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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
September 25, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Hovanness Toumanian and the drama of abused womanhood

Hovanness Toumanian was an outstanding poet and the best of his work
deserves a privileged position on the shelves of any lover of
literature.  Yet his position in Armenian literary criticism is not
secure. There are those who dismiss him as little more than a
provincial troubadour, claiming he merely regurgitated folklore which,
despite its Armenian colour, does not scale the heights of real
poetry. This utterly erroneous view has taken root and grown ever
since Hagop Oshagan's critical remarks in the 1930s and is now the
fashion among certain 'modernist' critics, especially in Europe.

However, to appreciate Toumanian's greatness, leave his critics to the
side and read 'Maro', a short poem of no more than six pages. Here
Toumanian depicts a profound and universal human experience in a
uniquely Armenian national form. An aspect of Toumanian's greatness
indeed rests in this ability to capture a universal human quality in
its national form. 'Maro' is a veritable drama, a human tragedy
presented in the starkest and simplest possible terms. It is the drama
simultaneously of womanhood and humanity. It retells the story of nine
year old Maro forced into an arranged marriage.  The bitterness of
this experience is portrayed with remarkable depth and feeling. When
Maro, fleeing her newly wed home, returns to her mother crying 'Mum, I
don't want to be a woman' we hear, in all its simplicity and
intensity, the cry of abused womanhood across centuries and across

But we hear more than this. We also hear Maro's cry to be free.
Toumanian movingly contrasts Maro's experience of enslaved 'womanhood'
with that of the free spirit of childhood that she hitherto enjoyed.
Maro wants to remain a child, for as a child was allowed to be herself,
to live freely, to imagine and to realise herself. But as a woman she
knows that she has become no more than an object for someone else. Her
flight from her forced marriage is her demand that she be treated as
an end in herself. However Maro pays the price for trying to be free
of the shackles of repressive social arrangements. She is first
ostracised then driven to her death.

Maro's fate is not just an individual's tragedy. It is addditionally a
terrible social drama involving a community of human beings who all
appear to be governed by forces beyond their control, by forces which
compel them to act against their humane and loving nature. Maro's
family love her and have brought her up with all the care and
tenderness they could muster. Yet in her hour of need they too turn
their backs on her. Yet they are not heartless. They are trapped. They
too lack the freedom to override social regulation and take their
evidently distressed daughter back into the home.  Instead they cast
her out into the wilderness.

When Maro is found dead, her family's grief has no measure. Yet
despite the love of her parents and despite their grief, she cannot be
given a decent burial. She is 'thrown into a hole' as Christian
punishment for her apparent suicide. Nevertheless beneath the crust of
social convention that dictates such inhuman behaviour, a genuine
humanity remains alive. Toumanian's evocation of the pain of the
family experience and his description of the mother's pleas and
prayers at Maro's graveside are in this respect heartrending and

That so much feeling, so profound an experience is evoked in so few
pages is testimony to Toumanian's achievement. His art lies not just
in the simplicity of the language but in the simplicity of the
conception and structure. The poem treats only of essentials and
brings these to the fore by means of the flow of rhythm and the colour
and crispness of image and description. By these means it also
captures a dimension of human experience that transcends not just that
of women abused, but incorporate that of humanity abused.

To condemn Toumanian as no more than a provincial troubadour is a
staggering demonstration of aesthetic incompetence, besides being an
insult to the venerable troubador. Every one of Toumanian's numerous
successful poems, including those written as children's tales, are
alive with a meaning and a passion for life.


Krikor Zohrab - a talent that was not to touch the highest peak

Krikor Zohrab is regarded as 'the prince of the Armenian short story',
comparable, some say, with Maupassant or Chekhov. Such judgements are
wide of the mark. In any Armenian canon, he would occupy a station
beneath Yeroukhan, Zorian or Bakountz, who, unlike Zohrab, have left a
substantial volume of work that would hold their own in time to come.
Yet this is not to dismiss Zohrab out of hand. His stories, by virtue
of their technical excellence, retain a certain colour and freshness
that can make for entertaining reading.

Zohrab was a perceptive observer and a witty raconteur. Few have
equalled his technical writing skills. Deploying words to full effect
he can offer remarkable descriptions of a scene, a person, a mood, a
feeling, a sentiment or an emotion. His graceful language aided by an
acute percepton gives his stories a vivacity that entertains and even
captivates. Yet the effect is only fleeting, lacking deep impact or
lasting impression. They fail to evince from the reader that cry of
'Yes, I see!' which truly great short stories do.

However not all his work is of the same order. Among his short stories
are a few excellent ones that will endure translation. 'Hagopig' for
example is a powerful, witty, yet disturbing portrait of the dead soul
in a living man; of a once vibrant and joyous person who has lost the
zest for life and now merely 'occupies himself with dying'. Zohrab
does not lack the ability to capture aspects of individual or social
experience, or features of the human psyche with some degree of depth.
But this he does rarely. His stories are limited by their narrow scope
and his naturalism whilst creating vivid images describes no wider or
deeper context that would confer on them a broader universal

'Laughter' is, as the cliché goes, a 'well-crafted' story. But it
captures only the immediate image of an unbalanced mind and heart. But
the image has no context that would truly highlight the essential
human drama behind it. In this respect, the human experience described
remains mute and not fully comprehensible. 'Zmraghda', the story of a
rich playboy seducing a poor girl is standard fare, though with Zohrab
its telling is again accomplished. Yet it suffers a profound
inauthenticity when explaining her choice to opt for a young butcher's
apprentice instead of the rich playboy. Zmraghda manages a speech so
articulate and structured that one would think this illiterate young
girl had attended oratory classes in Classical Greece. The impact of
the story is thus lost. 'The Head Nurse' confirms the case of a talent
that was misled by the false charms of French naturalism. Seeking
revenge against men when abandoned by her lover, a young woman becomes
a hospital nurse in order to delight in the suffering men endure on
the operating table. The twist in depicting the abuse of women has
novelty and a certain shocking quality, but in the depiction of the
nurse's thirst for revenge, there is an absence of that complexity and
contradiction that characterises all genuinely profound and
passionate human emotions.

Zohrab's stories that have a national or community axis are in many
respects more satisfying to read today. 'The Day After the Dance' for
example, is a memorable account of a young provincial teacher and
aspiring poet being led astray by the decadent, hedonistic attractions
of Bolis life. 'Megha Der' is a marvellous little sketch of a merchant
robbing wealth that was bequeathed to the nation. The best of these
stories comment on some human frailty or flaw, while colourfully
recording aspects of Armenian social life at the end of the 19th and
opening of the 20th centuries.

Any volume of Zohrab's short stories will entertain, inform and will
also afford moments, albeit brief, of genuine and profound
insight. Those who are striving to learn, improve or re-master
Armenian have especially good reason to read him. His writing combines
utmost simplicity of style with great versatility of expression.


Besides Armenian editions of Krikor Zohrab's works which are easily
available, English speakers can obtain 'Zohrab', selected and
translated by Ara Baliozian, 1985. A valuable volume, it contains a
selection of five stories, 'random thoughts' from Zohrab and
reminiscences and tributes from prominent Armenian literary critics
and writers. It is available at

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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