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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 11, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian

				  1.


'The Man Without Ararat in the  Depth of His Soul' by Vasken Shoushanian

There are books that one must read with extreme care and caution. 'The
Man Without Ararat in the Depth of His Soul' (Hamazkayin, p176, Beirut,
1998) by Vasken Shoushanian (1903-1941 - novelist, poet and political
activist) is one such book. Written in 1939, but never published in
the author's lifetime, it is his last polemic against what he saw as a
trend in French-Armenian intellectual life that was engaged in a
systematic denigration of the legacy of Armenian culture. Shoushanian's
particular target is his contemporary novelist Shahan Shahanour,
author of the famous 'Retreat without Song.' The elaboration and
defence of Shoushanian's central argument is frequently eclectic and
full of ill-considered and frequently contradictory ideas. Yet through
the web of confusion it is possible to distill something of
significant value that deserves a positive reception even today. It is
additionally of value as a historical document throwing important
light on the bitter intellectual conflicts that raged in the French
Armenian Diaspora before World War II.

Set in the context of a vision of national revival after the 1915
Genocide, Shoushanian's polemic can be read as a rejection of national
self-hatred and a rejection of that national inferiority complex that
is so common among intellectuals from oppressed nations.  Shoushanian
regards Shahanour as the typification of the self-hater who seeks out
praise and affirmation from foreigners as a condition of his existence,
forgetting that people of small nations possess a culture quite
capable of affirming their humanity.

Needless to say Shoushanian is insistent on the need to appropriate
the achievements of international culture too: but not at the expense
of own national accomplishment.  This is especially so for refugees
and exiles living in the heart of imperial states. As he aptly notes
'the bright eyes of the French cockrel are...stamped in burning letter
with the phrase "Dirty Armenians"'.  French imperial powers 'even
after granting you citizenship will never fail to remind you of your
foreign origin' and each time you raise yourself to the challenge 'he
will bring down the full weight of his vengeful cosh.'

In its best parts 'The Man Without Ararat in the Depth of His Soul' is
a tour de force, a raging, tortured poetic eruption of will and
hope. Despite the dispossession, slaughter and dispersal of 1915,
Shoushanian's voice rings with the conviction that better days will
come for the mass of refugees so recently uprooted from their
homelands. But such a future has to be fought for. And critical in the
struggle must be the will to protect and develop the national cultural
and intellectual heritage and use it to fashion life today and in the
future.  It is this battle that Shoushanian charges Shahanour with
abandoning.

Posessed of 'infinite arrogance' Shahanour rejects everything Armenian
from 'Narektazi to Zartarian'. He subjects 'every noble flight, every
endeavour and every decent aspect of Armenian life' to his 'disgusting
sarcasm'.  Nothing is spared his 'pernicious irony'. He shows no
respect for Varoujan, Siamanto, Oshagan, Charentz and others. With
'the crooked scales of a Bolis shopkeeper' Shahanour tries to measure
the 'vulgar contents of his dark defeated soul' against 'a nation's
entire civilisation'. For Shoushanian the task is therefore simple -
'we have to choose between Narek and this bit of vermin.'
Shoushanian's unbounded flow of vitriol is however at the same time an
indirect, almost unconscious expression of a deep anxiety about the
sustainability of the Diaspora. It expresses also a stubborn refusal
to acknowledge the rapidity of assimilation.

While many of its passages are of unarguable value and a treasury of
fine and noble thoughts one cannot pass over the serious flaws of this
volume. Dozens of pages marred with tiresome repetition of idea and
invective that could be cast out with benefit. A more serious failure
is the absence of any substantial extracts from Shahanour to
substantiate what are serious charges.  There is additionally the
clear influence of the then fashionable irrationalist philosophy.
Certain passages of the book suggest an elitist view of art in which
creativity is conceived of as the product of some individual mystical
energy beyond the grasp of reason. Such dangerous concepts are often
contradicted by other, perceptive, passages affirming that the artist
'never begins from absolutely nothing. There is a portion of the
collective in the most individual, the most intimate and the most
original expression of beauty.' In such a presentation the individual
is 'the sum of distant efforts, a compound of everything from the song
of the labourer in the field right up to the order of the commander in
chief.'

With the passage of time the particular individual character of both
author and target cease to be of direct relevance or import. In the
valuable portions of this book, rising above historical circumstances
Shahan Shahanour and the author becomes a poetic metaphors in a
polemic that opposes the virtues of passion, enthusiasm, energy vigour
as the path to development and progress to the cynical sarcasm and
irony of the destructive self-hater. It would nevertheless be unjust
to Shahanour were one not to remark on the fact that shortly before
his death he acquitted himself well when he opposed Zionism and
defended the Palestinian right to nationhood. Here in one respect he
marked a retreat from the positions that Shoushanian attributed to
him.


				  2.


An enthusiastic evaluation: Shirvanzade - the novelist of city life

Hrant Tamrazian's literary biography of Armenian novelist Alexander
Shirvanzade (503pp, Armenian University Publication, Yerevan, 1978) is
a real pleasure to read - whatever your evaluation of Shrivanzade as
an artist.  Tamrazian, writing with a good command of his subject and
a great deal of literary and historical erudition, produces a valuable
portrait of Shirvanzade and his times. Born in 1858 in Shamakh, not
far from Baku, Shirvanzade's relatively well-to-do parents fell victim
to a destructive local earthquake from which neither they nor the town
recovered. Reduced to ruin many of its inhabitants, among them
Shirvanzade, like thousands of others in the region flooded into Baku
attracted by the promise of easy fortunes to be made from its booming
oil industry.

But instead of wealth and luxury Shirvanzade witnessed in Baku the
wreckage of thousands of young lives consumed by the ruthless drive
for profit by Armenian, Russian and Azeri oil field owners. The
heartlessness of the newly moneyed class of Armenian capitalists
generated in Shirvanzade a deep and lasting hatred. 'The Armenian
merchant' he wrote 'is an enemy of the Armenian nation. Armenians have
no enemy more dangerous, more ruthless and more savage than the
merchant.'  Both as social critic and artist Shirvanzade never ceased
his attacks on the Baku capitalists whether Armenian, Russian or
Azeri.

Shirvanzade's experience in Baku and his sympathy for the struggling
poor led him to adopt a radical democratic politics and to join the
Hnchak part. In 1905 he denounced the anti-Armenian pogroms in the
city and attributed them to 'dark', 'external' Tsarist designs seeking
to divide and rule the region.  He joined in initatives to secure
reconciliation between Armenian and Azeri.  In discussing the roots of
the conflict Tamrazian endorses Shirvanzade's naive view that failed
to take account of any of its local sources. Whilst Tsarist policy did
indeed conspire to encourage inter-communal clashes these, had a
foundation in the growing competition between Armenian capitalist
money in Baku and an aspiring Azeri nationalist movement that was
fired by Pan-Turkish ideology. In opposing divisive Tsarist policy
Shirvanzade also protested against the persecution of Jews in the
Empire. While by no means a Marxist, let alone a Bolshevik,
criticising Tolstoy, he welcomed the late 19th and early 20th century
working class and peasant movement as a counter-weight to Tsarism. For
his pains Shirvanzade suffered both imprisonment and exile.

But Shirvanzade was of course primarily an artist - a novelist and
later a playwright and his Baku experiences were to provide him with
the substance of his novels, short stories and plays. A prolific
writer, he was to become the first and pre-eminent Armenian novelist
of urban city life. The scope of Shirvanzade's novels is vast,
incorporating all aspects of life, all classes of society and all
nationalities of the region. Claiming that Shirvanzade's novels are an
unrivalled artistic record of town and city life in the Caucuses of
the late 19th century Tamrazian puts them on a par with the best work
of the European critical realist tradition.

Disputing claims that Shirvanzade was the first Armenian critical
realist Tamrazian argues rather that his greatness rests in bringing
the realist novel to its summit. Broshian, Aghayan and Muratzan, and
even Raffi, were realists before Shirvanzade. But they were
artistically limited. Whilst accurately recording the decay of village
life, the destructive role of money and the brutality of usurer,
government official and predatory priest, their novels did not rise
above the sociological. They did not create characters revealing the
psychological and emotional results of rural disintegration.
Additionally they focussed exclusively on rural life and the threat
presented by the town to an idyllically conceived rural past.

Shirvanzade goes a step further. He is the novelist of transition. He
does indeed chart the decay and decline of the old rural life with its
steadfast traditions and customs, all breaking under the weight of the
emergent oil capitalism in the Caucuses. But his focus is on the rise
of urban life. He was par excellence the novelist of the city and his
artistic accomplishment was the creation of genuine city characters,
portraying them with psychological depth and realism. The enthusiasm
and erudition with which Tamrazian assesses Shirvanzade's fiction
demands, as a minimum, that one must first reread the novels and plays
before questioning the critic's assessment.


Besides writing fiction Shirvanzade also participated in the literary
and aesthetic debates of the day. In polemic he rejected formal
divisions between realism, naturalism and committed or politically
orientated literature. He argued that realism in its focus on actual
life inevitably incorporates elements of naturalism and simultaneously
by shining a light on social ills indicates a need to transcend them
and thus reveals elements of committed literature too. The central
divide that Shirvanzade notes in the literary world is between talent
and mediocrity, between genuine critical realism and the literature
that parroted the corrupt fashions of the day. The genuinely talented
and honest writer cannot but produce a critical art that exposes the
truth behind appearances and the self-flattering descriptions of the
society of the age. In contrast mediocrities in return for a place in
the bestseller list happily flatter the vanity and dishonesty of the
age. A view that has not become dated!

If you do not like Shirvanzade the novelist this volume is a challenge
to reconsider. If you do like him, it is not to be missed.


				  3.

Gourgen Mahari's Troubled Days

Troubled Days (Selected Works, Volume 5, 1989, Yerevan) by Gourgen
Mahari is the only completed portion of a much larger novel with the
intended title 'Days of Youth'. It was to be the sequel to his
excellent 'Stories from My Early Life' and was to cover life and
politics from the relative freedoms of the 1920's to the grim
1930's. What we have is but 70 pages covering just about one year. It
reads nevertheless as a self-contained entity and has all the charm,
the humour and the compassion characteristic of Mahari's best writing.

A ramshackle, provincial Yerevan, whose Russian Church is its only
remarkable building is the backdrop to the sad tale, told with immense
tenderness, of young Amelia driven to despair and then suicide by the
shame and humiliation she feels at the prospect of giving birth out of
wedlock.  Within this and another sub-plot, depicting a growing love
between the narrator and Amelia, we are treated to some rich detail of
contemporary life in the aftermath of the Genocide and the Russian
Revolution of 1917.

Yerevan, a gathering point for hundreds of thousands of western
Armenian refugees is also the site of bitter, internecine conflict
between western and eastern Armenians, between the settled locals and
the immigrant newcomers.  Regarded with hostility by the native
population the newcomers are also bemused by the character of
Bolshevik power. 'How can you have a country where people are not
allowed to engage in trade' one exclaims. 'Fine let the government
handle the big factories, but to have to run the corner shop - that
just brings shame on a state.' Mahari gives us no false images. Some
vivid narrative brings to life the sense of anxiety and fear that
resulted from some of the early excesses of the new Bolshevik
regime. Significantly Aghasi Khanjian, later assassinated by Stalin,
is portrayed as a critic of these excesses.

In this glimpse of life that Mahari offers there are no upright party
cadre, no 'socialist realist' inventions to mar the record of the
times. We come across many of the types that made up the times:
committed communists as well as the hangers on and opportunists;
officials running the English and American orphanages that then dotted
the land and of course their young inhabitants with all their
ambitions. Written when Mahari was 66 and after 'enduring 47 years
bitter winter years' of repression, imprisonment, exile and dire
ill-health these pages are touching for the tenderness and humour with
which he tells of hard and harsh times.


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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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