Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner

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 2002 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
June 10, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Raffi on the experience of the Armenian emigrant labourer in 19th
century Istanbul

Donald Abcarian, whose modern translation of Raffi's (1835-1888) 'The
Fool' makes a seminal Armenian novel available to the English speaking
world, notes rightly that 'it's a shame that Raffi has become a
literary non-person to "modern" Armenians. I suspect there's no other
writer in the world who approximates the particular kind of richness
and character his writing has.  I think he has his own, individual
place to occupy in world literature, and that world literature is the
poorer for lack of being translated -- particularly into English.'

Raffi's Gharib Mshetsin (The Emigrant from Mush, Raffi, Collected
Works, Volume 4, pp64 - 146, 1984, Yerevan, Soviet Armenia) a short
novel, incomplete and by no means his best, gives us nevertheless an
enjoyable introduction to the author's immense talent. It is a
well-told tale in an unusual setting. We are in Istanbul, far from the
historic Armenia that is the backdrop for 'The Fool' and most of
Raffi's other novels. Panoramic in its presentation of Armenian
Istanbul, its establishment is shown to be corrupt, morally degenerate
and indifferent both to the plight of people living in the colonised
homelands and to that of its migrant labourers seeking refuge in the
metropolis. In contrast to this we witness those collaborative efforts
through which the impoverished sought to survive a hostile environment.

Ohan is one of the thousands of Armenian migrant labourers who flooded
into Bolis driven from their homeland by poverty and oppression.
Working as a carrier of human waste from domestic households to its
dumping ground in the sea, he encounters a whole cast of Istanbul's
citizenry from the aristocratic pasha and bey right down to coffee
shop owner and barber and many in between.  Among them is the demonic
Elena who, for a price, offers to foster unwanted children with new
loving parents. Ohan however discovers the truth when a 'waste'
package he is to dispose of turns out to be an infant boy.

In telling Ohan's story Raffi touches on the drama and tragedy of love
across national and religious lines in a society burdened with
reactionary and repressive mores and customs.  The love between an
Armenian bey and Zohra the daughter of a Turkish pasha underlines the
irrationality and inhumanity of prevailing law and custom. Risking
death if discovered they are forced to use Elena to foster out their
beloved child, the very one that Ohan has been instructed to hurl into
the sea. Also on display are those ugly features of Armenian life that
Raffi sought to mobilise the people against. A faction of the
degenerate Church is depicted as the lynchpin of an alliance of the
privileged and wealthy ruthlessly fleecing the common man and woman
(p113).  An excellent critique of the pettiness of Armenian
parliamentary politics in Istanbul runs along with cutting remarks on
Armenian journalism. Despite their exploitation, manipulation and
abuse immigrant labourers refuse to become passive, hopeless
victims. They create their own structures of human and social
solidarity and their own system of social welfare (p114-115). They are
also the most enthusiastic militants, ever-ready enter the fray in
defence of the people of the historic homelands.

Of course neither The Emigrant From Mush nor indeed Raffi's more
substantial work is free of artistic or political shortcomings. But
even in this minor work we encounter those elements of talent that
made him an outstanding intellectual and artistic representative of
the Armenian national liberation movement.

Raffi had a remarkable talent for telling a gripping tale of drama and
adventure that pits social and moral virtue against its opposite. It
is this art, akin to that of the epic raconteurs of ancient times,
that enables him in his larger works to set out a vast body of
profound social analysis and political thought without descending into
tedious propaganda. His analysis, observations, criticisms and
prescriptions flow generally from his dramatic narrative. The
narrative in turn unfailingly touches upon both universal human and
national concerns and reveals fundamental social relations as well as
the hopes and dreams of the common people.

At his best Raffi's protagonists are very accurately portrayed and
brilliantly situated social types. Comprehensive and accurate
depictions of human relations - domestic, social, political, economic,
inter-national - come to form a realistic and compelling overall
structure for the adventures of his characters. Raffi's warm humanity,
his sympathy and generosity as well as his indignation and revolt
against injustice and oppression inspires both mind and imagination.
The result is that his novels can still be read with both pleasure and
edification even in an age over-preoccupied with the individual psyche
and consciousness meandering outside of any social context.



The praise heaped upon Gostan Zarian's 'The Traveller and His Road'
(Works, pp9-360, 1974, Beirut, Lebanon), by Hagop Oshagan among
others, is entirely understandable. Zarian's brilliant turn of phrase,
his facility for vivid expressionist description and his mental
sharpness blow life into the past evoking many of its truths in some
breadth and depth. Yet this travelogue of his journey from Istanbul to
Armenia in the 1920s does not deserve Oshagan's label 'a masterpiece'.
Its intellectual and philosophic scaffolding is seriously uneven and
unstable. Though frequently perceptive the narrative has no coherent
axis while its political and historical substance is corrupted by a
metaphysically conceived and thus unreal Armenian identity that could
have little connection with the real world of the Armenian people. Yet
for some of its impressions - of aspects of life in Armenia in the
1920s, of post 1915 Armenian Istanbul (Bolis), of the failings of the
Diaspora intelligentsia and many others - it has historical value.
The opening pages are striking evocations of the death of Armenian
Bolis after the 1915 Genocide and the rise of Kemalism. Revisiting
this one-time Armenian cultural capital, Zarian reconstructs it with
its phalanx of writers, artists, teachers and journalists all
nourishing grand hopes that were destroyed in 1915. Post-Genocide
efforts to recover past glory have no substance as mediocrities
surface to exploit the gap left by murdered talent.  Yet Zarian notes
that even at its height, at its most artistically and culturally
accomplished, Bolis was never genuinely Armenian. Even then inane
aping of Western, in this case French, vulgarity readily passed for
culture among a broad circle of educated or well-to-do Armenians. 'Woe
to the nation that thus loses its identity and sells its soul'
exclaims Zarian.' The impact of the critique is however diminished by
a marked Francophobia and a hostility to the French Revolution whose
ideology is dismissed as 'derivative and drab' and whose principles
'explode and disappear into thin air' like 'cheap fireworks.'

Travelling to Armenia through Turkey rampant with Kemalist nationalism
Zarian observes that remaining Armenians and Greeks live in increasing
fear and foreboding as Kemal's chauvinist movement attempts to
reconstitute the once multi-national empire into a new homogenous
xenophobic Turkish state. Among many we meet that ubiquitous predator
remarked on by many Armenian writers: the merchant. Even in the midst
of the ravages of war they seek out only personal financial gain. As
Kemalism gains in confidence, and arrogance, Armenians cower more and
more and begin to flee Bolis.

In contrast to the disintegrating Armenian communities within the old
Ottoman Empire the newly founded but also foundering Armenian state
comes to represent hope and a better future. It is there that Zarian
and his family are headed. The backward and arid remnant of a larger
historic Armenia that now presents itself as the new Armenian nation
does not however dim his hope.  At least Zarian is at home in an age
when membership of a nation state was deemed a necessary foundation
for a better future.

Zarian does not suffers sentimentality or romanticism. The hardness,
the chaos, the careerism, the deceptions and the immense difficulties
of the first Armenian Republic and the first epoch of Soviet power are
conveyed in vivid colour. The wretched Armenian merchant reappears
here too, but this time disguised as a patriot. Though feted as such
his sole purpose remains to survey business prospects. American run
orphanages passed off as humane institutions where 'boys will be able
to develop their own lives' are in fact 'deadly marshes'. Truth be
told an orphan's life was a dog's life: 'A bewildered pack of dogs
trot by. Abandoned, pedigreed dogs without masters, now gone
wild. Hungry, glistening eyes, lean, organised like everything else
here, they roam the streets from one end of town to the other, and
survive by thieving. Dogs, too, live like our orphans.'

Yet Zarian tries hard to love the land. Joining scores of other
prominent Armenian intellectuals he sacrificed much to return. But in
contrast to many others he was never able to comprehend and appreciate
the actual dynamics and processes of real life. This was to be his
artistic downfall. The philosophic and intellectual framework that
defined his vision of an Armenian identity was deeply flawed. His
conception of an Armenian national identity was little more than
intellectual icon to be worshiped but with no purchase on contemporary
reality. Zarian, suggesting images of the European Renaissance, argues
that every nation in transition or crisis turns to its classical
heritage as an anchor and foundation for recovery and revival. However
whilst acknowledging the wealth of Armenian classical culture, there
was for him an unbridgeable gap between his conception of this
tradition and the Armenia he witnessed.

For Zarian, contemporary Armenia had no redeeming features to enable
it to fruitfully mine the legacy of the past. Living Armenians
allegedly deal only with 'petty feelings, middling ideas, and cheap
goods imported from Russia and Europe'. Instead as the core of his
prescription he demands that Armenians 'assert the fearless
consciousness of a new spiritual aristocracy.' What this consciousness
was and how the 'spiritual aristocracy' was to prevail we are given
not a hint. Such ineffective meanderings differ little from those in
Zarian's famous novel 'The Ship on the Mountain'.

Zarian rejected all existing agencies that could, in whatever way,
contribute something in actual reality to rebuild an Armenia emerging
from centuries of colonial oppression, genocide, war and dispersion.
The modern peasant is backward and ignorant, the intellectual has sold
his soul to the devil and in politics people are thrall to foreign
ideologies. Zarian dismisses them with haughty contempt. 'M lived with
other people's ideas, as in a rented room, nothing to call his own,
not a single idea' The eastern Armenian intellectuals suffered
'prefabricated, one-sided ideas - like a bell hung from the camel's
tortured neck' Notwithstanding references to supposed inner resources,
the population at large is equated to dumb animals 'wondering around,
bent before destiny like cattle to before the plough'.

Zarian's distaste for the newly established Soviet regime is palpable.
But he would have turned against any regime whatever its political
character, intentions or achievements. Blinded by his search for his
'fearless spiritual aristocracy' he was unable to distinguish between
corrupt opportunists and thousands who were dedicated to the welfare
of the people. He unilaterally dismissed the committed as fanatics and
the idealists as dupes of nefarious foreign ambitions.

Zarian seems unable to grasp that even while the regimentation of
life, bureaucracy and illegitimate repression was an ever present
tendency, the epoch he wrote about through the efforts of people like
Alexander Miasnighian, Aghasi Khanjian, Yeghishe Charents, Ashot
Hovannissian, Aksel Bakoontz, Gourgen Mahari, Hratchia Ajarian, Leo,
Malkhasiantz and many thousands of others was also one of the most
fecund culturally, socially and economically. Together they did a
great deal to recover and build on the classical heritage as part of
their effort to reconstruct an Armenian nation.

Zarian, in contrast, reminds one of Aksel Bakoontz's hero in 'Hovnatan
March' who, conceiving of Armenia only in the most unreal romantic
terms, is incapable of making any realistic and accurate assessment of
real conditions. Besides squandering unquestionable artistic talent
this rendered him incapable of accomplishing or contributing anything
substantial. It also condemned him to perpetual and ultimately useless
intellectual and political wandering. How, otherwise, is one to
explain his endless twists and turns, his departure from Soviet
Armenia, his subsequent collaboration with the ARF, his return again
to Soviet Armenia and once again his disillusionment.

As an intellectual and artistic whole the book is additionally flawed
by Zarian's treatment of women as nothing more than objects for men's
sexual desire. Otherwise they are deemed to be 'transparent, easy to
predict' with their 'fate fixed' and 'their role inferior.' Besides
such intellectual corruptions the books is tarnished by verbosity and
many overworked surrealistic descriptive flights. But read it
nevertheless. It remains a useful historical document and is at the
same time a good aid to learning Armenian. Zarian has a fluency of
tongue even when his intellectual wings are clipped!

(Note: With one or two exceptions, translated excerpts are from 'The
Traveller & His Road' by Gostan Zarian translated by Ara Baliozian,
Ashod Press, New York, 1981)

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.

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback |