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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 13, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian



Aksel Bakoontz (1899-1937), the most accomplished of the Soviet era
Armenian short story writers, made a huge impression on his
contemporaries. Some of the reasons can be gleaned from Tavit
Kasparian's introduction to 'Inheritance', a collection of Bakoontz's
unpublished political writings.  Despite some questionable evaluations
Kasparian illuminates significant aspects of Bakoontz's life and work
and stimulates thought about the nature of the literary and aesthetic
conflicts of the early Soviet Armenian era.

Bakoontz was an archetypal representative of the late l9th and early
20th century Armenian national revival - a committed intellectual born
of the people and dedicated to the welfare of the people. From an
extremely poor family, the population of his home village Koris raised
the money to school him. In return, by 16, he commenced teaching and
writing as a conscious contribution to the project of national
enlightenment. Like many of his generation he joined the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation at a very young age and also enlisted as a
volunteer soldier.

Following the establishment of Bolshevik power in Armenia, Bakoontz's
transition from an ARF member to a social and literary activist in
Soviet Armenia was seamless and without major ideological turmoil. He
wasn't an ideologue and was not primarily concerned with the
realisation of any grand theoretical enterprise. For him the ARF was
fundamentally an organisational means for securing progressive change
in Armenia. Once it ceased to be effective Bakoontz saw no moral
reason to retain membership or to leave the country after the ARF's

Many of the writings collected here reflect on the movement away from
the ARF by Bakoontz and thousands of rank and file ARF activists.
Bakoontz explicitly rejects suggestions of a forced conversion. The
tone and style of his commentaries confirm explicit assertions that
his action was conscious and voluntary. He is also at pains to mark
himself off from ARF members who fled the country. He would remain to
serve the people in the new conditions that, from the material here
reproduced, he considered to be positive. So during the first years of
Soviet power Bakoontz headed the Armenian Relief society, worked
energetically as economist and agriculturist in remote mountainous
Armenian villages educating and enlightening, arbitrating in land
disputes and translating huge amounts of educational literature.

But Bakoontz's main ambition was to become a writer. So in 1924 he
moved to Yerevan where two years later he joined the Bolshevik
Party. Putting to use his immense knowledge of rural Armenia he
secured rapid literary recognition. But he was also immediately
embroiled in the bitter intellectual war that marked the revival of
Armenian life in the first years of Soviet power.  From 1923 to the
great purges of 1937 that silenced more than a decade of creative
upsurge two literary trends had crystallised in Armenian cultural
life.  Bakoontz was part of the grouping initially named 'November'
that included Yeghishe Charents, Mkrtich Armen, and Gourgen
Mahari. Nairi Zarian (not to be confused with Gostan Zarian) headed
the opposition.

Nairi Zarian's grouping endured, but not primarily on account of its
literary talent. Sponsored by an increasingly powerful, centralist and
anti-democratic faction of the Soviet political elite, Nairi Zarian's
allies were mobilised to counter literary expressions of an emergent
Armenian centrifugal, independent socialist political formation.
Within the terms of a progressive socialist outlook the November
writers attempted to focus their internationalist concerns through a
reflection of the national history and the contemporary culture,
traditions and mores of the society in which they lived. They argued
that genuine, progressive art could be produced only through grasping
and grappling with life as it expressed itself in Armenia.  As a part
of the enterprise Bakoontz urged Armenian, and non-Armenian writers in
the Soviet Union as a whole, to 're-evaluate their huge (national)
cultural inheritance' and 'use it to map out new highways'. The result
is a body of outstanding work - Mkrtich Armen's 'Heghnar's Fountain',
Gourgen Mahari's 'My Life', Charent's vast poetic output and of course
Bakoontz's masterly short stories.

Against this vital artistic ambition, the party apparatus demanded the
impossible: a literature that presented as authentic life the lifeless
ideological mirage constructed by central party hacks to legitimise
their usurpation of power. Creative and talented artists could not of
course undertake the task without surrendering their integrity. So the
lesser writers or those happy to exchange talent for status grouped
themselves round Zarian. Setting about the persecution of Bakoontz and
his allies they displayed ruthlessness, an absence of any moral
decency and a total lack of aesthetic judgement. Nairi Zarian
commented that Bakoontz's stories 'contain neither living characters
nor a sparkle of genuine life'. He went on to denounce Bakoontz's work
as 'poisonous nationalist and Trotskyist meddling in Soviet literary
life'. Equally gross was Vagharshag Norentz's claim that Bakoontz was
'the most provincial and limited author in our literature'. The
killing, imprisonment and exile of Charents and his allies was not of
course a direct result of such vicious and fraudulent polemic. But for
whatever reason, in becoming instruments of a party elite many writers
contributed to the isolation and to the tragic fate of talented

The destiny of the lesser writers was also not free of its own
burdens. Many, however loyal to the party, fell victim to its constant
twists and turn and ended up on the gallows or in camps. Others,
talented or just honest aspirants must have felt the terrible shame
and humiliation of betraying artistic integrity for status. Nairi
Zarian himself is a case in point. Any reading of his novels and plays
reveals a talent disastrously vitiated by adherence to the worst
aspects of the artistically fatal theory of 'socialist realism' - in
effect a call to tailor art to the demands of a bureaucratic and
privileged party elite. As Soviet political life underwent its
innumerable zigzags many of these writers managed to release
themselves from total subservience to an ossified ideology and went on
to play a more positive role. Norentz for example made what was surely
an immense contribution in editing and publishing volumes of Western
Armenian poets and novelists.

Kasparian's introduction ends with a stimulating discussion of
Bakoontz's artistic achievement. He notes the close bond between human
beings and nature that marks Bakoontz's brilliant short stories. Human
life here in the backward Armenian provinces appears as an almost
elemental component of the world of nature. It is as if human beings
here lived by instinct in a world unchanged for centuries, albeit
marked by periods of harmony and a brutal conflict with nature. Yet at
its vibrant core Bakoontz's stories reveal a sharp contrast between
men and women's harsh social and natural lives and their dreams,
expectations and hopes for a more generous and gentle existence.



There is a category of literary work that has particular cultural-
national significance. To be appreciated, they require an audience
sharing a common cultural/historical tradition. Translate them into
another language and they run the risk of falling as flat as the
proverbial medieval earth. But read in the context of their historical
and traditional roots they can be evocative and illuminating. Aksel
Bakoontz's 'Hovnatan March' is this order of work.

Written in 1927 this is definitely a book with a relevance for the
Armenian Diaspora today. A satirical work, it destroys with a powerful
comic punch and a sharp sarcastic jab the glittering reputations
enjoyed by millionaire Diaspora benefactors and their agents. By
donning the cloak of a generous patriotic benefactor a millionaire's
ego is flattered.  But more importantly it enables him to secure
business advantage in the homeland. It also enables him to recruit
starry-eyed patriots who believing they are carrying out a hallowed
national duty but then unwittingly do the millionaire's bidding. These
common and well known types are dissected by Bakoontz with a
perceptive intelligence combined with the sharpest of literary

Behind glowing facades Bakoontz reveals people driven either by greed
for profit or by a ridiculously empty and parochial nationalism. In
their actions such people are indifferent to or fail to see the real
trials and tribulations of the homeland and its population. Hovnatan
March is an agent for Buenos Aires based millionaire Antreas Balikian
whose only genuine interest is the price of carpet and the state of
commercial markets. To grease the wheels of his business ambitions he
willingly lends his name, but not his money, to an adventure planned
by March. March is a leading light in a bizarre venture to secure a
plot of land in Armenia on which he hopes to build a 'New Ethiopia'
township incorporating all the most advanced features of American
industry and life.

March is your quintessential Diaspora activist: conceited, vain,
bombastic, presumptuous and a bit of a buffoon. He is also
ridiculously unreal. His conceptions of Armenia, of Armenians and of
patriotic duty are fashioned by a manufactured and mythical history of
an ancient Armenia marked by an exaggerated military heroism, cultural
achievement and national glory. Armed with a grandiose fantasy of the
past and a grandiose fantasy for the future, March manages to overlook
the actual, immediate needs of the mass of the people, needs which
take into account actual poverty, backwardness and misery.

Besides March, Bakoontz parades and ridicules a host of other
characters - cultural philistines, empty headed priests, discredited
soldiers and their likes. Those lampooned by him fall victim to a
remarkably inventive wit and sarcasm. Bakoontz has a talent for
conjuring a place, a mood, a character, a situation with a few strokes
of the pen. The dirty insect ridden hotel, the stinking heat blasted
streets, the dilapidated and abandoned ancient churches, the dry, arid
and stony country, the philistine literary circle, the backward rural
villages - each is etched in language so precise, fresh and vivid that
he essentially constructs it around you as you read him. The result is
an excellent contrast between the real and the bizarre, between
necessity and fantasy.

If Yervant Odian's Enger Panchooni is the Don Quichote of the Armenian
political world, then Hovnatan March is the Panchooni of the Armenian
Diaspora: possessed of amazingly grand plans which are expounded with
much zeal and bombast but which actually amount to 'much ado about
nothing'. Yet it is worth noting that while Panchooni has no redeeming
features, March does. He is not essentially evil, and unlike the
millionaire is not self seeking. Like hundreds if not thousands of
individuals in the Diaspora he feels his rootlessness and is searching
for some anchor and foundation for his life. The great merit of
Bakoontz's work is to demonstrate that this search cannot be
accomplished by adopting a false, romanticised patriotism so
widespread in the Diaspora.

Real patriotism which actually helps people requires rather more
humble and modest ventures and does not of course guarantee shiny
reputations and national fame. In this context one is reminded of
those who funded the construction of the massive and un-needed
multi-million dollar Cathedral in the centre of Yerevan while the
population as a whole lacks schools, medical care and other services
and - while rural churches, often of some cultural value are left to
rack and ruin.

Bakoontz's short stories have international significance and are a
valuable addition to world literature (a taste in English has been
offered by Rouben Rostamian's excellent translations). Hovnatan March
on the contrary has, I suspect, a more national, Armenian, significance.
But this does not detract from its value. It is a skilled
accomplishment and will be read, with profit and pleasure both in its
original or in translation.

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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