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The Critical Corner - 09/20/2004

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Worth a read...

    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding.
    Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature.
    Reading them one will always find something of value.

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 20, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian



Vazken Shoushanian's riveting 'Diary' (1999, 412pp, Yerevan) blends
personal confession with political commentary, literary criticism,
journalism, the short story and the dramatic dialogue. Free of
self-delusion and a self-praise it touches on both universal human
concerns that are characteristic of all Shoushanian's work and on
issues of Armenian politics and culture where he communicates a mature
sense of national pride untainted by preposterous pretension or
chauvinist excess.

A man of sturdy egalitarianism, Shoushanian's denunciation of the
hired press and his exposure of the mechanisms by which money buys
intellectuals is stunning. The diaries also tell us something about
the war years in France where, as a teacher, Shoushanian was responsible
for evacuating pupils before the oncoming German army. Additionally he
offers glimpses into his personal preoccupations, passions and loves
as well as his work habits when writing novels at a café table in
Paris. Whether scathing about the Armenian Diaspora intellectual's
ignorance and sectarianism, about the reckless waste of national
resources or about the hopeless political backwardness of the French
working class, he remains intensely contemporary and exudes a profound
empathy and human solidarity.

Threaded through the volume are reflections on the plight of the
Armenian intellectual in a Diaspora undergoing rapid assimilation.
Shoushanian's experience was typical of a generation who, born in the
Ottoman Empire, survived the genocide and lived in Europe. His
intellectual identity was fashioned by his early Armenian
experience. He could not conceive of being intellectual without
serving some Armenian political or cultural aim, some dream of
national revival or cultural development. He was first an Armenian and
then an intellectual. Yet he was washed up on the shores of what
proved to be a thoroughly arid French-Armenian Diaspora that
assimilated before his eyes.

Dominated by material insecurity, the early Diaspora was driven
primarily by the need to secure economic stability. Individual
ambitions to prosper within the framework of a foreign land bred an
indifference and even contempt for the Armenian identity and for
culture and Armenian affairs that together defined Shoushanian's
entire worldview. Such a community, neither Armenian nor yet French,
could not sustain a Armenian intellectual or artistic class. In a
community that he so relentlessly criticised for its grasping
shopkeeper mentality Shoushanian was a total stranger, an alien who
did not belong.

Shahan Shahnour, lashed so remorselessly by Shoushanian, though of the
same generation, represented a different kind of intellectual.
Shoushanian did not tolerate pedantic poseurs and narrow-minded
ignoramuses. But neither could he tolerate Shahnour who was an
intellectual first and an Armenian second, someone who could shift
easily from Armenian into French intellectual life. For Shoushanian
this was out of the question and tantamount to treason against the
Armenian people.

Shoushanian died young and these diaries record his debilitating ill
health and premonitions of early ageing and death. They also tell of
the material hardships that prevented him from realising his life's
ambition of writing a four-volume novel of the Armenian Diaspora. This
is a rewarding read, though its language only occasionally bursts with
the fluency and poetry of Shoushanian's best prose. After all he wrote
them when effectively exiled from Armenian life, living among French
people and sometimes desperately yearning to speak his mother tongue.



This collection of five essays edited by Sergei Sarinian (Literary
Figures, 388pp, 1976, Yerevan) casts some interesting insight into
issues of modern Armenian literature and history. Of particular note
are two that reflect on the relation between the theatre and the novel
and the 19th century Armenian national revival. Both the theatre and
novel were born almost simultaneously with the national revival and
played in it a central role being regarded as powerful mediums for
enlightenment, education and refinement.

The early repertoire of the Armenian theatre, dominated as it was by
romantic themes of ancient Armenian glory and stubborn battles for
freedom did more than inspire the popular imagination. Ottoman
prohibition of critical consideration of contemporary life and
politics ensured that romantic historical themes were used as
metaphors for the battles of the day.

A vigorous essay by S. Hayrapetian introduces us to Armenak Haykouni,
an early practitioner of the Armenian theatre, author of at least 6
plays, a great deal of journalistic writing as well as a novel
'Eliza'. Haykouni's 'Ara the Beautiful' through the prism of the past
worked to instill notions of political resistance to modern tyranny.
Similarly, ostensible reference to social questions of bygone days
focussed on current discontents. A radical and bold thinker, Haykouni
went a step further in 'Olympia versus Barantzem' with his telling
descriptions of contemporary social exploitation and poverty, whilst
'Eliza' for the first time in Armenian fiction treats openly of
Kurdish ravages of Armenian communities in historical Armenia.

Published in 1861 'Eliza' was only the second novel written in modern
western Armenian. An adventure-come-romantic love story, it is also a
critique of political passivity, of religious fatalism that enervates
the oppressed and of the divisive role of foreign missionaries in the
Ottoman Empire. Artistically the worst flaws of the worst propagandist
novel are evident. One-dimensional characters - little more than
cardboard vehicles for authorial opinion - inhabit a world with no
organic coherence where plot and ideas are forced and resolutions
are bizarre. Yet this novel remains significant for underlining
the importance of political action and for its condemnation of
religious intolerance.

Harassed and persecuted by the establishment Haykouni died young, a
mere 31.  But he remained a spirited representative of the progressive
intelligentsia.  Possessed of an English education, he worked to
introduce Enlightenment reason into Armenian life and was an
enthusiastic proponent of the natural sciences, modern medicine and
modern education. Calling for the secularisation of marriage and an
end to the practice of arranged marriages he even urged its victims to
rebel through unfaithfulness. Such views brought him into bitter
conflict with both the Armenian Church and foreign missionaries then
descending like locusts upon Armenian communities. Charging them with
being agents of colonial domination, backing up this claim by quotes
from the London Church Times, he noted rightly that they attacked the
Armenian Church not in order to reform it, but to subjugate it.

S. Ananyan's discussion of Armenian romantic novel in the 50s and 60s
of the 19th century focuses on related issues. In Constantinople, the
birthplace of the modern Armenian novel, there was no national
narrative tradition into which this new European form could be
absorbed. Inspired by a diet of translated novels, the western
Armenian variant came into being as an artificial imitation of second
rate European work. Nevertheless the early western Armenian novels
were written with the loftiest of aims.

In the early phases of the national revival all art forms - poetry,
novel, drama or satire - were considered as vehicles for education and
enlightenment.  The novel plays the same role as an editorial article.
It is a didactic tract to guide and instruct, to inspire and give
leadership. Its form - stories of adventure, romance and high
melodrama - was but a device to sustain mass interest and thus more
easily communicate the message. Real life, as it was lived in Armenian
Constantinople or in historic Armenia was largely absent in
melodramatic escapades with brutally inept characters and
circumstances. The Constantinople reading public nevertheless devoured
these novels.

Focusing on the first two western Armenian novelists, Hovanness
Hissarian and Khatchadour Missakian, Ananyan notes their essentially
Christian concern to propagate moral principles of family and domestic
life that they regarded as crucial to national revival. Such devout
Christian writers were joined by advocates of European democratic
Enlightenment like Krikor Chilingirian and Stepan Oskanian, who wrote:
'rather than ape foreign fiction' Armenians should 'establish a
domestic, native and independent one' (p185). Both in their fiction
and non-fiction these writers confronted some of the burning issues of
the day - the polarisation of wealth and poverty as well as other
issues such as the challenge of Catholicism condemned as detrimental
to Armenian unity. Their critique of the heartless wealthy, their
defence of the needy and their urging for social solidarity comes
across well in a vision that Ananyan defines as 'moral humanism'

Though both the Christian and the secular authors were animated by the
ambition to educate and enlighten, they nevertheless represented
opposing forces in the national revival. Missakian was a fierce
conservative who spent a great deal of effort trying to discredit
Stepan Oskanian even charging him with communist sympathies. That
these conservatives nevertheless had a tremendous enthusiasm for
enlightenment and education prompts a thought. Why did they work to
reverse decay and collapse they perceived in the Armenian Church and
community?  Why did they oppose assimilation and defend the use of the
Armenian language?

If the emerging Armenian commercial class and its secular
representatives required a national revival as a foundation from which
to resist European and Turkish competition, sections of the Armenian
Church were propelled to internal reform and renovation for different
reasons. The Church continued to represent a significant force in
Armenian society. But it was faltering. The rise of secular society
was undermining its popular support while the increasing assimilation
of the wealthy class was draining away its financial resources and
undermining its privilege and status. In addition the Church had to
fend off renewed assaults from foreign missionaries. Such factors
prompted men like Hissaryan and Missakyan to propose personal
improvement and education as means of reform and revival for
survival. Their stress on education and enlightenment had for them the
advantage of avoiding political confrontation with Ottoman power with
which they had no essential quarrel so long as it did not attempt to
rescind the Church's privileges and its wealth.

These and the other three essays, on the poet Indra, on Levon
Manvelian and on Vrtannes Papazian as historian of Armenian
literature, make up a volume that, though it does not excel, offers
nevertheless some rich pickings for discussions on different but
continually exciting issues of Armenian literature and history.

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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