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The Critical Corner - 06/28/2004

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A Captive of the Caucasus
by Andrei Bitov
[in English] Farrar, 1992, 323 pp.

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 28, 2004

by Shushan Avagyan


One of Andrei Bitov's compelling travel memoirs, "A Captive of the
Caucasus" is divided into Lessons of Armenia: Journey out of Russia,
which was written between 1967-69, and Choosing a Location: Georgian
Album, written between 1970-73 and 1980-83. Both Lessons of Armenia
and Choosing a Location started as travelogue essays focusing
respectively on ancient and modern Armenian architecture and
contemporary Georgian filmmaking, but eventually evolved into a full
length book. With the carefully chosen title, Bitov places it
alongside a Russian tradition of Caucasian writings, originated by
Pushkin in 1820 when he wrote a poem with the same title during his
exile in the Caucasus.  The poem became so popular that Lermontov and
later Tolstoy adopted the title for their own variations on the same
plot (a romantic story of a highland maiden falling in love with a
Russian officer in captivity, and helping him escape). In 1969, when
Lessons first appeared in print, the censors had left out its subtitle
and botched the contents. More recent editions (since glasnost), like
this one translated into English by Susan Brownsberger (Farrar, 1992),
have included the censored material and restored what Bitov had
originally intended to do with his book.

Lessons of Armenia: Journey out of Russia's subtitle is a quote from
Bitov's best known novel Pushkin House, on which he was working during
his voyage in Armenia. Drawing his expectations from Pushkin's travel
notes and looking for an experience of alienation from his own culture
in these austere highlands, Bitov is quick to embrace the ancient
heritage left by the Armenian ancestors. Typical to his writing style
- setting up the stage for a certain plot, but really ending up with
something completely different - Bitov writes: `I would call my essay
`Armenian Illusions,' if I hadn't already given it a different title
and structure. I have painted, with love and idealism, a country
foreign to me, and yet I love not Armenia but Russia - `my reason
cannot conquer this strange love.'' It's as if he is elaborating on
Pushkin's lines from Journey to Arzrum, which are also a part of the
epigraph to Lessons: `Love thine own self, / My gentle dear reader.'
Indeed, the arabesque on Aelita of Aparan is not just a sophisticated
account between two strangers, but also a reference to Alexei
Tolstoy's romantic science-fiction novel titled `Aelita, or The
Decline of Mars' (1922). Bitov looks - but all he can see is Pushkin
descending from the Georgian mountains into the lush green plains of
Armenia, or Mandelstam passing through the steep canyons; he cannot,
better yet, he refuses to exist outside the context of great Russian
classics. And as a result, his experience develops through paradoxical
multi-layered instances; through painstaking digressions he uncovers
myopic details that force the reader to either surrender and futilely
close the book, or stop resisting and surrender to the author's
mastery of diction and convictions.

Doubtless, the book received contradicting criticisms in Armenia,
nothing unpredictable for the author who wrote at the end of Lessons:
`I risk being misunderstood by both Russians and Armenians. My
material may seem interesting to a Russian, since he knows Armenia as
poorly as I do, or even worse; I'll get by with my ignorance and the
naivete of first view. But my emotion - it is riper in me - may be
easier for Armenians to understand than for Russians...' Having read
this, I flip to the beginning of the book and start looking afresh at
images so native to me, that I have ceased noticing their beauty and
depth.  Like the duduk player in the background, `behind this small,
portly genius who radiated simplicity and goodness there was another
man - huge, dark, and savage. Unnoticed, he took out a pipe of the
same kind and began steadily blowing on it, playing a single
long-drawn-out note on a never-ending breath from his immense
chest.'

Critics argue that Bitov has not captured the essence of Armenia, that
he is merely erecting an edifice of his own Russian impressions and
subjectivity. But in order to try to understand the essence of an
Armenian man playing so persistently (by heart) the notes of his
ancient forefathers, one needs to cast a brand new gaze - something
that is utterly genuine and Bitovesque. `Why do you believe you're the
only one who appreciates this? - my neighbor said to me with
inhospitable animosity.' For me, this question implies that we as
Armenians already do appreciate and edify our own heritage, and so
demand (`with animosity') the same from odars. This raises another
question: do we really appreciate this heritage, or has it gone beyond
the point where appreciation has transformed into a blind exaltation,
a mere idea, a fabulous concept? Last summer, at the 3000-year-old
structures on Erebouni hill, I walked into the royal chamber of King
Argishti only to witness a visitor handing a bill to a woman with a
lifted skirt, and another man carving his own name on the wall. Yes -
we `appreciate' our heritage by desecrating and mutilating the stones
that generations before us have borne on their backs. I think Bitov
has raised a question that needs to be urgently addressed. So much for
`not capturing the essence of an Armenian.'

The aknark that the slav author has come to write in Armenia during
his ten-day journey is slowly taking shape on paper as he visits
Matenadaran, Zvartnots, the closed farmer's bazaar in Yerevan, Garni
and Geghard, Echmiatsin and Charents's Arch. Leafing through the book
of Armenian history, he becomes debilitated and prostrate with grief:
`I ran out of black ink when I opened this book the fourth time, and I
am forced to write in red pencil. This is neither manipulation nor
symbol - it's chance - but my pages are red.' No foreigner can do any
justice to Armenia in ten days, years or millennia, and so we should
not look for fake flawless words that lack authenticity, but try to
see ourselves from a different standpoint - another tangent. Something
like this: `If I should be born anew, born an Armenian on your soil, I
would love you madly, my homeland...'

The brilliance that lies in Bitov's writing is the way he casts light
on things - the chiaroscuro and the depth, which produce unprecedented
emotion. For instance when an acquaintance takes him to Old Yerevan:
`The courtyard grew like a tree - old branches died off, new
cul-de-sacs grew up - and the branches of a tree are never imperfectly
arranged.  It's thicker here, thinner there, crooked there, broken
there - but it's a tree! Children chirp in its crown, lovers prop up
its trunk, and a black-clad grandmother keeps busy at the roots,
stooping down, kindling the stove, picking up bits of wood and
dropping them. The perspective of the generations, each courtyard like
a genealogical tree...' These thoughts are generated after a meeting
with a famous architect, whose brainwashed socialist tirades and
fantastic visions of Yerevan have nothing in common with the spirit of
its citizens. Bitov resists:

`We must not confuse cost with value, expensiveness with
preciousness... The most brilliant creation of human hands is
monosemantic and partial, compared with nature. The automobile is in
no way more precious than the glade in which we have parked.'

These words are true especially today, with Yerevan's cancer-like
casinos and cafis spreading with the speed of light along the Mashtots
Avenue, Abovian and the Opera House, with public parks swiftly turning
into grotesque buildings for strip-clubs or brothels.  Indeed, our
appreciation of this land that has been passed on to us through hell
and high water `has so obscured Armenia, has so totally destroyed my
expectations, and has accumulated so painful a burden of experience,
that I can cope with it all only in a new book.'

As his other texts, Captive is a moody book - Bitov's tone fluctuates
from genuinely joyful, to morose, depressive, careless, sardonic, even
hateful. Armenia overwhelms him; he wants to reject everything in his
own culture and adopt a new one, but that is impossible. He gladly
finds his relief in `betraying' all of his real convictions about
Armenia in order to embrace his own nationalism and love for Russia.
This is the brutal truth, and as hurtful it may sound to an Armenian -
it is the nature of the exile:

`In point of fact, this Armenia of mine was written about Russia.
Because what comparison does the traveler make, what does he marvel
at? He compares with his homeland, he marvels at the dissimilarity:
the things he doesn't have, the things he lacks, the things he has but
not enough of, not enough.'

After Armenia's tour de force comes the period of resignation, where
Bitov seems to have lost his purpose, as he keeps digressing and
rambling on various topics ranging from his trip to the Leningrad zoo
with his daughter to a vodka conversation in a boiler room about
beetles and literature. Choosing a Location: Georgian Album flows in a
more abstract way in the sense of taking national sides, but he
emerges as a critical author, who painstakingly, almost masochistically
searches for the truth as a commitment to his reader. Stylistically
more sophisticated and playful than the section on Armenia, Bitov has
total control over the text, through suspension, by impeding and
making the reader wait in anticipation: `The plot of a book possesses
the peculiarity that it must be concluded - having entered into it,
you cannot exit via some other labyrinth.'

And if as readers we are left with any doubt that what Bitov is
attempting to do is out of pure obsessive love for his subject, like
captives we adopt an ambivalent relationship with our master, the
author of the following lines:

`I didn't want to understand. I wanted to seize.  Anything added to
someone's fame (even by me), any recognition (however well deserved!)
from an outsider, is a portent of the end. An invasion and
appropriation. For some reason, love is acknowledged to have an
incontestable right. But, in fact, the person we love should be asked
whether he needs this, whether he is flattered by our unrequited right
to him... The rights of the loved one are neglected. He is a victim of
our passion.'

Subsequently another example of Bitovesque artistic reinvention
surfaces in the revisions of Russia's beloved writer and composer
Griboedov's captivity in the arms of his sibylline wife, Georgian
princess Nina Chavchavadze.  Setting up the scene from the early
nineteenth century, he reenacts the moment when Griboedov meets her:
`I am born again to a new life, realizing that I have it all wrong,
this is not Nona but Nina, and Nona - here she is!  she enters in the
middle of our tea party, with ink-stained fingers, having failed to
solve a problem about two trains. And while the trains race full speed
toward their inevitable collision (through the fault of the charming
mathematician), I tenderly examine my error...'  Whatever his gaze
touches upon, it reminds him of his own culture - Armenia, Georgia or
any other land can do nothing more for the vagabond writer but fatally
inspire.

The ending, as typical to Bitov, is painful and slow.  With a
torturous writer's block, he attempts to finish what he had begun
transcribing years ago, but there simply can be no `finish line.' In
the Postscript, which appears (`not in its place' - V. Shklovsky) in
the middle of the Album, he writes: `In its concept, and even in its
construction, this book is the ruins of a temple that I spent quite a
few years trying to build. Ruins, it seems, are my end result. But
they are the ruins of a temple never finished. For the reader,
deciphering them is a task akin to archaeology.' Next to a vignette
dedicated to the twelfth century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, he
juxtaposes a childhood memory of his visit to Chekhov's house - and
then - his pilgrimage to Ilya Chavchavadze's estate in Saguramo, after
which he keeps zigzagging back and forth, delivering comparative
verses from Russian and Georgian poets.

Unlike A.R. Kayayan, who wrote an extensive critique of Lessons in
Contra Mundum (No. 13 Fall 1994), accusing Bitov of writing through
his `deep slav subjectivity' and instincts of a Russian colonizer, I
enjoyed immensely reading and re-reading this truly solitary account
of a man who surrenders himself to the highlands of the Caucasus in a
search of his own self. Because only through exile does one come to
appreciate what one has temporarily lost - `Homeland.  Muteness.' And
because he IS an odar he cannot possibly write through an `Armenian
sensibility' as Kayayan would have liked him to, but only as a slav
self-exile, who has come to pay tribute to a strange and beautiful
land that has also been the fatal port for many of his countrymen.
Scrupulously scrambling for words, phrases, adjectives, Bitov erases
them, starts anew, only to find the `right' approach of narrating the
unfathomable expectations and at the same time estrangement from these
foreign (to him) civilizations. With great caution he treads on the
margin of `self' and `other,' contradicting himself, self-criticizing
knowingly that what he is doing is rather controversial - `I risk
being misunderstood...'


--
Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English
Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship
at the Illinois State University.

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