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RAFFI --  An Overview

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 24, 2002

By Donald Abcarian

Raffi (1832-1888) was the preeminent Armenian novelist of the
mid-nineteenth century national revival. Through a rich body of
writing spanning numerous genres, his creative and analytic genius
ignited the Armenian literary scene with the imagery of national
self-recognition, cultural enlightenment, and political emancipation.
In so doing he layed a broad foundation for the subsequent development
of Armenian literature, intellectual life, and politics. His career
embraced many fields of activity: radical educator, pioneer in the use
of modern Armenian, historian, folklorist, cultural anthropologist,
social critic, moral philosopher, and political strategist. He remains
a literary figure of unparalleled stature in modern Armenian history.

No one in Raffi's day knew or understood Armenia better than he, for
he had traveled its length and breadth many times, acquainted himself
in minute detail with every dimension of its life, met with countless
country folk and listened closely to their stories, thus gathering a
rich store of material which he would later bring to life in vivid,
passionate depictions of the revolutionary struggle between the old
and the new. As a result, he encountered bitter opposition from the
conservative circles whose stranglehold on Armenian society he
represented with such merciless accuracy in his stories, and his
entire creative career was plagued by censorship. Yet among the masses
his stories were eagerly passed from hand to hand until they became
tattered, and those who couldn't read would gather around their
literate compatriots to hear them read aloud.

Raffi threw himself body and soul into the national ferment of his
time, a period marked by unbounded optimism and bitter disappointment.
Following on the lead established by his sacred idols, Khrimian
Hairig, Khachadur Abovian, and Mikayel Nalbandian, he resolutely set
out to accomplish his self-appointed mission in life: creating a true
popular literature for a people who had none. He contended with
serious personal risks in doing so, but persevered with increasing
mastery to reach the summit of his artistic abilities.

An overview of Raffi's fiction reveals one overarching purpose: to
hold up a well polished mirror to the totality of Armenian life,
representing it in each of its principal population centers and at
different historic moments, each novel serving as part of a grand
mosaic which completes the picture of Armenia.  From his earliest
novels set in his native Persia, to his stories depicting the Armenian
merchant class in Tiflis, to his final novel Samvel, set in ancient
Armenia, all are directed to fulfilling this purpose. In this panorama
we see all the glory and misery of Armenian existence presented with
cinematic clarity.  This picture includes the striving idealism of
Armenian revolutionaries, but also the festering ethnic resentments
and attendant stereotypes which Raffi presents with unvarnished candor.
These are particularly found in the novels "Jalaleddin," and "The
Fool," works associated with the last Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78, the
most devastating war in living memory and one which set in motion a
series of cataclysms for Armenia that ultimately led to the Genocide
of 1915.  A complete reading of his works, however, will reveal the
overwhelming preponderance of humanist universalism in his thought,
and for every expression of cultural bias, one will find its opposite
and balancing formulation somewhere else in his work.

From "Gaidzer", volume II, Chapter 1,  "VAN":
[Aslan is one of the central characters in "Gaidzer", Raffi's longest
novel, and he appears in various ethnic disguises in the course of the
story. Aslan is leading Farhad, the narrator of the story, on an
exploration of the principal sites of ancient Armenian history while
at the same time meeting secretly with subversive groups in far-flung
villages to lay the groundwork for revolution.]

Farhad says of Aslan:

    "But there was one thing about Aslan that stood out clearly from
    all the rest: From the first day we set out together, wherever we
    went, whatever the circumstances, the people he met with were
    always those who protested against the general anarchy of the
    land. And it seemed some common thread ran through all of them,
    binding all their hearts and wills together, these people of
    different nationalities.  But who was it that held the other end
    of that thread?  They were all the individual parts of some great,
    complex mechanism.  But what was the force that set it in motion
    and gave it direction?  Who was it that turned their many wills
    toward one goal?  To this day, that answer has eluded me.  As it
    seemed to me, this was the ruling spirit, existing in invisibility,
    keeping itself unapproachable, governing the hearts and minds of
    mankind with its powerful unseen hand, and giving them all

In final analysis, all of Raffi's major works deserve to be translated
into English, the indisputed international language. Fresh exposure to
his revealing depictions of Armenian culture and history, his highly
developed, incisive treatment of man's inhumanity to man, and the
dark, mysterious drama of his fictional world will convince many a
modern reader that this is not a writer who deserves consignment to
historical oblivion.  Such a translation project would require broad
institutional support and the collective effort of many individuals
whose linguistic knowledge is matched by a high degree of literary

There could be no better way of concluding this overview of Raffi than
by quoting what one of his contempories said to him on reading his
first published novel, "Harem: (1874):

Letter From R. Badganian, publisher and writer, to Raffi:

       "The essential character of your prose, with a view both to its
    inner and its outward composition, with a view both to the manner
    of expression and the currentness of what is said -- in short,
    from every point of view -- is a new phenomenon in our newborn
    literature.  Without the least intention of offending anyone's
    pride, or removing one leaf from anyone's laurels, or diminishing
    anyone else's value by one whit, I will tell you that neither
    Abovian, nor Nazarian, nor Taghyatian, not one, not one of your
    predecessors ever had the significance and the impact you have.
    And it must be said that masterful works of literature will always
    have contemporary interest, which yours will have if only you
    never stray from the path you have taken, for it is the truest
    path of all."
	"You imperceptibly awaken in the nation those benumbed
    feelings that your predecessors struggled in vain to awaken with
    all their drums and trumpets, with all their crying and wailing...
    They didn't awaken them, failing to gauge the true level of their
    power and talent.  All they did was to find fault with the people,
    the nation, whereas he who would awaken them would have to have
    the kind of power they were lacking and which you have."
	"You are one of those poets in whom the godly spirit of the
    ancient prophets lives, which is so astir within you that it will
    show the nation the way to the right road... Why need I go on and
    on like this?  You are one of those messianic poets whom we sought
    all along but were unable to find. Enough... Reading your Harem, a
    thousand and one powerful feelings stirred within me, my eyes
    brimmed with tears, and I was provoked by love and hate toward one
    or another character.  In a word, you took over my being, and
    whichever way you wanted me to go you took my heart...  Why?
    Because you are a poet in the fullest sense of that word."

[The author is indebted for all biographical specifics, including the
letter from Badganian, to the work of Khachik Samvelian, distinguished
scholar who has devoted his career to studying Raffi.  His notes on
Raffi's work appended to the 1983-84 edition of "Raffi's Collected
Works" published by Sovedagan Krogh (The Soviet Writer) and his 1987
literary biography entitled "Raffi -- Gyanki Steghdzakordzagan Oughin"
(Raffi -- The Creative Path of His Life) are the principal sources for
this article. Future articles will once more draw on his work, as well
as that of Sergei Sarinian who wrote the introduction to the
Collection mentioned above. -- DA ]

NEXT:  RAFFI -- Early Life and Principal Works

Donald Abcarian was born in Fresno, California. He graduated from the
University of California Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and has
pursued a lifelong interest in languages and world literature. He has
been translating from Raffi's works for the past seven years. In 2000
the Gomidas Institute published his translation of The Fool {Khent@].
Mr. Abcarian currently lives in Berkeley.

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