Why we should read... `Parasites' by Berj Broshian (Collected Works, Volume 2, pp9-212, 1953, Yerevan, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong March 19, 2012 by Eddie Arnavoudian In its own ramshackle but nevertheless impressive fashion, Berj Broshian's `Parasites' is a remarkably modern study of the relationship between money and social power in 19th century rural Armenia, manifest concretely as an account of the tyranny of early Armenian financiers and bankers, then known by their proper names of usurers and parasites. With his web extending far and wide Palasan, the novel's protagonist and `chief of all parasites', amasses huge fortunes. He boasts arrogantly that `there is not a village' across the region `that is not indebted to me' adding that `even the banks are in my debt!' As for those in his thrall, `the lot of them are my serfs' he proclaims (p69). Shadowing our own times, Broshian shows us a society in which those producing nothing accumulate enormous wealth and with it power, all obtained from the sweat, suffering and toil of others. He tells of a society in which `the pocket that sounded the loudest jingle... wielded the bludgeon' (p18). An ominous figure, Palasan is an early sketch, a first draft of our own parasites and usurers euphemistically labelled bankers or financiers. That he exists today is testified to by the unseen but hated figure assassinated at the opening of Narine Groyan's novel `Dog Star', awarded the 2011 Armenian Orange Book Prize. `Parasites', it is well to acknowledge at the outset, is shockingly unstable. It lacks any overriding plot, axis or coherent narrative that would give unity and collective punch to what are lively but relatively independent chapters. Though they are all placed upon a common social terrain and share the same protagonists, much of the relationship between them is a function not of the flow or inner development of plot or character but of a string of unexplained, forced turns that verging on the absurd stretch credulity and so make unusual demands on patience and imagination. Let no one claim however that these troubles drain the volume's artistic or intellectual substance. They do not. I. Broshian's story is set in a typical rural Armenian village of `O' with nothing about it romantic or idyllic, a fact captured in a telling description of class structure on one `cold and misty evening' when both the `rich and the poor have already taken refuge in their homes': `The poor have long ago gathered their half-naked children beneath some ragged and worn cloths, whilst the man and woman of the house, lying to the left and the right of their innocent young, warm them with their own body heat and breath until sleep takes over. The rich on the other hand having dined upon what god has given them, gathered around their warm fire to rest in their thick and soft bedding (p158).' Broshian does not however open his novel with issues of class, social justice or with any sketch of the vermin that will feed off the village. We are presented rather with inviting pictures of the community and its members that shall be afflicted, among them two young lovers, Sampson and Sona, the charismatic local mayor Ardem and the well to do, jocular farmer Melik Patal. Constructing his lovingly detailed context Broshian writes with wit, humour and a perception of social and psychological truths. Male conceit across the ages is caught splendidly. Despite ruling the social and the domestic roost, Ardem and Melik Patal bemoan of men's lives allegedly bent to wives' wishes and judgements and complain that men, `but simpleminded brothers of god', are in actual fact `cleaning cloths in women's hands (p32)'. More powerful still are passages that tell of Sampson and Sona's love that they must keep concealed because in village society love is not to exist independent of marriage and marriage itself is to be arranged by parents with priorities other than their children's desires or wishes. The young's wishes are on occasion taken into account, but more often other, economic and social, calculations prevail. Sampson and Sona do not yet know if they are among the exceptions, and so we see them suffer those universal insecurities, fears and anxieties of love that in their particular circumstances must steal its way through the restrictive entanglements of rural economic calculation, village mores, religious prejudice and tradition. Particularly moving is the depiction of the guilt felt by Sona as she defies village moral imperatives (p46-47) so deeply imbedded in her own consciousness that for shame she dreads even the idea of telling her own mother of her love. However in Sona's and Sampson's case it is not backward tradition or custom but Palasan that represents the most dangerous threat to their love and to village life too. II. Palasan, a brutish, thuggish, manipulative and violent man exercises power with an executioner's finality. He is truly a Darwinian jungle beast, the personification of financial capital's utter disregard for other human lives. `As if the crows will wear black if ten nobodies are annihilated' he retorts when challenged about his savage indifference to the plight of his victims. `If he falls into your hand, if he is weaker than you then smite him, trash him but make sure of your profit.' This is his philosophy of life and business. Morality and Christian notions of `sin and punishment' are dismissed as `priests' grandchildren' that the clergy employ `to net their fish and so obtain their dinner (p74)'. Palasan is not attired in the latest Gucci fashions, nor does he drive a 4x4 BMW. But even dressed in rough 19th century costume and riding horse and cart, he is immediately recognisable. Like our own bankers he has gathered into his ambit all who have influence and authority, the village clergy, members of the judiciary, local and even the regional government officials, all of whom do his bidding. With no fear of retribution he ignores custom, mores and traditions, dispensing titles, fixing elections and bribing judges and priests to accumulate yet more and to conceal misdeeds from scrutiny. The corrupt local priest Der Soukias expresses the scale and extent of money's almost omnipotent force. `Let me try, in a friendly way, to make you understand this. A single worthless command from Palasan Agha is worth all of those from the whole village put together. Were he to demand that I swap my Christian robes for Muslim ones I would do so and will without protest pray in the name of Allah.' (p109) Through the novel we see Palasan doggedly at work subverting due, but of course limited democratic process as he plots to replace Ardem the mayor with his own man. Ardem is not suitable to moneyed power for he rejects the view that public officials should be `machines without will, moving only at the command of the influential.'(p128) Simultaneously Palasan with Kntouni, a fraudster and forger recently arrived from Van, connives to rewrite debtor's notes in his possession and so squeeze his victims further. To reward his chief lieutenant Khuto's loyalty, he conspires in addition to frame Sampson for murder and so leave Khuto's son Garabed free to marry Sona. Thereafter he engineers an arson attack on Sampson's family barn. To ensure adequate time for the plot to mature, he instructs the local priest to deny Sona and Samposon the necessary Church sanction for their engagement. Broshian completes Palasan's portrait by etching into it a feature common to all Armenian moneyed elites. A native of the village O, after an interlude abroad, Palasan returns home and stands in opposition to his community. Now he is riddled with shame for being Armenian, everything about which he feels to be ugly or uncivilised. Equating sophistication with anything foreign, he monkeys Russian ways and adopts Russian variants of his own Armenian name so as to better mark himself off from the rough and ignorant natives. (We should note of course that whilst the elites adopted Russian ways to distance themselves from their peasant compatriots, the habit was also common among many of the well to do who deemed the affectation of things Russian as signs of culture and progress. The genial Ardem was one among these!) III. The almost serf-like conditions to which the village community is reduced as a result of Palasan's grip over local government, judiciary and Church finds expression in an interesting, though not always entirely convincing literary device. In answer to questions from Smbat, a young investigative journalist just arrived in the village, it is none other than Palasan himself posturing as an ardent defender of the people, who holds forth in support of the `lower classes of our community'. The people, he announces: `...are ceaselessly oppressed, exploited, squeezed by the usurers' claws, insecure in their jobs, consumed by external and internal parasites, plundered and buried in ignorance. Your eyes bleed on beholding this...You must agree with me and with the local mayor that it is urgent that we consistently lash out against these national parasites, these ambitious opportunists and irresponsible officials, theses bloodsucking usurers and traitors who for personal gain strangle every positive striving among the people (130-131) As he speaks Palasan indirectly but accurately sketches the ideological standpoint of the national movement of the day that saw the key to reform and social progress in education. Broshian holds back no punches as he shows priests and lawyers to be of the same criminal brotherhood as Palasan. Der Soukias is tarred with the same brush as one Migidan Sako, the most notorious of Broshian's usurers and protagonist in his most famous novel `The problem of Bread'. Clearly already Migidan Sako's social twin, near the end of the novel Der Soukias turns out to be his biological one too! Broshian in addition captures well popular contempt for the legal profession in the service of power, a universal contempt we are reminded of repeatedly in world literature. `Curse your cheating grandfather' exclaims Melik Patal. `You'll relieve even a dead donkey of its horse shoes'. Blocking lawyers and priests together he concludes: `You...are all, of the same ilk. You first take from the living and then take from the dead.' (p151) Palasan does not exploit and abuse without challenge and discovers a formidable opponent in Sissak who returning home carries with him a bag full of ideological prescriptions for social and national ills. In accord with the outlook of the times Sissak dedicates himself to the business of education and enlightenment believing this to be the best antidote to Palasan and his gang. Palasan however has dealt with such troublesome types before, silencing one through bribery and by encouraging and financing addiction to drugs - nicotine in this instance! In Sissak's case however Palasan fails. Sissak is too stubborn and dedicated and slowly wins adherents among some of the community's notables. (p99) `Parasites' alas ends disappointingly with most of its last fifty pages, in a novel of only 200, burdened with sentimental allocations of happy endings for the virtuous and just rewards for the evil. Yet even here, as an apt reminder of the novel's modern resonance, we come across a striking metaphor for the corruption of politics and democracy by financial power. Recalling better days better when members of the Church acted as genuine representatives of the community, an elderly priests remarks that `today politeness and hospitality' have been swept aside by a flood of individualism and private greed: `It is painful to admit, but I know that today people become representative delegates to open wider not their doors but their wallets. They treat the Church as a source of income to fill their pockets. They (modern representatives) reserve the coldest treatment not just for their workers or for priests from beyond the parish but for the poor and needy too....To top it all in order to cover up their plunder they are wise enough to add a few decorations and silverware (to the Church), to do a few repairs and refurbishments that will then enable them to continue thieving.' (p185) Replace the words `Church' and `representative delegates' with `Parliament' and `MPs', `Congress' and `representative', or with the proper name of any contemporary `democratic' state institutions and we would have an honest depiction of 21st century `democratic politics'. IV. To properly appreciate `Parasites' and all of Broshian's novels, it repays pondering the weight and impact of its irregular structure and plot noted here by two examples alone. Kntouni's unexpected appearance, though not warranted by the plot is not entirely incredible. Fraudsters from western Armenia regularly preyed upon villages in the relatively more prosperous east and so his presence serves to enhance the image of the times. But one cannot but be taken aback by the sudden announcement of his unexplained meteoric rise. Just a few pages from his first entrance we are five years on and told, with no account, that Kntouni now heads his own usurer's enterprise. That his advance was made upon Palasan's own home territory seems to cause no complications. Further, despite his now independent means Kntouni continues to behave as little more than a forging scribe for Palasan. This is not at all credible. Neither is the fact that at the end of these same five silent years in rural Armenia of all places, Sona and Sampson, now without the bloom of early youth are still to be married! Why? We are not given the slightest hint! Nevertheless, for all these and many other drawbacks, `Parasites' remains eminently readable. The reason is best explained by Shirvanzade in a rigorous review of the novel when it was first published. For all his sharp criticism Shirvanzade underlines Broshian's talent for creating authentic characters. `Broshian differs from our other writers in that he knows well that which he writes about. He grasps the common people's lives authentically. He grasps its language, traditions, sayings and turns of phrase better than any of our other authors... The characters that he depicts, whatever the flaws, are living people. They are not the author's artificially produced whimsical constructs.' The nail has truly been hit on the head. Deficiencies of plot and logical structure do limit the growth and refinement of characters, of their emotion, psychology, sensibility and so their depth and completeness. They also deny any fluent grasp of the novel as an effective totality. But even amidst the rubble of the plot Palasan survives as a genuine figure striding behemoth style through village life, bullying and buying allies and accomplices. He is convincingly human in his manipulative essence turning taps of brutishness and charm on and off as calculation and interest see fit. Indeed the entire gang of menacing rascals grouped around him, Kntouni, Khuto, their son and nephew Vassak and Garabed, the priest Der-Soukias, the lawyer and the provincial governor are all real presences united as a power unto themselves against whom the community has little avenue of appeal. Sona, Sona's mother, Sampson and his father, Ardem and Melik Patal are all also authentic men and women with whose condition, hopes and disappointments we can identify. Broshian's passion for salvaging the culture and folklore of his characters in addition, serve to enhance their concrete and universal humanity. These characters, even if oft out of focus, tell shocking truths of exploitation, corruption and violence born of the operations of banking and finance capital. In their very personalities they expose the structure of injustice and inhumanity that in rural Armenia sheltered behind traditions, mores, values, prejudices, customs and superstitions deemed to be Divine canon and therefore immutable. It is perhaps this ability of Broshian to so effectively bare social truths that are hidden behind public moral billboards that explains why he was so highly regarded by men such as Nalpantian and Issahakyan, Toumanian and Shirvanzade among others. Today, we too can engage with the lives of Broshian's characters and as we read we too can happily embark upon a creative process, that by laying aside or imaginatively correcting and editing the rather too clumsy plot, acquire at its end an appreciation of the novel as a compelling, imaginative totality reflecting tellingly upon our own times. -- 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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