Why we should read... `Wounds of Armenia' by Khachadour Abovian (Selected Works, pp720, 1984, Yerevan, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong February 18, 2013 by Eddie Arnavoudian No education in modern Armenian literature, or society, is complete without a thorough study of this veritable tour de force. Khatchadour Abovian's `Wounds of Armenia', written in 1841 but published for the first time only in 1858, a full decade after its author's death, was and remains a seminal novel - artistically, socially and politically. `Wounds of Armenia' is an epic affirmation of the spirit of hope and freedom that can inspire a whole people in the living of their lives. It is one of the earliest and most significant fictional statements of the credo of the democratic Armenian national revival. Determined to communicate his vision to the common people, Abovian was also revolutionary in his choice of language. In this, the first modern Armenian novel, he abandons a classical Armenian incomprehensible to the masses and writes instead in their own vernacular, doing so beautifully and so raising a pillar for modern literary eastern Armenian. Its very literary style, the blending of narrative prose and epic poetry, the combination of modern realism with the traditions of popular story telling speaks of the emergence of a particularly Armenian novelistic tradition, one alas that was not fully developed, as future writers appropriated the form of a very different Russian and European novel. The entire structure of modern Armenian national ambition is visible through the novel - the aspiration for independence from colonial rule, the critique of the obscurantism of the feudal Armenian Church and its gross mis-education (comparing the Armenian clergy's so-called educational regime poorly with what is judged to be the superior Islamic education of their neighbours), the Church's exploitative role and its services to foreign conquerors, the critique of corrupt money that destroys social solidarity, the blight of passivity in the face of domestic and foreign oppression, internationalist solidarity (with native Americans in this instance) and the enunciation of a patriotism free of all chauvinist taint, as well as, and here a weakness, that enduring Armenian Russophile political orientation that sought the replacement of Ottoman or Persian rule with what was regarded as the more benign Russian authority. Set in the era of the 1826-1828 Russo-Persian war, `Wounds of Armenia' follows the fortunes of its protagonist Aghassi, a fun-loving, jovial but also rebellious and defiant youth. A constant thorn in the side of the local village and Church leadership, he will not tolerate stultified, superstitious, oppressive and life-denying authority of either foreign state or domestic elites. At the novel's outset we see his life radically changing following his militant encounter with agents of a Persian lord attempting to abduct a beautiful local girl. Forced to go on the run, a gripping tale unfolds of Aghassi's transition from fugitive outlaw to leader of an armed guerrilla group and freedom fighter against the Persian occupation. Aghassi, the first freedom-fighter in modern Armenian literature, is depicted in the tradition of an epic hero embodying monumentally the urge for freedom and joy, the delight in life and in nature, together with a readiness to resist all that obstructs it. He puts up with no power or authority that stifles. Aghassi is a universal type, his patriotism in this novel never a function of abstract nationality, but always of an essential humanity. Concern for and protection of community, care for family, relatives and neighbours, not bombastic slogans drive his resistance to foreign rule. He opposes Persian authority not in the name of any grandiose nationalist ideology but because he wants his family and his community to be able to live with dignity that he feels is the right of all men and women. Is Aghassi an authentic hero? Does his depiction have the same persuasiveness and the same vitality as that of the Armenian village so brilliantly brought to life in Abovian's reconstruction of rural eastern Armenia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? The answer is a resounding yes. Aghassi the protagonist's epic human proportion, his heroic traits are far from being idealised inventions. They are in concentrated poetic form expressions of a historically conditioned authentic Armenian personality then emerging onto the stage and that would come to prominence from the 1860s, most particularly in the form of the armed guerrillas fighting to defend the lives and homes of the peasantry. Aghassi accurately mirrors features of the late 19th century Armenian guerrilla movement. Abovian was no prophet. But he did have that brilliant talent for grasping social processes at work. So, tracing Aghassi's passage from enthusiastic village youth to defiant outlaw and bandit and then to a fully-fledged freedom fighter, he accurately describes the trajectory that was to be followed by men such as Andranik, Murat, Gevorg Chavush, Serop Aghpyour and scores of others, a trajectory to be later summed up theoretically by Eric Hobsbawm in his admirable `Guerrillas'. Like Aghassi these men and women were also primarily from rural society and stood up to assert their individual and community rights. Like Aghassi they were among the `new men/women' in Armenian life. As significant as Aghassi's personal qualities are so too is his origin from among the common people. In early romantic Armenian literature the figure that appears holding the flag of national freedom or resistance was usually derived from the aristocratic nobility as they appeared in ancient Armenian histories. Not with Abovian. Even as he lauds ancient heroes for their qualities of grandeur, courage and audacity, for a role model he turns to the class he recognised as the foundation for Armenian nationhood - the peasantry. The progressive vision of `Wounds of Armenia' suffers however a weakness that to this day dogs and debilitates Armenian political action. In his passionate pro-Russian orientation that saw a Russian occupation of Armenia as a stage in national emancipation, Abovian follows the disastrous trail of dependency politics formulated in modern times by Israel Ori. But there is perhaps one decisive and positive difference. In Abovian there is no vision of a state fashioned in the image of ancient Armenian Kingdoms. Unlike Ori, Abovian did not see Russian rule as a prelude to the restoration of some presumed ancient monarchical order that would privilege an elite of aristocrats and of merchants, the class he represented. For Abovian Russian rule was to be only a first step to emancipation, a step facilitating the education, enlightenment and progress of the common man and woman of every nationality, something deemed impossible within Ottoman or Persian state jurisdiction. It is in this connection that one of the most attractive features of `Wounds of Armenia' emerges. For all of Abovian's indubitable patriotic and nationalist ambition there is no suggestion whatsoever of any anti-Turkish, anti-Persian, anti-Muslim prejudice or distortion. Aghassi does raise arms in the name of an ethnically pure Armenian state. Abovian's ambition was not the formation of a state with no place for Turk or Kurd or Persian now inhabiting historical Armenian lands. Like Armenians, other Muslims and Christians, Turks, Kurds and Persians, would all together in the first instance also be drawn into Russian rule by the Tsarist occupation of the Caucuses and would enjoy all the benefits assumed to be available to Armenians. They would thereafter again together and in harmony partake of their respective independent national development within a wider Caucasian unity. In such qualities of humanist universalism this story of Armenian liberation tells truths about the lives of oppressed people internationally. `Wounds of Armenia' is in addition a timely polemical weapon against the contemporary epidemic of sectarian nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Today, more than 150 years after its first publication, in a vernacular now almost incomprehensible, `Wounds of Armenia' remains instructive, illuminating and even inspiring. Dare to meet the challenge of its remote vernacular. You will not regret it. -- 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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