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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
August 28, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian

				  1.

'The Evil Spirit'
A novel of backward prejudice by Shirvanzade


Alexander Shirvanzade (1858-1935) is generally regarded as one of the
great exponents of the Armenian realist novel. The merit accorded to
his work is however undeserved and much of his legacy is unreadable.
But he was sometimes a shrewd social observer with a facility for
story telling. So amid his voluminous works there are a few worthy of
note. `The Evil Spirit' is one. A short novel about `Sweet Sonia', a
young epileptic, it evokes with some emotional intensity the plight of
community life, particularly for women, in a society tainted by
ignorant and irrational prejudice.

After experiencing her first epileptic fit at the tender age of seven
Sonia is locked away in her wretchedly impoverished home. With
unfortunate victims of epilepsy treated as if afflicted by evil
spirits, public knowledge of Sonia's condition would scupper the
family's chances of marrying her off. As it is, Sonia would have been
locked away at the age of 9 so as to prepare her for the traditional
arranged marriage. Her condition only determines that her perpetual
enslavement will begin earlier. Trapped at home Sonia yearns for her
friends whom she hears shouting, laughing and crying as they scour the
ruins of the village only recently hit by an earthquake.  But slowly
she is moulded to subservience, she adapts and adjusts to her new
destiny, at least outwardly. Indeed was this not the purpose of
incarcerating marriageable girls? To break their individual will,
destroy their independent spirit and prepare them for their submissive
role as breeding stock and workhorse in `holy family' life? Initially
with some remembrance of her freedom days Sonia makes dolls, naming
them after her erstwhile playmates. But later in transition to wifely
servitude she begins to knit and darn socks - which her wastrel father
will sell for drink. A total parasite, he treats his wife Shoushan and
his daughter accordingly thus aggravating their anguish and their
pain.

Sonia's mother sighs a sigh of relief believing that the `evil
sprit'has been vanquished by prayer and by trust in god.  She is
eventually married off. But for Sonia marriage is but a new stage of
her road to Calvary. From the outset the petty and narrow hatreds of
her in-laws make a hell of her life. And when she suffers the first
fit of married life her nightmare existence and the threat of tragedy
become almost palpable.

The novel is not without its faults. Too many speedy transitions leave
us blind to the full nuance of Sonia's development and `adjustment' to
her imprisoned life. Additionally as Leo has noted, by conflating her
in-laws' general hostility with that inspired by Sonia's particular
condition, the full viciousness and irrationality of the prejudice
against epileptics becomes less telling. Nevertheless most of the
characters, especially Sonia, her mother and Mad-Daniel, the local
village idiot who against the ugly social grain displays profound
human compassion for Sonia are striking human types. Their
relationships, together with those of the minor characters, convey
well the drama of people whose lives are trapped in the web of
medieval prejudices and poverty.


				  2.

`The Story of a Life' - a fictional memoir

Stephan Zorian's early novels and short stories, drawn as they are
from life in Armenia itself, reflect national traditions and practices
more authentically than the works of writers such as Shirvanzade who
focused substantially on the life of Diaspora communities. `The Story
of a Life', a fictional account of childhood and youth in north-eastern
Armenia at the turn of the 20th century is a case in point. With its
well constructed characters - the protagonist Souren, Eve, Ashod,
Sampson, Setrak, the book is more than an engrossing account of life
amid poverty, foreign oppression and backward social customs. In
reconstructing the story of Souren's early life Zorian also
illuminates aspects of the story of life itself.

The first sixty pages make thrilling reading with its charming
recreation of the fantasy of childhood blending its mix of chaotic
emotions, confusions, strivings and appetites, innocent ambitions,
pleasures and pains. On virtually every page we encounter the magic
and the tragic of early life. Souren survives a hostile family split,
suffers the marriage to another of his first childhood love, endures
the blow of his brother's death and explodes with indignation at the
intended betrothal of best friend Setrag's sister to some hateful old
man. Yet no misfortune dampens his ardour. With incredible imagination
and daring he and his friends resort to some amazing ploys to foil
their numerous tormentors.

Armenian resistance to foreign occupation is a central part of
Souren's formative experience. At the time all Armenian schools were
closed by theTsarist authorities as part of their strategy to
undermine the emerging Armenian national movement. At the age of 7 or
8 we therefore see Souren preparing to enter the local legal Russian
school. Before, he had attended illegal, underground Armenian classes
run by teacher Zakar.  Assembling in a derelict basement, the
permanent leaks, the damp and the wet force both pupils and teachers
to take classes in the open fields. They are discovered. The school is
closed. Zakar is arrested and exiled. But the resistance continues, in
numerous ways.

Early adventures give way to the woes and the burdens of mature life
which however brings with it a broader promise and potential. From
Russian school Souren moves to his first job as a transcriber of
letters in the local railway station. He has his first bitter
encounter with human deceit and treachery, experiences his first
imprisonment and undergoes a process of politicisation.  Souren's
gradual transition to adulthood is captured movingly in the accounts
of his unrequited love for Anahid.

The second part of `The Story of a Life' is of inferior quality. Yet
it is an interesting record of people and social-political life in
Tbilisi, once, like Bolis, a prominent centre of the Armenian Diaspora
and a base for the national revival. It is to Tbilisi that Souren
comes to find work and complete his education and discover the world
of books. Characters and places, social relations and political
situations are brought to life conveying well the atmosphere of the
town as a provincial imperial administrative centre.

It may be bold and debatable, but it is reasonable to assert that `The
Story of a Life' compares well with Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.
Both convey with wit, humour the wonder, the adventure, the mystery
and the magic of childhood. Both recover the frequently forgotten
reality of a child's universe that is marked by broad, profound,
enormously diverse emotional and intellectual experiences touched by
an unfathomable innocence that makes childhood so enchanting.

				  3.

`Paramaz'- a biographical sketch of a Hnchak leader

Paramaz (1863-1915), one of the most outstanding members of the
Armenian Hnchak Social Democratic Party, is not served well by this
biographical sketch written by H. M. Boghosian. Stringing together
disparate events in a rather inconsequential chronological structure,
the booklet does however include material that stimulates thought on
aspects of modern Armenian history. It is in addition of particular
value for reprinting some of Paramaz's writings.

After the rapid disappearance of the inchoate and amorphous Armenakans
the Hnchak Party, founded in 1887, was the first truly modern Armenian
political movement. During the course of its historical development it
underwent a number of qualitative transformations. But two enduring
features marked out its early period. The Hnchak Party, from its
inception, called for the establishment an independent Armenia arguing
the case for the separation of historic Armenia from the Ottoman
Empire.  Recognising the then multi-ethnic, multi-national composition
of Armenia's historic territories it argued for a platform of
democratic and equal national rights as the foundation of an
independent state. Whilst the Hnchak party on this basis succeeded in
rapidly setting down deep and strong roots in the Armenian communities
of the Ottoman Empire, these were not in historical Armenia but
outside, in Cilicia and elsewhere. The consequence for both the
Armenian people and the Hnchaks were incalculable.

This was the context for Paramaz's political work as he criss-crossed
the Ottoman Empire's Armenian communities, often disguised as teacher,
merchant or vagrant, speaking, educating and organising. Besides
working in Cilicia, Van and other areas of historic Armenia, he was
also in the Caucasus where he was prominent among those who worked to
promote harmony between different national groups. Arrested and tried
in Van in 1898 a rousing speech from the dock summed up the essence of
his outlook:

    `Because our demands cannot be satisfied within the Ottoman
    Empire, we revolutionaries, recognizing our fundamental human
    rights demand THE SEPARATION OF THE POPULATION OF ARMENIA FROM THE
    OTTOMAN STATE. We are not chauvinists - Our determination is that
    the Armenian, the Kurd, the Turk, the Arab, the Laz, the Cherkez -
    (who live in Armenia) be ruled by people they vote for and be
    governed by laws that they vote for.  We demand Armenia with all
    the people living there!'

With ups and downs Paramaz continued working until 1914 when he was
again arrested falling victim to a major pre-meditated offensive
against the Hnchaks by the Young Turks. The reason for this offensive
was self-evident.

While political and military defeats along with internal fragmentation
led the Hnchak Party to eventually abandon its revolutionary policies,
it still retained a sharp evaluation of the political evolution of the
Ottoman Empire and its constituent national groups. It produced an
accurate accounting of the essentially national-chauvinist and
fascistic character of the Young Turks.  Paramaz in particular noted
their hostile and intolerant attitude to other national groups and
condemned their drive to centralize state power seeing it as nothing
less than the efforts of the new Turkish elite to defend what remained
of the now much reduced colonial empire. Paramaz was with that wing of
the Hnchaks who anticipating the disaster of the genocide, opposed the
ARF deal with the Young Turks, began cultivating the Turkish
opposition and advocated the revival of Armenian armed self-defence
and prepared to go underground again.

In the context of a crisis ridden Ottoman empire marked by rising
Young Turk oppression, especially in historic Armenia, the prospect of
a resurgent Armenian revolutioinary movement was serious. The Young
Turks feared that Hnchak movement could take the initiative from the
ARF and present a real threat of resistance to their designs. So they
moved into action. Paramaz and some two hundred organisers and leaders
were put behind bars and the Hnchak organisation was effectively
broken.  Paramaz was even charged with conspiracy to assassinate
Talaat Pasha and other leading Young Turk members. With the Hnchak
threat out of the way, the Young Turks anticipated little other
opposition to their genocidal schemes.  And when Paramaz and his
twenty comrades were publicly executed in June 1915 in Istanbul the
deportations in historic Armenia were already underway.

An interesting sidelight of this booklet is its information about
Armenian villages and communities in north-Persia. At the time and
perhaps even up to the 1930s the notion of a `Persian Armenia'
retained some reality. Areas nearby Lake Urfa (sometimes considered
part of ancient pre-Christian Armenia) were still dotted with towns and
villages populated by long-standing Armenian communities. Whilst never
an object for Armenian national demands, the Armenian revolutionary
movement used this area as a safe home base for manufacturing and
smuggling guns and propaganda into Ottoman dominated Armenia.


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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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