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 2000 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
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 September 25, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. Hovanness Toumanian and the drama of abused womanhood Hovanness Toumanian was an outstanding poet and the best of his work deserves a privileged position on the shelves of any lover of literature. Yet his position in Armenian literary criticism is not secure. There are those who dismiss him as little more than a provincial troubadour, claiming he merely regurgitated folklore which, despite its Armenian colour, does not scale the heights of real poetry. This utterly erroneous view has taken root and grown ever since Hagop Oshagan's critical remarks in the 1930s and is now the fashion among certain 'modernist' critics, especially in Europe. However, to appreciate Toumanian's greatness, leave his critics to the side and read 'Maro', a short poem of no more than six pages. Here Toumanian depicts a profound and universal human experience in a uniquely Armenian national form. An aspect of Toumanian's greatness indeed rests in this ability to capture a universal human quality in its national form. 'Maro' is a veritable drama, a human tragedy presented in the starkest and simplest possible terms. It is the drama simultaneously of womanhood and humanity. It retells the story of nine year old Maro forced into an arranged marriage. The bitterness of this experience is portrayed with remarkable depth and feeling. When Maro, fleeing her newly wed home, returns to her mother crying 'Mum, I don't want to be a woman' we hear, in all its simplicity and intensity, the cry of abused womanhood across centuries and across nations. But we hear more than this. We also hear Maro's cry to be free. Toumanian movingly contrasts Maro's experience of enslaved 'womanhood' with that of the free spirit of childhood that she hitherto enjoyed. Maro wants to remain a child, for as a child was allowed to be herself, to live freely, to imagine and to realise herself. But as a woman she knows that she has become no more than an object for someone else. Her flight from her forced marriage is her demand that she be treated as an end in herself. However Maro pays the price for trying to be free of the shackles of repressive social arrangements. She is first ostracised then driven to her death. Maro's fate is not just an individual's tragedy. It is addditionally a terrible social drama involving a community of human beings who all appear to be governed by forces beyond their control, by forces which compel them to act against their humane and loving nature. Maro's family love her and have brought her up with all the care and tenderness they could muster. Yet in her hour of need they too turn their backs on her. Yet they are not heartless. They are trapped. They too lack the freedom to override social regulation and take their evidently distressed daughter back into the home. Instead they cast her out into the wilderness. When Maro is found dead, her family's grief has no measure. Yet despite the love of her parents and despite their grief, she cannot be given a decent burial. She is 'thrown into a hole' as Christian punishment for her apparent suicide. Nevertheless beneath the crust of social convention that dictates such inhuman behaviour, a genuine humanity remains alive. Toumanian's evocation of the pain of the family experience and his description of the mother's pleas and prayers at Maro's graveside are in this respect heartrending and inspiring. That so much feeling, so profound an experience is evoked in so few pages is testimony to Toumanian's achievement. His art lies not just in the simplicity of the language but in the simplicity of the conception and structure. The poem treats only of essentials and brings these to the fore by means of the flow of rhythm and the colour and crispness of image and description. By these means it also captures a dimension of human experience that transcends not just that of women abused, but incorporate that of humanity abused. To condemn Toumanian as no more than a provincial troubadour is a staggering demonstration of aesthetic incompetence, besides being an insult to the venerable troubador. Every one of Toumanian's numerous successful poems, including those written as children's tales, are alive with a meaning and a passion for life. 2. Krikor Zohrab - a talent that was not to touch the highest peak Krikor Zohrab is regarded as 'the prince of the Armenian short story', comparable, some say, with Maupassant or Chekhov. Such judgements are wide of the mark. In any Armenian canon, he would occupy a station beneath Yeroukhan, Zorian or Bakountz, who, unlike Zohrab, have left a substantial volume of work that would hold their own in time to come. Yet this is not to dismiss Zohrab out of hand. His stories, by virtue of their technical excellence, retain a certain colour and freshness that can make for entertaining reading. Zohrab was a perceptive observer and a witty raconteur. Few have equalled his technical writing skills. Deploying words to full effect he can offer remarkable descriptions of a scene, a person, a mood, a feeling, a sentiment or an emotion. His graceful language aided by an acute percepton gives his stories a vivacity that entertains and even captivates. Yet the effect is only fleeting, lacking deep impact or lasting impression. They fail to evince from the reader that cry of 'Yes, I see!' which truly great short stories do. However not all his work is of the same order. Among his short stories are a few excellent ones that will endure translation. 'Hagopig' for example is a powerful, witty, yet disturbing portrait of the dead soul in a living man; of a once vibrant and joyous person who has lost the zest for life and now merely 'occupies himself with dying'. Zohrab does not lack the ability to capture aspects of individual or social experience, or features of the human psyche with some degree of depth. But this he does rarely. His stories are limited by their narrow scope and his naturalism whilst creating vivid images describes no wider or deeper context that would confer on them a broader universal significance. 'Laughter' is, as the cliché goes, a 'well-crafted' story. But it captures only the immediate image of an unbalanced mind and heart. But the image has no context that would truly highlight the essential human drama behind it. In this respect, the human experience described remains mute and not fully comprehensible. 'Zmraghda', the story of a rich playboy seducing a poor girl is standard fare, though with Zohrab its telling is again accomplished. Yet it suffers a profound inauthenticity when explaining her choice to opt for a young butcher's apprentice instead of the rich playboy. Zmraghda manages a speech so articulate and structured that one would think this illiterate young girl had attended oratory classes in Classical Greece. The impact of the story is thus lost. 'The Head Nurse' confirms the case of a talent that was misled by the false charms of French naturalism. Seeking revenge against men when abandoned by her lover, a young woman becomes a hospital nurse in order to delight in the suffering men endure on the operating table. The twist in depicting the abuse of women has novelty and a certain shocking quality, but in the depiction of the nurse's thirst for revenge, there is an absence of that complexity and contradiction that characterises all genuinely profound and passionate human emotions. Zohrab's stories that have a national or community axis are in many respects more satisfying to read today. 'The Day After the Dance' for example, is a memorable account of a young provincial teacher and aspiring poet being led astray by the decadent, hedonistic attractions of Bolis life. 'Megha Der' is a marvellous little sketch of a merchant robbing wealth that was bequeathed to the nation. The best of these stories comment on some human frailty or flaw, while colourfully recording aspects of Armenian social life at the end of the 19th and opening of the 20th centuries. Any volume of Zohrab's short stories will entertain, inform and will also afford moments, albeit brief, of genuine and profound insight. Those who are striving to learn, improve or re-master Armenian have especially good reason to read him. His writing combines utmost simplicity of style with great versatility of expression. * Besides Armenian editions of Krikor Zohrab's works which are easily available, English speakers can obtain 'Zohrab', selected and translated by Ara Baliozian, 1985. A valuable volume, it contains a selection of five stories, 'random thoughts' from Zohrab and reminiscences and tributes from prominent Armenian literary critics and writers. It is available at Narek.com. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.