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Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian December 10, 2007 I. SHIRVANZADE - MEMOIRS AND TRAVEL NOTES (Selected Works, Volume 5, 1985, Yerevan) Shirvanzade's work constitutes an honest and uncompromising artistic examination of the consequences of oppressive social, national and individual relations. Despite his detractors, who cannot reconcile themselves to his democratic and humanist nationalism, almost everything that this fine novelist wrote retains both artistic and intellectual value. They shed light on a host of social questions and enable us to detect the unfortunate persistence today of ills that he denounced so passionately in his own time. His best novels are, in art form, social encyclopaedias of 19th century Armenian life in the Caucasus that lay bare truths that were concealed and continue to be so by deceptive posturing and fraudulent proclamations. These virtues are evident also in Shirvanzade's autobiographical memoirs and his numerous travelogues. A. IN THE FURNACE OF LIFE, VOLUME II Reading this second volume of Shirvanzade's autobiography one can see why he has been so awfully maltreated by large parts of the Diaspora establishment and its intellectual class. Besides its value as insight into the author's life, it is spiced with stinging criticism of Diaspora politics that retains full force in the year 2007. Setting the scene for his sojourn in Paris during the first decade of the 1900s Shirvanzade does a thorough exposure job on the rotten core of the romantic Parisian dream. He describes well the misery of that class of impoverished, downtrodden, exploited and abused waiters, servants, cooks, street sweepers, cleaners, grocers and miscellaneous labourers who serviced the city's artistic life and its pleasure domes frequented by the vulgar rich. But for all his evident detestation of France's ruling elite Shirvanzade retained profound admiration of French culture. Not however, one should add, for modernist painters for whom he reserves acerbic and humorous treatment. A lover of the good life and the arts Shirvanzade never tired of visiting and revisiting museums, art galleries, theatres and restaurants. He also avidly read the local press, attended political meetings and visited members of the Armenian community. With his habitual, crisp clarity, Shirvanzade displays something of his personality, his literary and artistic views, his private passions for the theatre, his love of painting and walking and his pain on witnessing his son Armen succumbing to fatal mental illness. His accounts of meetings with Arshag Chobanian, Krikor Zohrab, Siamanto and Yervant Odian (for the latter he had immense respect) constitute and invaluable source for reconstructing a cultural history of the time. One gets besides an amusing account of encounters with the hedonist and spendthrift Armenian wealthy in cosmopolitan Paris. But this autobiography is perhaps most relevant to our times in its treatment of Armenian Diaspora and the ARF that was, and remains, the leading political force in exile. Shirvanzade lived his life across Shamakh, Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan and developed as a result an Armenian patriotism that was combined with a multinational Caucasian identity. Here in accounts of meetings with Antranig, the poet Siamanto, nationalist leader Minas Cheraz and others he defends his patriotism and his multinational identity against what he regards as the ARF's extreme nationalism. Throughout, ARF members feature as sectarians and chauvinists as well as arrogant and witless to boot. Shirvanzade holds the ARF, along with chauvinists within the Azerbaijani nationalist movement, as partly responsible for the bloody 1905 warfare between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Baku and the resulting hatreds. Most damming and pertinent for us today is Shirvanzade's exposure of the charlatanism of Diaspora 'national politics.' He diagnoses well the practices that continue to ravage Diaspora politics today. ''Though he (Loris Melikian) had resigned from the ARF, he had not ceased to be involved with the so-called Armenian question' and was engaged in the same course of work, namely to bring the Red Sultan's barbarism to the attention of public opinion through his parliamentary friends and acquaintances. The method was of the same kind (as the ARF's): they invited a few 'Armenophile' speakers...to address a large (of course always largely Armenian) crowd in a rather shabby (hall). Then the speakers one after the other described...the latest massacre. The audience was moved and then dispersed at the end of the meeting. The following day one or two newspapers printed a few lines in the smallest letters... and that was the end... until the next massacre. Frequently the most important speakers failed to attend these meetings, perhaps they got bored of the same gathering, of the same comedy. For their absence they always had some apology - "I am ill". Jean Jauress was the one who most frequently "fell ill".' This, Shirvanzade adds: `plus the business of hammering away at this or that minister's or senator's doors... is... the alpha and omega of nationalist politics not just of the ARF but the entire Diaspora intelligentsia'. True alas for today too, the 'latest massacre' merely being replaced by 'genocide recognition.' Hardly surprising then that Shirvanzade is not very popular. His accounts remain sharp enough to puncture the pretensions and the charlatanism of today. B. TRAVELS THROUGH LORI In 1888 Shirvanzade, then in his 20s, along with a group of friends went on a tour of the famous monasteries of Haghbad and Sanahin in the province of Lori. He was, as were his friends, inspired by their reputation as outstanding centres of medieval learning. For young socially and nationally committed intellectuals living in the ugly world of late 19th century Tbilisi and Baku and a collapsing Armenian rural village, the possible splendours of the past served as an antidote to contemporary decay and as an inspiration to battle for a better future. The glories of the past were seen, for good or bad, to be a tonic of national self-esteem for a people that Shirvanzade shows in these notes to be demoralised and humbled. But what a shock he has on arriving first at Haghbad and then Sanahin and that after a most taxing and dangerous journey through enormous and terrifying mountain ranges and massive gorges and passes that he describes so vividly. Along their journey they regularly come across the remnants and ruins of a grander past, castles and battlements perched on mighty cliffs and mountains, all now standing as accusation against the present for its failure to tend to and maintain this legacy. But the shock of these dilapidated and unkempt military posts and fortifications is nothing compared to the shock on arriving at his destination. In both Haghbad and Sanahin majestic architectural monuments, palatial constructs (that Shirvanzade compares to the best in medieval Europe), libraries once rich in intellectual legacy, beautiful stone crosses and etchings built into rocks and hills, all without exception, are left to rot and decay, used as filthy putrid storerooms or dumping grounds. Shirvanzade also, as Leo did in his record of his excursion to Ani, shows the Armenian elite and establishment to be criminally indifferent to these monuments. The picture is shocking, and say what one will about the Soviet era, it at least, in a good part of its existence helped preserve these monuments from further annihilation. One cannot fail to observe Shirvanzade's deep disdain and contempt for those members of the clergy he met on his journey. They are depicted as corrupt and immoral, indifferent not just to the grandeur of the past but also to the suffering of the people in the present, to the misery of their own living flock. They have nothing to offer and are shown in rural districts at least to be agents of cultural destruction. The same, and here again Shirvanzade is echoed by Leo, goes for the wealthy Armenian bourgeois who care not a fig for the legacy of the past and who invest nothing in the education and welfare of the rural communities whose hardships and poverty, ignorance and illiteracy Shirvanzade describes movingly. Throughout, Shirvanzade's account is touched by a moving sense of national pride. We see this pride repeatedly injured during the course of his journey, not just when he encounters artistic vandalism but also when meeting local people marked by subservience and obsequiousness, by cowardice, by begging and pleading, characteristics so common among oppressed people. But we also see him swelling with pride when listening to accounts of bravery and courage by Armenian individuals and communities, and all this with no slight on Turkish, Azeri or Georgian people among whom the Armenians he met lived as neighbours. II. THE LEGEND OF `ASHOUGH GHARIB' From a collection of four wonderful troubadour tales (Legends, Volume 1, pp25-109, Yerevan, 1992), `Ashough Gharib' is about the romance between Troubadour Gharib and the beautiful Sanam. Circulating originally in Turkish, the current version was rendered into Armenian in 1911 by another famous troubadour Ashough Djivani. `Ashough Gharib' is the story of an Armenian boy born in Tavriz, Iran, to a wealthy family. He recklessly squanders his father's inheritance and so casts his family down into the lower depths of society. But by means of some miraculously fantastic good fortune he is promised recovery and true love that he must however acquire (and here perhaps for the moral instruction of those listening in) through hard work, determination and dedication. So he sets out on a life's journey full of hardship, adventure and eventual triumph. Meanwhile the beautiful Sanam, trained to be humble, submissive and without independent passions and desires, rebels and asserts her right to love Gharib, the man of her own choice. Refusing the man her family offers her for marriage she stubbornly waits for the return of her beloved Ashough Gharib. The tale is captivating, registering that eternal hope of humankind for a fortunate turn to lift us out of the wearying rut of life's routine. Our own personal trials and tribulations, our hopes and desires all find some glowing reflection in the dramatic narrative of Gharib's adventure. The songs that knit together the hero's progress from his birthplace to Tiblisi, then on to Erzeroum, Aleppo and back to Tbilisi record the triumph of hope through effort. The entire tale affirms possibility in life, not just the possibility of recovery from devastating tragedy but the possibility of freedom and self-determination in fashioning our destiny. To fully appreciate the story one has to imagine oneself among those listening to the troubadour's tale in some isolated 19th century village. Impatient of interruption they would excitedly await the resolution to a drama that though it reflected life lived beyond their own world, was made from the stuff of their own dreams. The listener would, like most of those around him (and sometimes her too), be of humble origin, too poor to have ventured much further than the village or provincial borders. They would lead lives dictated by tradition, inheriting land or craft from their families. Parents motivated primarily by material interest would arrange their frequently loveless marriages. The listener would have experienced little sense of freedom and no opportunity to chase after a dream, no taste of adventure, danger, challenge and victory. The tale told by the troubadour would release dreams trapped in the burdens of their daily lives. To such an audience Ashough Gharib's story would be a delight offering as it does an alternative to an everyday devoid of that sense of power, triumph and elation when one succeeds in sidestepping or leaping over the predetermined. It would take the listener beyond the village across to the vast unknown world heard about only in legends, a distant world with riches and with promise where hardships and disaster can be faced up to with hope and confidence. Like many others of equal quality this epic was originally narrated and sung in Turkish dialect that was the spoken language among wide swathes of the Armenian people living under colonial Ottoman occupation. But besides their status in Turkish literature their translation into Armenian constitutes also an enrichment of Armenian literature. For despite its original narrative tongue, the tale itself is of Armenian substance, testified to by numerous Armenian Christian references and by patriotic allusions to ancient Armenian saints and warriors, among them General Vartan. -- 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.