Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2010 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Why we should read... `The Dark Valley: Short Stories by Aksel Bakunts (Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi, 149pp, 2008, Taderon Press, London) Part One: An artistic history of the Armenian peasantry Armenian News Network / Groong April 13, 2010 By Eddie Arnavoudian I. THE ART OF THE DARK VALLEY `Almost untouched and wild' Aksel Bakunts's (1899-1937) Dark Valley resembles `one of those forgotten places from an era when mankind did not exist and the fossilised dinosaur felt as free as the bear does in our days (p13, p140)'. It was from within the villages of this valley nestled in remote mountainous regions of eastern Armenia that Bakunts fashioned this, his first, volume of short stories. Published in 1927 they unearth dramas of maimed lives, deep sorrows, lost loves, wounded spirits and sad remembrances, the artistic excellence of which is conveyed in this ample English translation by Nairi Hakhverdi that adds to that fine body of Armenian literature being made available to English readers by Taderon Press and its associates at the Gomidas Institute. Novelist Anahit Sahinyan who demanded the highest standards for translated literature found wanting even Hovanness Toumanian's Armenian renditions of Pushkin, generally judged to be as near to perfection as possible. `Whatever Toumanian has translated', she insisted `certainly offers the Armenian reader a taste of poetry, but it is not that of Puskhin's, it is Toumanian's.' (p148) If this be the standard and so it should, then Nairi Hakhverdi's English translation of Bakunts is a significant accomplishment. Though not flawless, many of its lapses are technical rather than artistic. So it succeeds in taking us almost seamlessly into Bakunts's fictional world. Giving us a sense of Bakunts's creative energy, his craft and his technique, Nairi reproduces something of the scientific precision of prose, the apt use of words, the graphic images and metaphors, the defining detail and the poetic evocation of the original. The best stories from `The Dark Valley' have indeed the quality of fine poetry - brief but intense encounters with experience that is grasped with revealing intensity. In just a few pages Bakunts presses so much passion, so much love, pain, woe and bewilderment and so heavy a shadow of regret and melancholy that has been the life of his protagonists. His work is also revolutionary and that in a deeper sense than is suggested by Bakunts' support for Soviet power. With persuasive art he reveals the roots of human woe not in inescapable flaws of human nature but in socially constructed and therefore alterable relations. Lives in the Dark Valley are repeatedly distorted, bent, torn and snapped and the spirits of men and women felled by repressive relations, by women's servitude, by class exploitation and by the elite's conduct of war, as well as by prejudice and superstition the wounds of which lie open on almost every page of this volume. In `The Dark Valley' that gives the volume its title, Avi's grotesquely disfigured head and face is the result of a duel against a wild bear that he is forced to undertake by a savage and sadistic guard protecting the wood of the forest for its feudal landlord. In `Vand's Badi' the haunting figure of a grieving father is fashioned by the brutal state execution of his innocent son radicalised during the war. The story of Tall Markar's personal tragedy, the death of his wife and his subsequent emotional and personal recovery all flow from the bitter realities of Young Turk state organised genocide. Bakunts enables us to witness with deep empathy the experience and sensibilities not just of the men and women, but of all living creatures, of bears and birds, horses, dogs, lizards and worms and of plant life too, of flowers and trees and shrubs. He does sometimes falter with forced metaphors, invented as if to boast verbal dexterity, rather than communicate content. But beyond exceptions there dominates even in translation a particular quality of naturalism free of redundant reproduction assumed to be the flaw of this genre. If there is photographic quality, it is of photography as art, of substance critically observed and recreated rather than of appearance copied. Put, as it were into the skin and fold of people living in almost indecipherable proximity with nature even the most hardened city dweller will experience a sense of existence not marred by the many dislocations of urban life. Further, encounters with protagonists who are at one with themselves and with nature invite attention to possibilities of existence free of the ugly consumerism peddled as an escape from 21st century alienation. Remote though it is, the Dark Valley is nevertheless fixed into the world of 19th and early 20th century Tsarist occupied Armenia and so is battered by the tides of World War I, the Genocide, Russian Revolution and Soviet power. Reflecting their impact Bakunts's work forms in addition a unique chapter in that artistic book of the eastern Armenian peasantry created by novelists and poets such as Khatchadour Abovian, Berj Broshian, Ghazaros Aghayan, Muratzan, Hovanness Toumanian and others. Written prior to the triumph of Stalinism, with subtle accuracy Bakunts illuminates the reticent, even ambivalent albeit not entirely hostile attitude of the Armenian peasantry to the 1917 Russian revolution. II. The Darkness of the Valley Bent on destroying Bakunts and his comrades at the behest the rapidly degenerating Soviet elite Stalinist hacks rounded on Bakunts with claims that he idealised pre-revolutionary rural life. There is however in fact nothing idyllic about the Dark Valley. On the contrary, the lives to which Bakunts introduces us testify to endemic backwardness and unending state exploitation. The Dark Valley is dark not because of any romanticised geographic isolation but because it exists impoverished, backward and, critically, outside the mainstream of urban life and of the more familiar rural world of the Ararat plains. (Note 1) On any `peaceful working day no one in the city would have thought twice about the village that lay behind the mountains' for after all Uncle Dilan, Sandukht, Peti, Tall Markar and Sakan among others are neither primary providers of food for the cities nor a source of significant wealth or tax. Humble people they eke out a living on marginal land where `unequal fight(s) between man and beast' (p16) are common and where if land `is not tilled for two years, the forest will swallow (it) up' or a sudden `flood from the mountains' will wipe out an entire village (p34). Ever alert to the ironies of harsh life on the edges of nature and civilisation Bakunts evokes the touch and smell of squalid and miserable community conditions amidst the beauties of nature. As Sakan passes the bed of a visiting female Bolshevik activist `a pleasant fragrance reached' his `nose as if someone had plucked flowers from the mountain, squeezed them, extracted the fluid, and sprinkled it like water on the sheets, the floor, the charred ceiling.' In contrast to this natural beauty brought into his home by an urban visitor, there hangs in Sakan's room `the smell of an unclean bedspread, a sweat drenched shirt, a sunburned overcoat and an unwashed body.' (p112) Lying besides his wife Sakan is for first time repelled by `the strong smell that came out of (her) mouth, as if her teeth had corroded and rotted and is `amazed that... he had never noticed the smell of his wife's breath' (p112-113). Elswhere, the `picturesque' village of Akar is `enclosed in forests with ancient oak trees and age-old ruins of monasteries' (p34). But in the fields cows `infected with foot-and-mouth disease' `limp as tiny white maggots suck on the blood vessels between their hooves' whilst its inhabitants have to endure a plague of `scabies ... aggravated by the sun'. Victims of ` pink eye' its children suffering agonising `itchiness' are forced to `walk about with bloodshot eyes and a dirty cloth over their heads'. Returning to his native village with his daughter, Tigran realises that his: `...memory had only retained the attractive aspects of the village: the flowery mountains, the clear water sources, the green pastures....He had forgotten....the garbage on the streets, the burning dung, the rotting grass, the air coming out of the barns, and the heavy pungent urine-scented air...' (p81) Over this valley stricken in addition by the most appalling prejudice and superstition, the Tsarist state hangs as yet another dark cloud with gangs of its venal tax collectors, judges and other officials filling their pockets with bribes and extortions. `In this fashion many years came and went. Hundreds of government officials took oil, cheese, and carpets, and allocated the Apricot Field according to what they received.'(p56) With a fine eye for detail, Bakunts's exposes their egotistical greed. Confronted by a child savaged by a dog, a government official nevertheless shifted: `... his eyes from the wound...to the colourful carpet on the ground and put a price on it in his mind, comparing it to the bribe that Mrots had promised.' (p55-56) Robbing the peasant of his produce during peace time in war the state assumes the form of `an armed fist' `ready to strike the village' with its military officials pouring in to enlist young men for war and to requisition its horses, cattle and foodstuffs too. At first, there is `joy and happiness '. But `just as a swallow that appears in spring, arm less boys and boys with wooden legs started coming home.... and the number of widows multiplied in the village.' (p48) During the course of war: `...poverty was on the increase, the price of bread was rising and sugar had become medicine for the sick....wages had decreased... people did not give as much bread as they used to... Nobody gave away old clothes anymore... The rich and abundant days of yore had vanished.' (p48) (Note 2) Perhaps it was because of such conditions that the Armenian peasant was not averse to giving revolutionaries a chance to show a different mettle to that of the Tsarist state whose intrusion into village life only aggravated their already harsh and hard existence. But even prior to war that laid to waste the now imagined `rich and abundant days of yore' the Dark Valley was witness to any number of eternally tragic dramas that unfold wherever crippling human relations, customs, traditions and mores prevail. III. THE RURAL BLIGHT UPON THE LIVES OF WOMEN AND OF MEN Like the villagers in Hovannes Toumanian's epic `Maro', those of the Dark Valley too would have good reason to wonder why it is that though: `We never eat during lent We always pray with devotion, Pain is endlessly piled upon pain As is disaster and loss' As with Toumanian, with Bakunts too pain, disaster and loss flow from distorted human relations and these weigh disproportionately on women. `In Akar' Sandukht, frail and sickly, has her life destroyed by a fatal combination of poverty and women's position as saleable commodity little different to cattle. Following her father's death, to `lighten the burden on her shoulders' and enable her to `take care of her two other children' Sandkuht's mother has no choice but to marry her off. (p36) Sandukht's existence reduced to an economic calculation at home is for bridegroom's family also an economic opening to be pursued with fiendish determination. Examining her in the way they would a horse, they make sure however to first `take a look at' at the `threshing floor and hayloft' being offered as a dowry (37). Sandkukht dreads the marriage. Every time she sees her prospective husband she hides `her face in her coat' and retreats `like a snail that retracts into its shell'. Everyone knows she is not ready for marriage. `In the name of the law' even the local doctor objects. But neither Sandukht's wishes nor her health can block a transaction enforced by ignoble but established relation and tradition emerging from poverty. `Within a second' of hearing the doctor's opinion, the groom's father `decided to break the law'. He jumped over it `as if it were a narrow stream' `to put a lock' on the hayloft'. The lock consisted of the parents forcing the couple cohabit without official sanction. The human tragedy that follows will leave no one unmoved. But, despite the personal determination of the mother and the ruthlessness of he groom's father, neither will any reader fail to see the social roots of this tragedy. `The Albion Violet' is a fine example of the perceptive evocation of oppositions between urban and rural life and sensibilities that recur in Bakunts 's work. It ends however in an explosion of misogynist violence that buries the hitherto compelling story of a city artist's and archaeologist's visit to a village overhung by the ruins of a medieval fortress. Both are inspired by the fort's historical symbolism and by the delicate violets that ring its battlements. Their local guide however is utterly indifferent. Bakunts's briefest description is replete with explanatory force: `If Prince Bakur and the parchment were on the archaeologist's mind, and the artist thought back to the violets and heard the Basuta's deafening roar, the third horseman was looking at freshly baked lavash, cheese , and yoghurt.' (p143) Engrossed at this intersection of two wholly different appreciations of the same reality that reflect also on the early Soviet support for cultural preservation and the privilege accorded to intellectuals, the reader's focus is suddenly shattered. Returning home from a day's wearying labour, when the visitors' host discovers the artist has sketched his wife's portrait. `Jealousy struck like a bolt of lightening in the depressed reaper's heart. His eyes widened and he became pale. The mother looked at the boy and blushed, and the father saw the wife's red face. All of this happened in a split second. The next minute the man was leaping forward like an enraged bear, grabbing hold of his heavy sickle with his hairy hands, and letting it fall with a terrible blow on his wife's back. The woman did not make a loud noise. Instead she curled up in pain. She pressed her hand against her back and went out of the tent to cry quietly. (p147-148) All images of historical grandeur and natural beauty crumble beneath the weight of the wife's terrible pain as she passively and silently leaves the room as if registering rural women's resignation before violent injustice. In `Tall Markar', `The Pheasant' and other stories individual experience and social reality is sifted through the prism of memory to reveal another characteristic of Bakunts's art. Bakunts's stories are fine representations of how memory acting as an integral component of consciousness fashions the present, colouring and texturing it and so ensuring that individual, subjective life is lived as a unity of past and present and never as simple unalloyed triumph or disaster. Stalinist hacks of course seized on the prominence of memory in Bakunts's work to charge him with also idealising the past. But along with charges of idealising rural life, this one too is a gross political fabrication. In `The Dark Valley' remembrance serves to remind on of the social ills that prevailed in the rural village. Tall Markar's individual remembrance of the Genocide is created with an authenticity that enables a grasp of its hellish collective reality and something of the barbarity of the machinery of the genocide. Markar does however survive and settles in Soviet Armenia where he lives his last years with a glowing optimism for his grandson's future. But always seeping into his consciousness are recollections of the circumstances of his wife's death. The present eases the pain of the past. But it does not blot it out. In `The Pheasant' Uncle Dilan's remembrance of the arbitrary termination of his and Sona's youthful love underlines the damage done by women's oppression not just to women but to men too. From youth to old age Dilan's life on the surface at least was lived normally. But he remembers that morning long ago when `Sona flew away like a pheasant, (and) left behind her grief and sad memories' that have coloured is life and will stay with him to his end. Here it is perhaps necessary to remark on a significant lapse in translation that conceals the fuller truth of what is being depicted. Referring to the arranged marriage, the English rendition reads of how Sona's and Dilan's love `chirped like a swallow they both grew up' and then: `Sona walked past the neighbours' house one day with a bride's veil covering her face and, underneath the veil, bloodshot eyes, as bright as a lake in the mountains, from crying. (p62) The original Armenian emphatically refers to social and economic considerations that operated in the fixing of Sona's marriage. It speaks of Sona ` crossing into the home' of a `well-to-do neighbour' (medzadoun harevani shemkov ners mdav) and not just `passing' the `neighbour's' house. The omission and the lack of precision lose the original's critical content and dull the emotional drama. IV. MORALITY AND CRITICISM IN LITERATURE Bakunts's work is notable for the absence of authorial intervention or moral judgement, even when the most brutal and violent episodes of human behaviour and relations are described. This has led to significant lapses in interpretation that merit discussion if only because it allows a welcome consideration of the substantive moral content of literature. For example in an extensive commentary on `The Albion Violet' Vahe Oshagan writes: `Bakunts' would die rather than write something like (Toumanian's) Kikor. He rejected totally the melodramatic substance of that work and in particular the division of human characters into positive and negative, incapable as he was of reducing tragic human reality to the position of virtuous or vice ridden. `In this (ie Bakunts's) literature there is no freedom, no good, no evil, no justice or injustice.' Nothing in Bakunts's work can sustain such conclusion. His dispassionate and objective descriptions of events pose moral questions in the starkest of unavoidable ways. His stories invite indeed a double moral judgement. Individual dramas are always rooted in the social relations and so within the ambit of individual action there is inherent a wider social relation that calls for critical evaluation and judgement. In `The Albion Violet', the representation of the husband's violence shocks, not just because of its unexpected eruption but because of the clear depiction of its substance and context. In the dispassionately described act of unprovoked misogynist violence the moral question, both social and individual, stares one in the face. If the reader fails to note it then the problem is that of the reader's not the absence of moral content or authorial intervention. For after all, the moral content of literature is independent of direct authorial opinion or narrative. Indeed when such opinion is rife, as in the case of much of Armenian literature, it is imposed artificially and surfaces as sanctimonious sermon. Authentic moral substance in literature is inherent, albeit only potentially, in any artistic representation of plot, character and their relations and development. It impresses itself by virtue of this art and not by any authorial intervention. The effective artistic representation of a particular reality allows the critical reader to make moral evaluations premised on the concrete development of both plot and character. But these will be shaped by contemporary concerns and standards and will be possible only if readers engage with art as an expression of life, as a means of grasping its truths, only when the work is not approached from an academic, technical or abstract aesthete's angle that narrows literature's artistic and critical reach. In our increasingly alienated urban existence and our catastrophically abusive relations to our natural environment, a critical reading of `The Dark Valley' can in addition challenge those ideologues of consumerism who incessantly advertise that human contentment and development is driven primarily by a desire for material accumulation. John Gray in a recent review of Raj Patel's `The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy' takes issue with even the mildest critique of contemporary consumerism: `It may be true that the imbalance between human demands and the environment could be diminished if enough people rejected material affluence as their goal in life. But this is an extremely nebulous possibility and one that highlights the deepest difficulty for Patel's analysis. (Guardian Weekly of 8 February 2010) The `nebulousness' of the possibility does not however flow from any essential human reality. It is born only of the particular social relations of our own times fashioned by advertisers and manufacturers of obsolescence. This much is clear from `The Dark Valley' whose living protagonists possess a vital capacity for life, for love, for passion and for pleasure, all existing and evolving independent of any urge for material acquisitions, and this in the harshest of natural and social terrains. (Note 3) Sankukht's, Dilan's, Markar's and Sona's lives are dented and disfigured not because they did not strive to possess two cars and four TV's and `n' numbers of laptops, mobile phones and other gadgets. Their lives are thwarted it is not for lack ambition for material possessions but by imposed social relations that stifle the dreams, desires and loves born of that essential human reality so refreshingly reproduced by Bakunts. For this essential reality to flourish what is required is not the accumulation of material goods but essential social relations. Bakunts's treatment of the 1915 Genocide and the Armenian peasant's attitude to the 1917 Russian Revolution is significant enough to merit a separate note but at another date. Notes 1. More productive and fructiferous the villages of the Ararat plains were never far from the attention, not just of Tsarist state functionaries but of all assortments of traders, merchants, usurers and Churchmen eager to seize as large a portion of the peasant's produce as possible. The blight that they were on Armenian rural life finds reflection in the more successful of those nefarious protagonists that populate Berj Broshian's novels. 2. The historical accuracy of this account is supported by others among them Leo, who in his bitter memoirs `From the Past' writes of the outbreak of World War I: `Suddenly, unexpectedly in the wonderful silence of centuries old forests there exploded with a monstrous sound a vast tragedy that like a huge wheel flattening all before it took in man's life and began brutally running it over. ...Military call up...This is what the name of the disaster was. Speedy and dominating it reached everywhere, even nature's remotest nooks and crannies, everywhere it caused pain and mourning, turned life upside down and impoverished it. (p263) 3. These men and women in their richness, remind us of those in Hagop Oshagan's `The Humble Ones' that also affirmed the humanity of the disfigured, the alienated and the ostracised Armenian peasant in the Ottoman Empire. -- 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.