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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 19, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. LIFE IN STALINIST LABOUR CAMPS An Armenian writer-prisoner's view Gourgen Mahari's 'Blossoming Barbed Wire' (Collected Works Volume 5, 1989) is a riveting memoire-novel of his time in Siberian labour camps in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. Mahari reconstructs the monstrous apparatus of repression with characteristic wit and humour and unfolds the routine of everyday life through the tragic tale of love between an unskilled Azerbaijani worker, Mamo, and Lyudmila, a talented German artist. Every page of this book is permeated with Mahari's profound compassion and solidarity for the plight of fellow human beings. The camps shattered and destroyed tens of thousands of lives. But Mahari also shows them to have been an integral component of a regime that 'trampled millions beneath its steel boots' as it attempted 'to first reduce (men and women) to little more than clay' and then 'recast them with no memory of freedom' so that they could be transformed into 'new men', into 'cowardly and vicious, spineless and ambitious' servants of tyranny, into 'men who would monitor and censure love itself'. For the vast majority of prisoners love was of course beyond even their dreams. For men in Mahari's camp 'women were as remote as Chaikovsky's Third Symphony to a hardy bull.' Wearied, wasted and exhausted by hard labour, bitter winters and sadistically meagre food rations they were reduced to skeletons off which 'even the most skilled vulture would find no meat to pick.' If ever prisoners dreamt it was of bread alone, initially of the fresh and tasty kinds from home. But as the years rolled by they would dream only of gobbling up 'truckloads of the camp's ghastly bread' and wake with 'jaws aching and straw pillows drenched in their own saliva.' When not awake their lives were dictated by common criminals assigned with responsibility for the organisation of labour. Themselves fearful of being accused of collaborating with 'Nazi spies' or 'Trotskyite agents' they went about their business with particular viciousness. Under their supervision forced labour with inadequate food and inadequate clothing, frequently drove inmates to despair and death. Mahari has a chilling account of tree-felling where men, sent out with no experience, are left to die and decompose crushed beneath fallen trees. The experience was routine. To avoid labour many maimed themselves. More 'pleasantly' they blessed the day they were struck down by fevers so severe that even the heartless prison doctor ordered them off work. Others attempted to flee despite the high risk of recapture or starvation in the Siberian forests. After a gruelling ordeal chopping through the Siberian jungle for several days an escaping group celebrate on hearing the sound of life. Jubilation turns to dismay however when they discover they have gone full circle and are no further than their camp's perimeter. Yet so desperate are they that most start of all over again. Sometimes, by a combination of good luck, bribery and a string of inventive evasions love and passion flowered between men and women prisoners detained in barracks next door. On discovery retribution was cruel, especially for lovers expecting children. The men were hurled into isolation and the expectant mothers flung out to another camp. The mother was returned to camp only if the child died at birth. If it survived, mother and child were transported even further away. Movingly recounted, Mamo's and Lyudmilla's grief when they meet after their son's death is again one instance in many. Sandwiched between their tragedy is Gourgen Mahari's account of his own ordeal. After his arrest in Yerevan, he is held in solitary for seventy-five days and undergoes a 'great deal of personal development': for example he 'becomes conscious of the fact that he is a member of an underground-nationalist-Trotskyite-terrorist organisation' a fact about which, until then, he 'had been completely in the dark.' The charges levelled against him and many others echo the medieval inquisition and confessions are extracted by torturers with no fear of being called to account - by contemporaries or by history. Dismissing protests from a professor they stub out a cigarette on his forehead and proclaim that "whilst we are here there is no history. And when this becomes history, we will not be here"'. Moving and chilling as Mahari's account is, it is marked by a significant weakness. The vast apparatus of repression that he describes appears not as a mechanism used by an elite to protect its privileges against potential opposition but as a function of a single person's evil intent. Mahari does not name Stalin, but the reference is clear. Stalin was however the apex and a brutal representative of a substantial and ruthless elite which in fact survived his death. Focusing on Stalin alone was therefore quite convenient for his successors. It drew the limelight away from the foundation and structure of the apparatus of privilege on which the surviving Soviet elite rested. Yet Mahari's book touched a raw nerve among those ruling the Soviet Union. After its initial publication all reprints of 'Blossoming Barbed Wire' were blocked and it only appeared in Volume Five of Mahari's selected works in 1989, 24 years after it was first written. Along with Vaharam Alazan's 'Highways of Suffering' it is a record not just of appalling brutality and suffering but a testimony to the stubborn endurance of hope even in the harshest and most brutalised moments of human life. 2. AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON 'ANCIENT ARMENIAN TRANSLATIONS' It unquestionably would have been better for all had Levon Ter Petrosian limited himself to the study of classical Armenian culture where, in contrast to his political career, he demonstrated signs of real quality. Evidence is his essay 'Ancient Armenian Translations', available in a single bi-lingual Armenian-English edition (112pp, St Vartan Press, New York, 1992). The volume is welcome. But one must protest against rendering into western Armenian Ter Petrossian's eastern Armenian original. What a waste of resources and an insult to Armenians! This is, nevertheless, a valuable introduction to the cultural enterprise begun by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century and continued through subsequent ages: the translation of the best of world literature into Armenian. When Mashtots, with the backing of the Armenian Church, began work to produce an Armenian script, he was embarking on the daunting task of creating the foundations for a written Armenian intellectual and cultural tradition. Its first stage was the generation of an Armenian language Christian literature. Giving the Armenian Church its own distinctive intellectual/cultural national entity was deemed an essential component of the battle to retain its independence against the unrelenting avaricious Greek and Assyrian ambitions. The axis of the effort would in the first instance be the appropriation in Armenian of the best of international culture and knowledge. In an exciting overview that shows the scope of the achievement, Ter Petrosian divides the project into five stages stretching across some one thousand three years, when talented, dedicated and untiring scholars, usually attached to a monastery, set about the business of translation. The process begins with the Golden Age immediately following the development of the Armenian alphabet in 412. Its main purpose was to render into Armenian texts that served the Church's direct liturgical, canonical and theological needs. Despite its overwhelmingly theological character, this labour produced an outstanding and enduring heritage. The jewel in the crown was the Armenian version of the Bible. The Armenian Bible was no mere translation. Artistically it is superior (as is the St James English Bible) to its rather bland originals. A literary masterpiece it remains a treasury containing the best of classical Armenian, refined and polished to its most brilliant form and capable of serving as an inexhaustible source of linguistic innovation. As important was its role in the development of an independent Armenian national Church and in providing a reference point for a flourishing original Armenian literature, history and philosophy. Here it is worth recalling Christopher Hill's comment about a similar role performed by the Bible in its English translation some 800 years after the Armenian. The English Bible also: '...played a large part in moulding English nationalism, in asserting the supremacy of the English language in a society which, from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, had been dominated by French-speaking Normans. (The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p7) >From the end of the 5th to the beginning of the 8th century scribes who came to be known as the Greek School prioritized the translation of philosophical works of the classical Greek tradition. Its language lacked the shine of its predecessor tainted as it was by an excess of Greek influence. But its achievement contributed significantly to the work of independent Armenian scholars. But the value of their work is even broader. Many religious and philosophical works, from Greek and Assyrian authors survive, in part or whole, only in their translated Armenian forms. A lengthy period of political and cultural upheaval and disintegration intervenes before the Cilician period in the 12th to the 13th centuries. Though not marked by the overarching ambitions of the first two, it effected a substantial translation programme serving the newly established local Armenian kingdom and society. Its distinctive feature, besides the weight of secular material translated, was the use of 'middle' or spoken Armenian that made widely available many legal, medical and other scientific volumes. A so-called Unitarian period in the 14th century initiated by the Roman Catholic Church as part of its failed effort to subjugate the stubbornly independent Armenian Church did nevertheless produce a stock of useful translations. The last stage defined by Ter Petrosian crosses the 17th and 18th century and runs parallel with the modern Armenian national revival that generated a vigorous translation effort during the 19th century. Throughout the centuries translations were done from all surrounding languages - Greek, Assyrian, Persian, Arabic, French, Latin and others. Frequently in the absence of dictionaries, translators worked alongside foreign scholars. The work they produced, and their own status, was of the highest order. They were engaged in communicating the Word of the Book and therefore devoted to the task their best efforts. In respect of the standards of intellectual excellence and creativity they strived for, they made little distinction between translated works or original commentaries. Both served the same end - to enlighten and elevate the reader or hearer. Ter Petrosian elsewhere remarks on the positive content of translated and original theological literature be they interpretations, sermons, canonical texts or hagiographies. Beyond their religious content, they acted as vehicles preserving and transmitting a substantial stock of human knowledge accumulated over the ages. Some are veritable encyclopaedias reflecting the level of contemporary knowledge. Others contain important information about the social, economic and civic life of the era in which they were composed. Among them are also texts with valuable scientific analyses of the structure and content of the natural world. Whilst most translations focused on theological and philosophical material, and in Cilicia also incorporated secular titles of a more scientific, practical bent, artistic or creative works constitute a fair share of the heritage of translation. Fables, ballads, folk tales etc were not only translated, but were reworked to produce virtually original art. Among them, demonstrating an acute national sense of purpose, is a biography of Alexander the great translated by Movses Khorenatzi as inspiration to Armenian leaders. Another is the legendary Khigar containing significant elements of early Assyrian folklore and mythology. Through such labour devotees of Armenian culture did more than just appropriate foreign art, culture and science. They simultaneously fertilised the ground for the growth of a distinctive Armenian tradition that has made its independent contribution to universal human culture. One need only recall Narekatzi's 'Book of Lamentations'. This artistic and intellectual monument, along indeed with many others, cannot be conceived without the prior work of dedicated and great translators. -- 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.