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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
February 23, 2001

By Eddie Arnavoudian


A study of individual self-hatred

Time and circumstance often bury valuable works of literature that,
even in translation, retain a capacity to satisfy and inspire through
their illuminating grasp of aspects of human experience. 'The Natural
Son', (Selected Works, 1992, Antelias, Lebanon) a short novel by
Yeroukhan (Yervant Srmakeshkhanlian, 1870-1915), first published in
1913, is a telling instance. Reading it one cannot but think that, had
he lived beyond his brief 45 years, a few masterpieces may have graced
the shelves of many a literature lovers' library.

The novel's concerns are as contemporary as ever. In less than 100
pages, Yeroukhan recreates the painful experience of an individual,
who, even while enjoying the material comforts of life, is not at ease
with himself, cannot cope with his past and, terrified of the social
disgrace this past threatens to bring upon him, suffers a devastating
personal crisis. As a portrait of an individual whose shattered
self-confidence and self-esteem leads him to question his very reason
for living, it is convincing. An individual's self-doubt and
self-hatred, and the resulting pyschological drama as he struggles to
recover himself, is conveyed with remarkable force.

Benjamin Parseghian is the son of a wealthy pre-1915 Istanbul-based
Armenian family. Like many of his contemporary male youth he is sent
to Paris for his education, where he also lives a dissolute and
debauched night-life. But on returning and settling in Istanbul as a
respectable, married businessman his youthful sexual adventures return
to haunt him. Malvine, his wife, desperately wants children. But
Benjamin is infertile. While in Paris he had fallen victim to venereal
disease. His relations with his wife are thus thrown into crisis.
Additionally, he lives in a society where a man's worth, indeed his
very manhood is diminished by the failure to father children. Thus
begin the psychological strains and stresses, the self-doubt and loss
of self-esteem which will eventually break Benjamin's spirit and even
his will to live.

To escape social embarrassment and personal humiliation Benjamin
desperately seeks medical advice. He even returns to Paris, spending
vast sums in an effort to restore his fertility. A brief period of
relief, an unbelievable second chance in life, seems to appear with
his wife's sudden and unexpected pregnancy and the birth of a
child. But it is a false hope, one which only accelerates and
accentuates his psychological collapse. Desperate for a child Malvine
has an affair with Vahe, a family friend, and becomes pregnant by
him. As the child, Aram, grows Benjiamin's world is once again
shattered by the slow and traumatic realisation that Aram is not in
fact his own natural son. The burden of pain is made heavier by his
wife's infidelity. His inner hell now burns fiercer than ever.

The cycle of crisis begins anew and leads him to an almost inevitable
end: suicide. With wonderfully clear and inventive prose Yeroukhan
takes us into the centre of a lonely nightmare as Benjamin's sense of
social rejection and personal worthlessness overwhelms him. This
crisis he must suffer alone. He feels too shamed to reveal the truth
of his condition either to his wife or wider family. In Parisian
society youthful dissolution may not have led to such a traumatic
personal crisis in later life. In the morally conservative world of
Armenian Istanbul, wonderfully underlilned by Ghiragos, the family
servant from the provincial town of Van, a crisis was inevitable.
Benjamin has not the wherewithal or the strength to defy and ignore
the strictures of society's moral codes. And for his misdemeanours
society eventually, so to speak, revenged itself upon him by forcing
him to suicide.

Some have argued that the suicide is an artificial, abrupt and
unsatisfactory termination to the story. It does not really matter.
In a work of substance an arguable conclusion does not detract from
the human experience which it so effectively brings to life.


Ani - that great monument to Armenian and human civilisation

Leo, a great Armenian historian (Arakel Babakhanian, 1860-1932) was a
prolific writer and somewhat of a specialist in virtually every
subject he turned his brilliant mind to whether it was literature,
politics, linguistics, architecture or archaeology.  Leo's exciting
travelogue 'Ani' was written shortly after a visit to the ruins of
this magnificent medieval Armenian city. It is an adventure into a
dark and unknown world that is page by page illuminated by Leo's
loving portrayal of the city's past, by his evident passion for the
welfare of the people, by his wide erudition, his poetic imagination
and his remarkably limpid, fluent and crisp Armenian.

No visitor was able to pass through the remains of this ruined
grandeur without being mesmerised by its sumptuous beauty, by the
magical quality of its architecture. Despite centuries of destruction
and disrepair, what remains, remains as fresh and vivid as if it had
been erected but yesterday.  What remains, even though only the
tiniest proportion of what was, remains testimony to greatness, to
culture and to beauty. Leo excites us with his evocation of Ani's
historical fortunes, citing foreign visitors and their assessments of
the city's glorious past and its architectural marvels. His subsequent
account of his own impressions, peppered with an amazing quantity of
quality historical data, is gripping and educative reading. Admittedly
Leo's eagerness to pile on the detail sometimes buries the essential
thread of the story right up to the point of exasperation. But readers
who persevere will not will be recompensed profitably!

The descriptions of the natural environment as Leo travelled to the
city are quite splendid. The monumental and imposing Arakadz and
Massis and the lush but overpowering natural environment of Lori come
to life in our imagination.  Yet as he travels through scenes of
awesome natural beauty he cannot help, with heartfelt pain, from
noting the scenes exposing the most appalling and degrading poverty
and ignorance in which the Armenian people then lived.

But, Leo comments, not far away the ruins of Ani stand witness to the
peoples' capacity for civilisation and culture. For Leo, as for any
self-respecting intellectual, historian, artist or philosopher, the
revival of knowledge about Ani does not serve mere academic ends. It
is no disinterested archaeological excavation of the past. Ani may lie
in ruins, populated now by bandits and scorpions. But its legacy must
be transformed into a living inspiration to the present. Knowledge of
its achievements must be put to the service of eliminating that false
and slavish consciousness that Armenians are by nature essentially
backward, passive, cowardly, uncultured and ignorant. Ani can inspire
pride, it can inspire the people raise themselves and leave behind the
centuries of backwardness and ignorance.

Despite the importance of this monument for Armenian history, the
corrupt elite of the time (aped to precision by the corrupt elite of
today) refused to finance and/or sponsor urgently needed preservation
work on what remained.  Leo is ruthless in his denunciation of this
elite who despite fine words, a thousand speeches and mountains of
sentimental poetry refused to advance funds to help preserve the
ruins. Now the city lies under Turkish state control and for decades
has been systematically destroyed. But it appears that some measures
to preserve it are now being taken. It can be a tourist attraction to
earn Turkey some foreign exchange. But the Turkish authorities are
determined in any publicity about Ani to expunge any reference to its
Armenian heritage.

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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