Krogh, Yerevan, Armenia, 1990) by Vahram Alazan is written in beautiful untainted Armenian. The style and manner of the narration is gentle and simple, as if some ancient tale is being told. Yet this is a record of the harsh and brutal life in Soviet prison camps from 1936 to the early 1950s. It is a tribute to human courage, solidarity and endurance. Alazan was a devoted member of the Armenian Communist Party, a man of letters, a poet and a novelist. He was also one of the main popularisers of Western Armenian literature in Soviet Armenia. Like many others he fell victim to the purges. True courage, wrote Paul Nizan, consists in overcoming small enemies. In his 15 years of prison and exile Alazan never lacked true courage. At every stage he and his comrades demonstrated remarkable resilience and stubborn resistance. They neither succumbed nor despaired. Collective solidarity and protest against the behemoth ensured that through the most bitter years they preserved their humanity, their spirit and their hope. On the two month journey to Siberia they protest by hurling out of the carriage windows that stale and rotten bread that was supposed to be their food. Their leader is put in a solitary, unlit and unheated dungeon for ten days. At the camp they live in terror of imminent execution. They have seen many comrades called out to the prison administration buildings never to return. Common criminals with whom they were forced to mix are encouraged to bully, beat and rob the political prisoners, hoping thereby to demoralise them and reduce them to passive and obedient workhorses. Alazan with his severe high blood pressure and heart problems was forced to do the most arduous physical labour in arctic conditions. He saw many friends and campmates die of exhaustion, illness and hunger. Despite the hell that is their everyday existence the political prisoners remain human, they continue to live life, to laugh, to joke, to celebrate and to hope. Indeed their behaviour is touched by nobility. Released from months of solitary confinement back into the company of their prison comrades they organise wild celebrations, as if in paradise. A warm bath and a set of clean clothes inspires in them the feeling of freedom. They organise lectures and talks. They meet Kourken Mahari and celebrate 20 years of his literary activity. The book is of full stirring anecdotes about life in the camps, about meetings with other imprisoned intellectuals and artists and about the ingenuity prisoners resorted to in their battle to remain human. There are areas of life one would have liked Alazan to deal with, but he remains silent. There is hardly a remark about the political character of the times and the cultural, political struggles that led to the purges. There is also virtually nothing said about his own creative endeavours, his efforts and frustrations. In one respect however we do get a hint about the important political clash of the time. Aghasi Khanjian, the then leader of the Armenian Communist Party who also fell victim to the purges appears as a determined and convinced champion of Armenian national interests against an overbearing central authority. Whilst alive, he defended Charents and Bakoonts. He was an important obstacle to Beria's aims of replacing the Armenian Communist Party leadership with disgusting 'yes men.' Beria therefore murdered him and thus removed an important barrier to the purges that followed. Alazan was released from his prison camp only in 1946 at the age of 43. Like many others however he was not a free man. He had to spend another 8 years in Siberian exile before becoming a free man. In 1954 he was readmitted to the Communist Party and resumed his writing. But by then his health was broken. He died ten years later. * * * * * 3 Zabel Yessaian's extended essay 'On Mkrtich Beshigtashlian and Bedros Tourian' reveals her to be an outstanding intellectual and artist. With an invigorating perceptiveness and depth she covers national, social, political and artistic issues. The result is a brilliant and informed picture of Beshigtashlian (1828-1868) the poet and dramatist (despite the title, and alas for us, Bedros Tourian features hardly at all) and his age. Here is what we can glean. Beshigtashlian lived in the age of the 19th Century Armenian enlightenment amid the decay of the Ottoman empire. This was an age of national revival, and alongside a newly emerging Armenian middle class, there grew a national intelligentsia of some standing and integrity. This period witnessed the struggle to rescue, revive and modernise the Armenian language and transform it into an instrument for the enlightenment of the people. Here too the birth of modern Armenian theatre, letters, poetry and prose. The great intellectuals, artists and thinkers of the period, Beshigtashlian among them, dedicated themselves to improving the lot of the people. The progressive Armenian intellectual had a hard time in Constantinople. There the established Armenian elite, to win position, power and advancement willingly assimilated to everything Ottoman except religion. They worshiped everything that was foreign and were the most disgusting and fawning type of parasite. This elite had a virulent and almost racist contempt for the tens of thousands of newly arrived immigrants from the Armenian provinces. It is against this background that the progressive intellectuals sought to revive Armenian national consciousness, culture and language. The larger aim of this remarkably democratic venture was that of setting the basis for the economic/social advancement of the mass of the Armenian people - the oppressed peasantry and slum-dwelling immigrants in the cities. Such is the context for Yessaian's comments on Beshigtashlian's plays and poetry. Yessaian's evaluation of Beshigtashlian's art is as perceptive as her outlining of the conditions in which it was produced. She is sharp and uncompromising, and very witty in her devastating criticism of the 'committed theatre' of the time, with its absurd plots, its one dimensional, cardboard characters and its pompous and verbose dialogues. She notes however that this theatre, so much artistic rubbish, was produced by men and women of genuine artistic talent. Why did it take this form? Because at the time, theatre was not really art, it was propaganda, it was an instrument for reaching the people, it was a means of reviving national consciousness and national pride. For the downtrodden Armenian, the romantic, usually grossly varnished image of ancient glories, sowed the seeds of a new national pride. Theatre was not, as in the case of the European middle-classes a means of passing amusement. So despite all its defiance of norms and standards of artistic excellence, this theatre played a positive role and was indeed applauded by the people. It answered a real need. Indeed this literature of propaganda goes on to mark almost the entirety of Armenian historical novels, plays and poetry. Yessaian's appreciation of Beshigtashlian's poetry is also superlative, indicating a higly developed artistic sensibility. Here generally one finds none of the appalling sentimentality, bombast and declamation that mark his speeches and his plays. A discriminating taste, a sense of balance and harmony all contribute to a beautiful recreation of the storms and turmoil of man's inner being. Significant is Yessaian judgement of Beshigtashlian's classical Armenian poetry. While his nationalist and patriotic poetry written in modern Armenian is of a high quality, with some of it of universal significance, Yessaian argues that it is with Beshigtashlian's classical Armenian writing that he can stand alongside the best of international poetry. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.