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The Critical Corner - 03/21/2006

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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
March 21, 2006

By Eddie Arnavoudian



Nineteenth century Armenian novelist Berj Broshian (1837-1907)
continues to suffer a terrible reputation. In his own day critics such
as Leo derided him as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with no artistic
talent. In the thirties of the Soviet era crude Marxists condemned his
novels for failing to depict the Armenian peasantry as a `revolutionary
class'. Dismissive tones were also heard in the Diaspora from critics
such as Father Mesrop Janashain and Minas Teoleolian. Arsene
Derderian's eminently readable literary study `Berj Broshian'
(`Selected Works', pp343-568, Yerevan, 1960) is thus against the grain
as he places Broshian firmly within the progressive trend of Armenian
literary and intellectual history.

To his credit and contrary to what was a widespread tradition in
Soviet literary criticism, Derderian does not try and construct a
Marxist, a revolutionary or even a radical democrat out of his
subject. Broshian dedicated his life to the advancement, education and
emancipation of the Armenian peasantry. Whatever his artistic and
intellectual shortcomings and for all his compromises with
conservative clericalism Broshian was still, Derderian argues, a
talented artist whose work became an authentic and a progressive voice
for the Armenian peasantry in the second half of the 19th century with
novels that expressed the Armenian peasant's strengths, weaknesses and

Broshian's novels, among them the famous `Question of Bread',
reconstruct Armenian peasant life with a profound realism depicting
forcefully the exploitative role of the state, government officials,
the landowners and moneylenders. In a barb against vulgar Marxists who
attacked Broshian for failing to explicitly and politically denounce
the oppression of the Armenian peasantry, Derderian rightly remarks
that the novelist's passionate exposure of peasant suffering is more
powerful criticism than any theoretical formulas. Furthermore, even
though Broshian's novels do not denounce religion, they contain again
a forceful indictment of its corrupt clergy who lived by the sweat of
the labouring poor. Broshian, writes Derderian `along with his defence
of the peasantry' was also `a defender of women's rights' and `a firm
supporter' of their emancipation with his novels conveying something
of the pain and the injustice of their lives in rural society.

Broshian was also an enthusiastic proponent of popular education, for
boys and girls. Along with men such as Abovian and Nalpantian, he
worked to develop a modern literary language based on popular
vernacular that was accessible to the people. He not only took issue
with supporters of classical Armenian that was not understood by the
people, but also criticised sections of the urban intelligentsia, such
as Ardzrouni, whose modern Armenian was infested with so many foreign
importations as to make it `an anti-national' language
incomprehensible to the mass. Broshian not only wrote in vernacular,
but also, and again contrary to claims by `liberal critics', made a
significant contribution to the development of modern eastern
Armenian. This, Derderian believes, remains the case even when
accounting for the novelist's numerous linguistic retreats.

Derderian also takes issue with those who criticise Broshian for the
lack of the fiery patriotism one encounters in, for example, Abovian.
Broshian's patriotism could not be of the same order as Abovian's.
Abovian's passions were fired by struggle against foreign Persian
rule. Broshian wrote in an age of early Russian rule that was
perceived as an advance on previous Persian rule. Thus Borshian's
focus was on social and not on political life, and though this may be
a limitation in this social sphere it unquestionably displays
patriotism - in his love of the common people, of the land, its
history and its culture.

Derderian goes a step further and argues that Broshian's patriotism
had another, democratic and international quality that `divided him
off from the liberals.' Supporting the emancipation of the western
Armenian peasant from Ottoman rule, Broshian also `supported the poor
and oppressed Turk'. In one of his novels he writes that the Ottoman
state oppressed `not only the Armenian people but the common Turkish
people too. They too heave and sigh beneath the burden of their own
exploiters and immoral judges.' In `Huno' the Robin Hood like bandit
of the same name `listened with care to everyone and within his means
offered help without asking whether one was Armenian or Turkish.'
Broshian's novels, Derderian continues, condemn all exploiters,
usurpers and cheats whether Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian. `You can',
he quotes the novelist, find exploiters `in whatever people you
want. The Kurd is more vicious than the Turk, the Turk more barbaric
than the Armenian and the Armenian more merciless than both.' Though
Derderian does not say so, this quality of patriotism also places
Broshian decidedly in the same camp as Abovian, Nalpantian and then
later Aghayan, Shirvanzade, Toumanian and others.

Whilst convincingly rehabilitating Berj Broshian as an intellectual
and social activist, Derderian is less persuasive in his attempt to
rescue him from the charge that his novels, albeit a valuable
chronicler of peasant custom, tradition and language, are of little
artistic value. Extensive extracts do indeed show that though Broshian
was indeed a chronicler he also accomplished his task with some
artistry. A critical realist, his prose is frequently touched by
poetry, satire, hyperbole and epic narrative. He constructs his
villains well says Derderian, even though his virtuous protagonists
are wooden and unbelievable. Like Abovian, his narrative style with
its extensive deviations from the central plot, its integration of
folklore and song, accommodates local narrative tradition in order to
make it amenable and comprehensible to the common people for whom he

Derderian is not blind to artistic weaknesses - repetitiveness, lack
of cohesion, verbosity, linguistic flaws, defects in the architecture
of his stories and flaws in characterisation. Despite these weaknesses
he insists that Broshian's novels remain readable both as social
history and art. Nevertheless, even within Derderian's own evaluation
the impression is that the positive in the novels are not necessarily
their defining or dominant features. Still he has done enough to
convince readers to turn directly to the novels so as to make up their
own mind.

Broshian's life and work record contradictory and confused views about
society and politics. But Derderian is right: none of his artistic,
social and intellectual shortcomings strip him of his honours as a
partisan of the common people.



Judging by his `Memoirs' (Selected Works, Volume 3, pp367-504, 1954,
Yerevan) Berj Broshian's (1837-1907), a prolific novelist famous in
particular for `The Problem of Bread', was never an angry man. In his
social and political outlook he was always a moderate, even an extreme
moderate if such a species exists. But certainly he does not deserve
the epithet of `conservatism' that is usually attached to his name.

Broshian was gifted and stubborn and had a phenomenal memory. Even as
a young boy he could recite a score of prayers from Narek without
understanding a single word of its classical language. Despite
opportunity, and pressure, he declined the priesthood and turned down
a commercial career, opting instead for teaching and writing in which
capacities he dedicated his entire life to the advancement and
enlightenment of the Armenian rural population in the Caucuses. He was
also a vigorous supporter of the reform and modernisation of the
Armenian Church that he considered the leading force of Armenian life.

In these `Memoirs' Broshian's progressive outlook is revealed
primarily in the record of a commitment to educational reform.
Shocking are the descriptions of the beatings, the torture, petty
tyranny and the mumbo-jumbo that passed for schooling in Armenia
during his boyhood. Reminding one of Raffi and even Dickens on
Victorian schools, Broshian writes that as punishment for `poor
handwriting' `the ends of my fingers were beaten with a wooden ruler.'
`Our teacher' he continues `preferred rope with which to whip the
soles of our feet until they bled.' `Generally speaking those of us
who were beaten seven times a day or less were regarded as the
happiest of boys.'  In contrast, Broshian has warm recollections of
novelist Khatchatour Abovian's visit to his school when, as a regional
superintendent, he determined to introduce modern educational
methods. Abovian forbade the whip and discouraged learning by rote
urging teachers to care for and inspire students. His instructions
delighted the young pupils as much as it enraged the hidebound
establishment. Broshian also speaks highly of other educationalists
such as Hakob Garenyants, Shanshyants and Mzheshian who were
persecuted by the old guard. Expressing his own concern for the
education of the poor peasant children, Broshian is particularly
admiring of Mzheshian who sacrificed the `the luxury of Etchmiadzin'
for the `well being of local children from local villages.'

An eager participant in the project to develop a modern literary
Armenian, Broshian was inspired to emulate Abovian, whose novel `The
Wounds of Armenia' was the first written in a vernacular
comprehensible to the masses. Fired by enthusiasm he wrote his many
novels in his own regional vernacular so that `literature ceases to be
the property of the educated classes alone'.

Broshian's progressive credentials are manifest also in his attitude
towards the Armenian Church that for him remained essential to
Armenian life. `For centuries the Armenian nation existed without any
(independent) political life...' During this long period `all
essential problems and issues of [the nation's] existence revolved
around the Church.' The second, unfinished, part of these `Memoirs' is
indeed a stout and, for Broshian, unusually passionate defence of the
Armenian Church against `exploitative Protestantism' and Catholic
missionaries for whom `the worst people in the world are those
Armenians who do not recognise the supremacy of the Pope.'

But even as he considered himself a loyal member of the Armenian
Church, even as his friends, intellectual mentors and his bread and
butter were all in one way or another connected to the Church,
Broshian was stern in his criticism of its hierarchy and especially
its leadership based in Etchmiadzin. Though not included in these
`Memoirs' he tells us in a letter that the novel `Theatre of War' was
written in part to `expose Etchmiadzin's rotten secrets.' `It features
life 100 years earlier', but in it `Etchmiadzin's present reality
shines forth in all its corruption.' One expression of this was the
persecution of Shashyants whose modern educational methods were
denounced by the Armenian Church hierarchy as anti-Armenian and
Protestant deviations. Broshian in contrast claims them as expressions
of a commitment to the Armenian Church and its ancient traditions.

Broshian's outlook was fashioned in the heart of rural Armenia where
the Church occupied a pivotal social position. His attitude to the
Armenian Church however had nothing in common with the conservatism of
`The Bee' and `The New Century'. His sympathy was for the reforming
trend within the Church, a trend that, especially in rural areas in
which he was most at home, was closer to the people and more sensitive
to its needs.  That this wing existed, as a decidedly progressive and
sometimes even revolutionary force, is evident in both history
(Khrimian Hayrig, the Church in Daron/Vasbourakan and elsewhere) and
in literature (`Red Mass' by Arpiar Arpiarian and `The Monastery'
Dikran Cheogyourian). Broshian, moderate as he was, was of this wing.

There is one striking limitation to Broshian's progressivism that is
worth remarking on. He is largely silent on political issues and
problematic when he is not. In one instance when he does refer to
politics it is in the form of homage to Armenian officers serving in
the Tsarist army. He describes them as patriots defending Tsarist rule
in the Caucuses against uprisings by local nationalities. Unlike men
like Nalpantian, he demonstrates no awareness of the colonial and
imperial nature of Tsarist power and indirectly underlines the role
played by certain Armenians as a social bastion for Tsarist rule in
the region.

Backwardness and corruption within the Armenian establishment and
within the Church too, as well as the retreat of the Armenian language
against which Broshian stood firm, still threatens the fabric of
Armenian life today. In this light Berj Broshian's legacy, for all its
limitations, is clearly worth investigating and recovering for new
generations of Armenians.

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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