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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
August 19, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian


An Armenian writer-prisoner's view

Gourgen Mahari's 'Blossoming Barbed Wire' (Collected Works Volume 5,
1989) is a riveting memoire-novel of his time in Siberian labour camps
in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s. Mahari reconstructs
the monstrous apparatus of repression with characteristic wit and
humour and unfolds the routine of everyday life through the tragic
tale of love between an unskilled Azerbaijani worker, Mamo, and
Lyudmila, a talented German artist. Every page of this book is
permeated with Mahari's profound compassion and solidarity for the
plight of fellow human beings.

The camps shattered and destroyed tens of thousands of lives. But
Mahari also shows them to have been an integral component of a regime
that 'trampled millions beneath its steel boots' as it attempted 'to
first reduce (men and women) to little more than clay' and then
'recast them with no memory of freedom' so that they could be
transformed into 'new men', into 'cowardly and vicious, spineless and
ambitious' servants of tyranny, into 'men who would monitor and
censure love itself'.  For the vast majority of prisoners love was of
course beyond even their dreams. For men in Mahari's camp 'women were
as remote as Chaikovsky's Third Symphony to a hardy bull.' Wearied,
wasted and exhausted by hard labour, bitter winters and sadistically
meagre food rations they were reduced to skeletons off which 'even the
most skilled vulture would find no meat to pick.'  If ever prisoners
dreamt it was of bread alone, initially of the fresh and tasty kinds
from home.  But as the years rolled by they would dream only of
gobbling up 'truckloads of the camp's ghastly bread' and wake with
'jaws aching and straw pillows drenched in their own saliva.'

When not awake their lives were dictated by common criminals assigned
with responsibility for the organisation of labour. Themselves fearful
of being accused of collaborating with 'Nazi spies' or 'Trotskyite
agents' they went about their business with particular viciousness.
Under their supervision forced labour with inadequate food and
inadequate clothing, frequently drove inmates to despair and
death. Mahari has a chilling account of tree-felling where men, sent
out with no experience, are left to die and decompose crushed beneath
fallen trees.  The experience was routine.

To avoid labour many maimed themselves. More 'pleasantly' they blessed
the day they were struck down by fevers so severe that even the
heartless prison doctor ordered them off work. Others attempted to
flee despite the high risk of recapture or starvation in the Siberian
forests. After a gruelling ordeal chopping through the Siberian jungle
for several days an escaping group celebrate on hearing the sound of
life. Jubilation turns to dismay however when they discover they have
gone full circle and are no further than their camp's perimeter. Yet
so desperate are they that most start of all over again.

Sometimes, by a combination of good luck, bribery and a string of
inventive evasions love and passion flowered between men and women
prisoners detained in barracks next door. On discovery retribution was
cruel, especially for lovers expecting children. The men were hurled
into isolation and the expectant mothers flung out to another
camp. The mother was returned to camp only if the child died at
birth. If it survived, mother and child were transported even further
away. Movingly recounted, Mamo's and Lyudmilla's grief when they meet
after their son's death is again one instance in many.

Sandwiched between their tragedy is Gourgen Mahari's account of his
own ordeal.  After his arrest in Yerevan, he is held in solitary for
seventy-five days and undergoes a 'great deal of personal development':
for example he 'becomes conscious of the fact that he is a member of
an underground-nationalist-Trotskyite-terrorist organisation' a fact
about which, until then, he 'had been completely in the dark.' The
charges levelled against him and many others echo the medieval
inquisition and confessions are extracted by torturers with no fear of
being called to account - by contemporaries or by history. Dismissing
protests from a professor they stub out a cigarette on his forehead
and proclaim that "whilst we are here there is no history. And when
this becomes history, we will not be here"'.

Moving and chilling as Mahari's account is, it is marked by a
significant weakness. The vast apparatus of repression that he
describes appears not as a mechanism used by an elite to protect its
privileges against potential opposition but as a function of a single
person's evil intent. Mahari does not name Stalin, but the reference
is clear. Stalin was however the apex and a brutal representative of a
substantial and ruthless elite which in fact survived his death.
Focusing on Stalin alone was therefore quite convenient for his
successors. It drew the limelight away from the foundation and
structure of the apparatus of privilege on which the surviving Soviet
elite rested.

Yet Mahari's book touched a raw nerve among those ruling the Soviet
Union.  After its initial publication all reprints of 'Blossoming
Barbed Wire' were blocked and it only appeared in Volume Five of
Mahari's selected works in 1989, 24 years after it was first
written. Along with Vaharam Alazan's 'Highways of Suffering' it is a
record not just of appalling brutality and suffering but a testimony
to the stubborn endurance of hope even in the harshest and most
brutalised moments of human life.



It unquestionably would have been better for all had Levon Ter
Petrosian limited himself to the study of classical Armenian culture
where, in contrast to his political career, he demonstrated signs of
real quality. Evidence is his essay 'Ancient Armenian Translations',
available in a single bi-lingual Armenian-English edition (112pp, St
Vartan Press, New York, 1992). The volume is welcome. But one must
protest against rendering into western Armenian Ter Petrossian's
eastern Armenian original. What a waste of resources and an insult to

This is, nevertheless, a valuable introduction to the cultural
enterprise begun by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century and continued
through subsequent ages: the translation of the best of world
literature into Armenian. When Mashtots, with the backing of the
Armenian Church, began work to produce an Armenian script, he was
embarking on the daunting task of creating the foundations for a
written Armenian intellectual and cultural tradition. Its first stage
was the generation of an Armenian language Christian literature.
Giving the Armenian Church its own distinctive intellectual/cultural
national entity was deemed an essential component of the battle to
retain its independence against the unrelenting avaricious Greek and
Assyrian ambitions.  The axis of the effort would in the first
instance be the appropriation in Armenian of the best of international
culture and knowledge.

In an exciting overview that shows the scope of the achievement, Ter
Petrosian divides the project into five stages stretching across some
one thousand three years, when talented, dedicated and untiring
scholars, usually attached to a monastery, set about the business of
translation. The process begins with the Golden Age immediately
following the development of the Armenian alphabet in 412. Its main
purpose was to render into Armenian texts that served the Church's
direct liturgical, canonical and theological needs.  Despite its
overwhelmingly theological character, this labour produced an
outstanding and enduring heritage. The jewel in the crown was the
Armenian version of the Bible.

The Armenian Bible was no mere translation. Artistically it is
superior (as is the St James English Bible) to its rather bland
originals. A literary masterpiece it remains a treasury containing the
best of classical Armenian, refined and polished to its most brilliant
form and capable of serving as an inexhaustible source of linguistic
innovation. As important was its role in the development of an
independent Armenian national Church and in providing a reference
point for a flourishing original Armenian literature, history and
philosophy. Here it is worth recalling Christopher Hill's comment
about a similar role performed by the Bible in its English translation
some 800 years after the Armenian. The English Bible also: '...played
a large part in moulding English nationalism, in asserting the
supremacy of the English language in a society which, from the eleventh
to the fourteenth centuries, had been dominated by French-speaking
Normans. (The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, p7)

>From the end of the 5th to the beginning of the 8th century scribes
who came to be known as the Greek School prioritized the translation
of philosophical works of the classical Greek tradition. Its language
lacked the shine of its predecessor tainted as it was by an excess of
Greek influence. But its achievement contributed significantly to the
work of independent Armenian scholars. But the value of their work is
even broader. Many religious and philosophical works, from Greek and
Assyrian authors survive, in part or whole, only in their translated
Armenian forms.

A lengthy period of political and cultural upheaval and disintegration
intervenes before the Cilician period in the 12th to the 13th
centuries.  Though not marked by the overarching ambitions of the
first two, it effected a substantial translation programme serving the
newly established local Armenian kingdom and society. Its distinctive
feature, besides the weight of secular material translated, was the
use of 'middle' or spoken Armenian that made widely available many
legal, medical and other scientific volumes.

A so-called Unitarian period in the 14th century initiated by the
Roman Catholic Church as part of its failed effort to subjugate the
stubbornly independent Armenian Church did nevertheless produce a
stock of useful translations. The last stage defined by Ter Petrosian
crosses the 17th and 18th century and runs parallel with the modern
Armenian national revival that generated a vigorous translation effort
during the 19th century.

Throughout the centuries translations were done from all surrounding
languages - Greek, Assyrian, Persian, Arabic, French, Latin and
others.  Frequently in the absence of dictionaries, translators worked
alongside foreign scholars. The work they produced, and their own
status, was of the highest order. They were engaged in communicating
the Word of the Book and therefore devoted to the task their best
efforts.  In respect of the standards of intellectual excellence and
creativity they strived for, they made little distinction between
translated works or original commentaries.  Both served the same end -
to enlighten and elevate the reader or hearer.

Ter Petrosian elsewhere remarks on the positive content of translated
and original theological literature be they interpretations, sermons,
canonical texts or hagiographies. Beyond their religious content, they
acted as vehicles preserving and transmitting a substantial stock of
human knowledge accumulated over the ages. Some are veritable
encyclopaedias reflecting the level of contemporary knowledge. Others
contain important information about the social, economic and civic
life of the era in which they were composed.  Among them are also
texts with valuable scientific analyses of the structure and content
of the natural world.

Whilst most translations focused on theological and philosophical
material, and in Cilicia also incorporated secular titles of a more
scientific, practical bent, artistic or creative works constitute a
fair share of the heritage of translation. Fables, ballads, folk tales
etc were not only translated, but were reworked to produce virtually
original art. Among them, demonstrating an acute national sense of
purpose, is a biography of Alexander the great translated by Movses 
Khorenatzi as inspiration to Armenian leaders.  Another is the
legendary Khigar containing significant elements of early Assyrian
folklore and mythology.

Through such labour devotees of Armenian culture did more than just
appropriate foreign art, culture and science. They simultaneously
fertilised the ground for the growth of a distinctive Armenian
tradition that has made its independent contribution to universal
human culture. One need only recall Narekatzi's 'Book of Lamentations'.
This artistic and intellectual monument, along indeed with many
others, cannot be conceived without the prior work of dedicated and
great translators.

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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