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The Critical Corner - 04/19/2004

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Why we should read...

'XXth Century Armenian Literature: issues and authors'
by Azat Yeghiazarian
322pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 2002

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 19, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Azad Yeghiazarian is a relatively little known name in Armenian
literary circles. Yet he is an impressive critic, judging from the
essays gathered in his "20th Century Armenian Literature: issues and
authors". Published in 2002 this is cheering work by someone who has
evidently resisted the ephemeral fads and fashions of post-modern and
often meaningless aesthetic theories.  Yeghiazarian's essays are
examples of fine balance and considered discussion. In remarks on
Soviet era Armenian literature for example he is critical but not
driven by the ridiculous urge to dismiss all achievement of the era
just to satisfy the prejudices of the day. His overall approach is
always creative, the evaluations original, uncommon and well argued
with some illuminating comparison with foreign contemporaries.

Among many interesting essays one group focuses on the unity and
integrity in Armenian literature whether produced in Armenia or in the
Diaspora. The differences are naturally acknowledged, but beyond these
there is a common ground in the national Armenian experience of the
Genocide and turbulent years that followed 1915. At least until World
War II, even as it reflected lives lived in different circumstances
and different countries (France, USA, Middle East, Armenia) the
response to or the impact of these events formed a central reference
point for many Armenian writers. It was not that they necessarily or
directly reflected the experience of the 1915-21 years. But their work
describes and considers Armenian reaction to this whether in the
numerous stations of the Diaspora or in what became Soviet Armenia. In
Shahnour and Charents it is a ruthless criticism of the past. In the
case of Mahari, Totovents, Vahe Hayg and Hamasdegh it is a longing for
a lost world and an attempt to recreate this in their fiction. In
Charents and Mahari, in Bakoontz and Nshan Beshigtashlian there is
also a satirical assault on the Armenian political leadership of the
time and that which followed.

In this vein the works of French-based Diaspora novelist Shahan
Shahnour and Yeghishe Charents are compared, and shown to share a
disillusionment with and a revolt against old romantic notions of
nationalism. Their work Yeghiazarian argues is a criticism, direct or
indirect, of a past nationalism that proved powerless to prevent the
calamity of 1915. Yeghiazarian's tone suggests sympathy with this view
but he does not elaborate. He notes however that this radical revolt
was short lived and the old 'romantic' views rapidly re-emerged. Again
he does not discuss the causes of this turnaround, a discussion that
could yield significant insights.

Keeping company with Charents, a delightful discussion on 'The World
of Books' draws attention to the international literary grounding for
his work, replete with allusions and references drawn from across the
globe, from Persia, India, China, feudal France and modern Germany.
Charents recasts myths and merges fables from different epochs and
cultures to tell of his own troubled times.  Yeghiazarian, in this
connection, remarks on a frequent meditation of the world of the book
- of the literary heritage of mankind - in much of modern urban
poetry. The world of the book, a whole universe of cultural references
supplies a mine of metaphor, image and definition for the urban artist
in the same way as nature does for the romantic or realist writer.
This is a suggestive point, albeit a one-sided one, that fails to take
account of the fact that the actual realities of urban life have
themselves often been adequate references for the urban poet.

Yeghiazarian opens up an interesting and much needed discussion on the
character and nature of Armenian nationalist/patriotic poetry. He
traces an evolution from the declamatory and rhetorical celebrations
of past grandeur, designed to inspire pride (some of Bedros Tourian,
Mkrtich Beshigtashilain) to the more realistic depiction of social
life, custom and tradition that one finds in Toumanian and then to
Vahan Derian's melancholic sympathy for a downtrodden but still
enduring Armenian nation that is presented in a spiritual rather than
physical or social dimension. Beyond Derian one finds Charents's
polemic against poetic declamation and against a past that is
considered as a failed enterprise and devoid of any sustenance for the
future.

These poetic transitions clearly reflect, and are reflections upon the
actual social, political and national experience and development of
the Armenian people tracing the road from the hope that accompanied
the 19th and early 20th century national revivals, the defeat and
despair of the genocide and war years and the a new recovery.
Yeghiazarian does not elaborate the point but he does raise a related
issue, arguing that from its inception in the 5th century, Armenian
literature was driven on by an overwhelmingly purposive and social
impulse.  It is a point well made. A broad national and social impulse
is almost unavoidable in the work of an intelligentsia determined to
create art in a language and within the experience of a nation
confronted with huge social, political and cultural odds, fragile,
unstable and stalked by foreign powers bent on its destruction or
assimilation.
 
In this connection, an essay that argues the prominence of
national/patriotic themes during the worst epochs of Soviet Armenian
history is thin argument and flawed. Yeghiazarian implies that writers
such as Shiraz, Kapoutikian, Temirjian, Zorian and others were able to
consider Armenian themes even at the height of the Stalinist
repression. But he fails to mention that 'patriotic' themes were very
much controlled and became permissible and widespread only during
World War II as a concession by Stalin to boost his war effort among
non-Russian people.

The treatment of patriotic or national issues, for example in Nairi
Zarian's 'Ara the Beautiful' was not a natural development over the
entire Stalin - or indeed post-Stalin - era. One only need to look
back to the fate of Charents, Bakoontz and countless others and
forward to the malicious persecution of Barouyr Sevak. Furthermore,
despite noting it, Yeghiazarian does not attribute adequate importance
to the severe consequences on the prohibition, until the 1960s, of
open discussion of the genocide.  This was to lead, as Mushegh
Kalshoyan has perceptively noted, to a great deal of distortion and
corruption in Armenian national thought and consciousness in art and
society at large. Crucially, Yeghiazarian fails to make a persuasive
case for the artistic merits of 'national orientated' art in the worst
Stalin years.

Beyond national concerns, a comparative study of Armenian poet
Hovannes Toumanian shows him to be a visionary of the same order as
the European Utopian socialists. Yeghiazarian draws out some
fascinating parallels and differences between them on issues such as
the role money, private property, the role of work and labour and
question of human happiness, vice and virtue.  In Toumanian there is a
stress on the spiritual, on human emotion and sensibility that is
absent in the rather dogmatic and mechanical Utopians. Additionally
Toumanian's thought with its emphasis on voluntary effort and
voluntary collaboration suggests a democratic sensibility again absent
in the more authoritarian utopians.  The latter's preoccupation with
the narrowly material led to an overlooking of the spiritual and
democratic social relations that are indispensable foundations for a
valid Utopian vision.

In other essays on Avetis Aharonian, Aksel Bakoontz, Avetik
Issahakian, Nairi Zarian and Levon Shant, Yeghiazarian always
surprises and refreshes. But he sometimes disappoints too as for
example when he totally ignores such a dominant figure as Barouyr
Sevak, while making much of the lesser poet Silva Kapoutikian. On
another level many of the essays lack adequate citations and
elaboration that would lend them depth and substance. Perhaps
Yeghiazarian will rework and expand some of these for they contain
elements immensely valuable for our understanding of 20th century
Armenian literature.


--
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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