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The Critical Corner - 12/07/2004

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Why we should read...

`Selected Works' by Shirvanzade
(368pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1982)

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 7, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Armenian novelist Shirvanzade (1858-1935) has perhaps been treated
with undeserved disdain, by myself among others!  This at least is
suggested by a reading of three works published in this collection, a
novel `Namus', a play `In the Name of Honour' and a long short story,
`The Artist'.


				  I.

`Namus' (1884) was Shirvanzade's first novel. Its treatment of some of
the consequences of the primitive cult of honour that was the cause of
so many domestic tragedies in late 19th century Armenian communities
is impressive. Shamakh, a town neighbouring Baku, once a provincial
capital but now in decline, is the site for a drama that engulfs two
families, their children and many others. Shirvanzade, a skilled
narrator with a deft touch for dramatic dialogue, depicts well the
horrific results of backward social prejudice. And with a sharp
observing eye he captures something essential about the relations and
things he describes.

Sussan's and Seyran's respective parents arrange their marriage to
each other when they are still children. But Sussan, in accord with
social tradition, on reaching marriageable age, is locked away in the
home, forbidden to see any man, even her future husband with whom she
had played freely as a young child. Defiance of this tradition
promises to bring the deepest dishonour on both families. It is a
tradition that Sussan and Seyran challenge. But they are discovered
and tragedy follows. Sussan's father Parkhoutar, feeling deeply
dishonoured and humiliated, beats her savagely, cancels her engagement
and ends decades of friendship with Seyran's father Hayrabed. Hayrabed
turns on his son while the bond between the children's mothers is also
broken. The cult stands overwhelming as an untouchable, unquestionable
omnipotence. Its destructive scope is measured in a monologue by
Sussan that questions divine wisdom for permitting moral codes that
cause so much pain. Yet, she too feels, and is powerless before it
having no other option than to bend to her father's will and then hope
for death as release.

There is a weakness here however. Shirvanzade fails to offer any
description of relations or contexts that would indicate the cause,
origins or social purpose behind this poisoned prejudice. He captures
appearances well but goes little further. We feel deeply the
humiliation, the hatred and the violence that the cult of honour
causes, but we perceive no reason. The issue of `honour' seems to have
no social logic, appearing as something external to social relations,
purely arbitrary, or subjective - a problem of irrational prejudice
with no apparent social purpose. Yet a purpose it did have - that of
morally legitimising and reinforcing the oppression of women. It acted
as a moral chain that bound women as chattels to man.

If the first part of `Namus' tells of grief caused by the cult of
honour, the second deals with the hypocrisy, cruelty and barbarism of
arranged marriages. The tradition of arranged marriages was not in the
first instance a shackle either for Sussan or Seyran. They were lucky.
They loved each other. But later on even they cannot escape its brutal
clutches. Parkhoutar, hoping to restore his name, tries to marry his
daughter off a second time. With her reputation `soiled' he has to put
money into the equation and employs Shebbanik, a grasping, greedy,
drinking, shifty trickster who practices as a matchmaker. After a
great deal of deception she succeeds in fixing a marriage with the
Rustam, a well-heeled son of a local widow.

Shebbanik turns out to be the only person to profit from the
arrangement as all others involved are trapped in a web of
humiliation, hatred and self-hatred. Sussan wastes away in a marriage
that she hates. Seyran's own heartache is compounded by the
humiliation of being powerless to stop his beloved being married off
to Rustam. Vengeful, Seyran deceives Rustam into believing that his
newly-wed wife has been unfaithful. Rustam turns murderous. The novel
closes with Sussan's, Seyran's and Rustam's families in mourning. A
primitive cult of honour and a system of arranged marriages has
devastated and wasted precious human life.

For all its faults, including a rather forgettable ending - scenes of
blood and gore as Seyran commits suicide and Rustam kills Sussana -
`Namus' remains eminently readable. Its powerful treatment of arranged
marriages and irrational cults of honour is set within a passionate
indictment of the generalised brutalisation of women's lives. Vivid
descriptions of individual emotion, psychology and perception gives
the protagonists their deeply human quality and thus also their
durability. Affording a great deal of stimulation, the future of this
novel would be better secured if the substantial portions of its now
incomprehensible Shamakh Armenian vernacular dialogue were rendered
into modern Armenian.


				 II.

`In the Name of Honour', a four-act tragedy written by Shirvanzade in
1905, moves the scene of action from provincial Shamakh to the new oil
capital Baku. Here Shirvanzade depicts with effect the sordid world of
parvenu wealth, that accumulated through fraud and deception and is
then defended with no regard for honour or decency. A complex yet
perfectly credible plot revolves around efforts by self-made
businessman Andreas Elizabarian to fend off a challenge to half his
wealth from Artashes Otarian, the son of the business partner he had
so ruthlessly swindled.  The endeavour is complicated. Andreas'
daughter Margaret is in love with Artashes. Unable to accept Artashes'
charge that her father could be dishonest Margaret demands proof. This
Artashes promptly furnishes in the form of documents that he leaves
with her but with a firm promise to return them intact. Discovering
the documents, her farther destroys them and so driven by greed
sacrifices his daughter's profound sense of principle and honour.

Some sharp dialogue, written with an eye for revealing detail,
provides a compact reconstruction of social and domestic relations of
the time - the late 19th early 20th Caucasus that are in transition to
capitalism. The Elizabarian family's life reveals the tensions and
contradictions of a world in which `conscience, despite its virtue, is
increasingly being enslaved to money'. Western fashions and tastes
have begun penetrating family and public life causing havoc to its
traditional values. But even as economic and social life is attuned to
the latest technological and industrial advances, in the private
domain Andreas remains a feudal tyrant treating his wife and daughter
little better than domestic serfs.

Andreas is a typical representative of an early stage of industrial
development climbing the ladder of prosperity with no concern for
legality or loyalty. His son Bagrat however takes his wealth for
granted and dismisses objections to its illicit origin by claiming
that `all that was a long time ago.' A driven man determined to become
`a mighty financier, one of those giants who control the greatest
force of our day ` capital' Bagrat has no moral qualms. `After all,
whose father is it that did not swindle this or that person in this or
that way?' There is only one difference he argues: `the old generation
swindled in their own old way, the new generation swindles in its own
new way.'

This is the setting for the clash between moneyed greed and moral
principle that unfolds in relations between father and daughter. It is
to Shirvanzade's credit that the latter's virtue is shown to be a
function not of her gender but of an insistence on the need for decent
relations between people. Margaret's defiance of the father is
additionally forceful in its affirmation of how despite patriarchal
tyranny the spirit of independence endures in oppressed womanhood.
Besides father and daughter, a host of other characters enter the stage
to underline the central social contradiction and tension of this
drama.

Andreas's scheming business lieutenant is a master of hypocrisy lining
his own pockets whilst strutting about as if in selfless and dedicated
service to his master. With a trite comment that `our money being
tainted, it is no sin to waste it' Andreas's younger son Souren offers
a novel and radical justification for the dissolute expenditure by the
elite's offspring. Rosalia, the spendthrift daughter, ostentatious in
consumption and in cheap aping of Parisian fashions, like many of her
contemporaries also has a haughty contempt for the common Armenian man
and woman referring to Armenian servants as `bears' and demanding that
`we employ foreigners' instead.

Shirvanzade's moral vision, knitted into a dramatic plot with finely
drawn characters brings to life the corrosive consequences of the
overwhelming of human relations by monetary considerations. For
all its flaws, easily ironed out by any competent director, `In the
Name of Honour' remains fresh in its preoccupations.


				 III.

Shirvanzade's `The Artist' charms the reader with its gentle depiction
of teenage Levon, passionate about the opera, theatre and
music. Possessed of a tender sensibility and creativity he is however
trapped into circumstances inimical to his ambitions. In Levon's
mother, a rather weak, perhaps broken woman, Shirvanzade encapsulates
well some of the plebeian hostility to the artistic character often
seen as good for nothings incapable of putting bread on the table. In
her case this attitude is reinforced by personal experience. It was
her husband's love for theatre that led to an infatuation with an
actress out of his class that then drove him to drinking and ruin.
Like many mothers, she would prefer Levon to follow a steady trade
rather than take the risky road of art. So she places before him
whatever obstacles she can.

Whilst depicting well Levon's artistic temperament this is not a novel
about the artistic personality. It is rather the story of talent and
youth falling victim to the vagaries, the unpredictability and the
accidents of life. To escape his mother's stifling grip and to travel
to Italy where his beloved Luisa has returned, Levon puts aside his
preoccupation for all things theatrical and turns to earning some fast
money singing to sailors in seedy seaside taverns of Russian Odessa
where the story is set. Shirvanzade reveals an ability to conjure the
material reality of life in the `lower depths'. One can almost feel
and smell the dirt and the fumes of smoke and alcohol drifting through
bars packed with drunken and rowdy sailors.

Levon's enormous sacrifice and dedication come to nothing. On the
brink of being corrupted by alcohol, he does finally save enough money
to leave for Italy. He is elated believing his ambition and love are
about to be attained. But one evening he is mugged and robbed of
everything, including his shoes in the right foot of which he had his
150 roubles concealed. Compelling descriptions follow of Levon's
despair as he engages in a futile search to recover a pair of worn
shoes that become the embodiment of all his hopes and ambitions.
Shrivanzade is masterly in evoking the concentrated emotion and pain
of personal tragedy. To add to misery Levon finds out that Louisa was
never actually in love with and has married someone else in Italy.

Shirvanzade's prose flows smoothly and slowly, unruffled by flights of
poetic flourish or by incisive authorial observation and comment. It
nevertheless prompts emotional and intellectual reaction. This simple,
straightforward, matter of fact narrative, almost monotone style has
something compelling about it, evoking effectively the world that
Shirvanzade describes. It is a naturalism that, even though it
sacrifices the analytical vision of critical realism, is compensated
for by a sensitive, sympathetic and generous depiction of real,
memorable characters. Shirvanzade's accurate descriptions of living
human beings in social relations and circumstances that are familiar
to us all allow us to engage in their dramas as they strive or stumble
driven by everyday hopes and ambitions.


--
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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