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Worth a read...

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...

Armenian News Network / Groong
July 11, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


'The Last Dawn' by Berj Zeitountzian

Berj Zeitountzian's 'The Last Dawn' (Vertchin Arevakal@) is a
memorable historical novel focusing on the role of the Armenian
intelligentsia in Constantinople between 1880s and the 1915
Genocide. Avoiding inane romanticism and the worst of narrow-minded
nationalism so common to Armenian historical fiction this novel offers
an authentic and moving glimpse into a critical period of modern
Armenian history. The axis around which the well-told tale unfolds is
Krikor Zohrab, the foremost Armenian intellectual, lawyer and short
story writer of the time. Alongside him feature other prominent
contemporaries such as Arpiar Arpiarian, Aram Andonian, Dikran
Gamsaragan, Vartkes and many others, as well as Turkish characters
among them the nefarious Talaat Pasha.

Unlike most characters in Armenian historical fiction, Zeitountzian's
protagonists are convincingly human. Zohrab emerges as the typical,
albeit most outstanding of the intelligentsia of the time, embodying
both its strengths and its fatal flaws. He, and by extension the
intelligentsia, is not spared some harsh judgements. Zohrab's misogyny,
his misplaced trust in Talaat, his hopeless illusions in the West, his
expectations that they will do something to help avert the genocide
are described with candour. The novel, even whilst flagging at certain
points, sustains a tremendous pace and dramatic tension as it
reconstructs the experience of intellectuals animated by work in aid
of the Armenian national revival. Much of their time is spent
challenging the corruption and hypocrisy of wealthy Armenian
merchants, Armenian officials in the service of the Ottoman empire and
the high clergy, all of whom remained totally indifferent to the
plight of the humble Armenian. But, despite their dedication to the
people, the novel directly and indirectly underlines the extent to
which the Europeanised Constantinople Armenian intellectual was
removed from the life of the Armenian peasant in the provinces. Whilst
the Constantinople Armenian poor appear as no more than wretched
objects of charity those in historical Armenia appear not at all.

Working with an inspired enthusiasm to uproot the decaying Ottoman
ancien regime the intelligentsia was tragically unaware of the spectre
of total annihilation that would soon overwhelm them and the entire
nation. The marvellous fictional re-enaction of clashes between Zohrab
and Talaat reveals a great deal about the growing conflict between
emerging Armenian and Turkish national elites. Hoping to inherit the
Ottoman empire, the Turkish elite was determined to stem any further
disintegration. Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Macedonia had been
lost. A successful Armenian revival promised to terminate imperial
sovereignty in the eastern, Armenian provinces. Thus truncated, room
for Turksih national development would be even more curtailed. Thus
the visceral Turkish nationalist chauvinism against anything foreign
or particularly Armenian.  This phenomenon combined with the 'war for
land' waged in the Armenian provinces provided fertile ground for the
Young Turk's genocide.

When treating the genocide the novel contains shockingly realistic
scenes of life continuing in a normal, almost mundane, way despite the
mass arrests of the intelligentsia. After all this was not the first
time. But slowly the truth begins to dawn. The intellectual class is
powerless and impotent. They are incapable of saving themselves, let
alone the people. Some of the scenes depicting the light of these
intellectuals, Varouzhan and Sevag among them, are haunting.
Zeitountzian deserves an accolade for reconstructing the tragedy of
honourable men and women possessed of great hopes, ambitions, and
dreams when real life left no room for these. At points descriptions
of such lives lived on the edge of death are searing and rise to the
level of enduring art.

Reading the novel one becomes conscious of a terrible truth. From the
outset the Armenian national enterprise was terribly fragile. Indeed,
the emergent Armenian nation had little organic unity. The Armenian
'bourgeois' class, based outside historical Armenia, was well
integrated into the Ottoman economy and was essentially a conduit
for European finance and industry. It had little in common with the
substantial artisan class that spread across the empire or the
nationalist intelligentsia concentrated in Constantinople. As for the
mass of impoverished peasantry in historical Armenia, they were
largely cut off from all other sectors of Armenian society. Even had
it wished to, any Armenian political leadership would find it
virtually impossible to organise this geographically and socially
fragmented population into a force strong enough to overcome a Turkish
nationalism reinforced by its control of state power.

This is a valuable book that inspires thought. It is not however
without flaws. Some of the characters remain opaque unless one has
prior knowledge of their historic or literary role. Too little
attention is paid to conditions in the Armenian provinces, the real
site for the fatal conflict between Armenian and Turk. In its second
and third portions the narrative and plot meanders purposelessly.
Nevertheless it is an accomplishment that can be read with pleasure
and with artistic and historical satisfaction.

                                * * *

The Armenian Enlightenment
'Portraits' (Timasdverner) by Hrant Asadour (220pp, 1984, Doniguian
Press, Beirut) is a slim volume which was first published in 1921. It
can be read with benefit alongside Berj Zeitounztian's novel above. It
is a fascinating account of Asadour's meetings with and memories of
some of the most prominent Western Armenian intellectuals in the
decades from 1850 to 1915.  This gallery of outstanding men, and one
woman, that Asadour opens for our appreciation encompasses all the
progressive hopes of the age. Here we see recorded, albeit in outline
form only, the philosophic, literary, social, linguistic and
educational views of those whose central concern was the enlightenment
and advancement of the Armenian people.
This was the era of the Western Armenian 'Enlightenment' fired by
people such as Matteos Mamourian, Nahabed Roussinian, Stepan Oskan,
Nigoghos Zorayan and others. Whatever their limitations, they
dedicated themselves to this project with immense energy and love.
Their mission was to wrench the Armenian people out of centuries of
backwardness and ignorance and develop them to the level of the most
advanced nations of the day.
In this noble enterprise they inevitably came to clash with the forces
of the Armenian establishment. Protected by and serving the Ottoman
state, the Armenian Church in alliance with the wealthy 'amira' class
ruled and exploited the Armenian community with a tyrannical
absolutism little different from that of the feudal Middle Ages. Against
this obscurantist and self-serving alliance, these intellectuals,
animated by the best of contemporary thought raised the battle cry of
secularism and democracy.  Influenced by the ideas of the European
revolutions of 1789-1848, they called for the 'disestablishment' of
the Church and the introduction of more democratic principles of
community governance.
A decisive weapon in this battle was the issue of language. The
progressive intellectuals were passionate sponsors of an emerging
written Armenian based upon the language spoken by the people. They
believed that language was significant only if it facilitated
communication and the expansion of knowledge among the mass of the
people. Against them was the clergy defending an old classical
Armenian, totally incomprehensible to the ordinary man and woman, as
the only legitimate means of educated communication. Naturally this
clergy grasped that its influence among the people rested on the
ignorance of the people. An enlightened population would not for one
minute countenance the corruption and tyranny by which the privileged
Armenian clergy lived.  Through his sketches of individual
personalities, Asadour gives an exciting account of this battle over
language and of the efforts to cleanse and refine modern Armenian.
Read even from the vantage point of the world of the 1990s, the
generation of the 1850s retains its relevance. Reading of Krikor
Chilingirian's acerbic comments on the decadent attitudes of the late
19th century one could construct a cogent condemnation of the amoral
world of today. Even in his day Chilingirian noted that concepts such
as 'progress, social interest, truth, virtue and morality' are
regarded as 'a form of ugliness' and 'weigh like a plague' on men
whose only loyalty is to money. Post-Modernism's 'novel' ideas
evidently are no novelty. Chilingirian additionally derided that love,
of all things foreign, that has so tarnished the Armenian mentality.
These absurd devotions to the inane fashions of the European 'culture'
were the butt of Baronian's brilliant satire. Baronian was also
sharply critical of Samuel Smiley's Victorian treatise on 'self-help'
which 'only offered arguments for the wealthy to withdraw charity to
the poor'. Such 'self-help' has revisited our own time through
Thatcher and Reagan and their followers in the form of Blair and
Clinton. On another level Srpouhi Dussap's quite brilliant championing
of equal rights for women is as fiercely fresh and as pertinent as
when first penned.
But they suffered from a fatal flaw. At the centre of their outlook,
at the core of their activity there was a huge gap. They had no
political programme with which to underpin their ambitious project of
Armenian revival. They naively assumed that the Ottoman political
establishment would harmoniously adjust to the emergence of an
enlightened and fortified Armenian community demanding its place under
the sun. Too caught up in the fervour of their enlightening mission
they failed to see that the emergence of a powerful Armenian economic,
educational and social revival would present a major threat to what
remained of the Ottoman empire. They failed to note that in the dying
days of the Ottoman empire the national question was the axis upon
which all others would turn. In the face of a rising chauvinist
Turkish nationalism only a direct political challenge could secure the
future of any national group's social or economic existence.
To a large extent this blindness was the result of social circumstance.
Most of these intellectuals were based in Istanbul and Izmir. They
lived a relatively privileged life, compared to the violent oppression
reigning in historical Armenia. As individuals many were integrated
into the structures of Ottoman empire. They lived in a world remote
from the reality of land robbery, massacre and emigration which were
endangering the very foundation of Armenian nationhood and additionally
they had little comprehension of the gravity of developments in
historical Armenia. In an Istanbul and Izmir so removed from this
reality they could live their hopes of progress and enlightenment
unaware of the essential fragility of their project.  How 1915 was to
tragically expose this is partially recorded in Berj Zeitountzian's
novel 'The Last Dawn'.
Yet the legacy of this generation can serve us today. It only requires
of us an effort to appropriate the grand nobility of their ideas and
                                * * *

Khatchadoor Abovian - a genuine case for national pride

Now here is human being!  He lived for just 40 years. Yet became a
giant of a man. His humanistic vision, the breadth and depth of his
intellectual pursuits, the range of his interests, his profound care
and concern for the plight of colonised peoples worldwide and his
artistic sensibilities mark him out as one of the truly great
intellectuals of the 19th century.

The greatness of Appovian can be discovered through 'Khatchadoor
Abovian' a biographical/literary analysis by Hrair Muratian published
in Armenia in 1963. Despite the stilted nature of the work (written
however in an almost unblemished Armenian - only infrequently do
redundant borrowed words disturb the flow of argument) the extensive
quotations from Appovian alone afford a sparkling picture of an
intellectual and artist totally dedicated to the enlightenment and
progress of his people.

Appovian was hugely talented and could have reached the pinnacles of
academic glory had he chosen to. He sacrificed all in his effort to
advance the cause of the ordinary Armenian back home. He fought the
church and the entire establishment of his time. He suffered terribly
for doing so. His battle to develop and use the local Armenian
vernacular was driven by a determination to make knowledge available
to the ordinary people. How very different from the Church of his own
time and the world of academia today where knowledge is almost
consciously complicated as if to transform it into a means for
advancing or protecting one's ill gotten gain.

Appovian's fiery condemnation of the enslavement of the African
people, his rage against the genocide of the American Indians, his
concern with the plight not just of Armenians but all others oppressed
by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Persian regimes signals a worthy national
ideal. His vision of the Armenian people's national revival has
nothing exclusive, nothing chauvinist or racist about it. He demanded
respect and freedom for all peoples and recognised beneath existing
national differences a common humanity. In one of his short stories an
Armenian hero pondering over the grave of a Turkish neighbour affirms
this common humanity in an impassioned outburst that reminds one of
Shylock's speech protesting against the persecution of Jews.  (As an
aside, would it be reasonable to conjecture that in Shirvanzade's 'The
Jew's Ear', Shmul Mozer's speech may have been inspired or even
borrowed in substance if not in form from Shakespeare?)

Apovian, this giant of a man, like Nalpantian after him, was hounded,
persecuted, abused and driven to an early death. One day in 1848 he
just vanished as if into thing air, so early in his life. What a
tragedy. His collected words totalling 8 volumes must truly be more
precious than gold dust.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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