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The Critical Corner - 10/18/2010

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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
October 18, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Rafael Ishkhanian was an immensely controversial figure in Soviet era
Armenian intellectual circles with his views on the origin and
development of the Armenian people remaining subject to bitter, but
sometimes still fertile, dispute. `The Armenian Book' (154pp, 1981,
Yerevan) however, that is a valuable brief history of Armenian
printing from 1512-1920, lies outside disputed territory.
Armenians are proud that their first printed book appeared in 1512
ahead of the Russian in 1517, the Estonian in 1535 and the Georgian in
1629. Puerile boasting aside however, there is a great deal in the
history of the Armenian printing to evoke legitimate admiration.
Ishkhanian's story captures the tremendous dedication and
determination, the selfless sacrifice as well as the initiative,
enterprise and adventurous spirit that the first printers and
publishers brought to their endeavours. That Hagop Meghabard,
Sultanshah - of the unlikely Armenian name, Abkar Tbir, Oskan
Yerevantzi, Hovanness Derzntsi and others were men of the cloth does
not diminish their monumental accomplishment. Today we may not accept
their faith but we are compelled to acknowledge that they contributed
decisively to building foundations for the development of modern
language and literature that was to be at the core of 19th and 20th
century Armenian nation-formation.
The first steps in Armenian printing were taken by Churchmen, funded
significantly by Armenian merchants and traders. To Church activists
this new revolutionary method of book production proved impossibly
attractive. At the turn of the 16th century Armenia had seen three
centuries and more of devastation by foreign occupation. Many of its
centres of learning had been destroyed and its education system
crippled further by the emigration of intellectuals and skilled
pens. The Church in historic Armenia could no longer produce
manuscript books in the quantities required to meet its still
effective, and now indeed almost global organisational, network. To
meet demand printing could not be beaten. Four hundred bibles could be
printed in the time it took to produce a single manuscript! So
printing was seized upon and its early history is yet another
manifestation of that instinct for survival that reproduced itself
within the elites of the Armenian Church like a dominant gene, century
after century.
The first printed Armenian book appeared in Venice under the shadows
of the Roman Catholic Church, an imperial institution then waging more
than just theological war to subjugate and assimilate the Armenian
Church. In parts of Europe Papal power was immense and Armenian
publishers were required to obtain its licence for their printing
ventures. Unwilling for long to tolerate Vatican restraints they
travelled beyond its reach to Holland, Livorno, Paris, Marseille and
elsewhere. It was in Holland in 1668 that the indefatigable Oskan
Yerevantzi printed the first Armenian Bible, crowned the `queen of
early Armenian printing' that now sits alongside the 5th century
translation of the Bible acknowledged as `the queen of translations'.
Though initially dominated by the Church Armenian printing emerged in
an era of a flourishing secular Armenian merchant capital. This found
expression in early print runs that evidently catered to a secular and
scientific market in addition to that of the Church. A book on
mathematics and accounting, and this in the then contemporary Armenian
vernacular as opposed to classical Armenian, appeared in Marseille in
1675 stamped upon its front page being a declaration reading that it
was for `the edification of merchants in particular'. 1695 saw the
first printed Armenian map, produced by the famous Vanantetzi printers.
Publications on medicine stood alongside volumes of Narek and medieval
Armenian poetry as well as horoscopes and other astrological oddities
we are so familiar with today. There was in addition, it should be
noted, material for teaching Armenian and easy reading too for
travelling merchants.
The history of the printed book, so closely associated with the
development of a unified mass language and the process of
nation-formation, mirrored the particularities of Armenian national
development. Printing in the first instance was, like the Armenian
commercial elite and substantial segments of the Armenian Church, a
Diaspora phenomenon. It was born in Venice and took its first steps in
Europe and returned again to Venice again with brilliant flourish long
before it reached Armenia proper. Even as publishing moved nearer home
it was to densely populated Diaspora communities in Istanbul, Tbilisi,
Baku and Smyrna where achievements however were indeed phenomenal.
Through the 18th century, Armenian presses in Constantinople published
ancient 5th century authors such as Pavsdos Puzant, Yeghishe,
Khorenatzi, Barbetzi, and others and these, many for the first time.
The next century saw more than 350 periodicals published in the city
with another 50 in Smyrna. The first Armenian bookshops also opened in
Yet in the course of the first three hundred years of Armenian
printing, the homeland, west and east remained a deprived cousin.
`During the first half of the 19th century the centres of the printed
Armenian book remained outside Armenia. Even during the second part of
the century no town in Armenia could compare with Venice, Vienna,
Tbilisi or Constantinople. (p109)
The first press in Armenia proper appeared in Etchmiadzin in
1771. Ravaged by Persian occupation it did not flourish until much
later. Some 50 years on a second press was established in Shushi in
1820 and it took a further 56 years for another to be opened in
Yerevan and Cyumri (Leninakan) too. Ottoman occupied Armenia was even
further behind. Khrimyan Hayrik's efforts to bring printing to Van in
1863 fell afoul of an Ottoman state increasingly dominated by a
chauvinist Turkish nationalism that understood well the danger
Armenian publishing posed to its imperial domination.
The effect that the Diaspora development of printing had on Armenian
culture is evident in 19th and early 20th century literature.
Depictions and considerations of life in the homeland are overshadowed
by preoccupation with Diaspora, by life in Istanbul. Where the
homeland appears, it is in many cases maimed by an ossified
romanticism that Bedros Tourian, himself from Istanbul, was to
eventually find so useless and distasteful.
Ironically, despite the savagery of Ottoman occupation in the heart of
Armenia, it was in the Ottoman Diaspora, in Constantinople that
publishing in modern literary western Armenian paced ahead, and indeed
far ahead of literary eastern Armenian. Of the 1720 titles published
from 1800-1850, 1400 were still in the dominant classical Armenian.
But of the 320 appearing in modern variants, 280 were in the western
with only 40 in the eastern. By the second half of the century modern
literary Armenian registered its total triumph. But western Armenian
was fatally wounded by the 1915 Genocide. Here another peculiarity of
Armenian national development is to be observed: the emergence of two
remarkably sophisticated and versatile forms of the same language that
in normal course of things should have merged into a single tongue.
Though he does not consider it, Ishkhanian's account that ends in 1920
does set the context for an initial evaluation of the Soviet Armenian
printing and publishing. It was only in the post-1920 period that
Armenia became the dominant centre for printing and publishing. This
it did on a vast and unprecedented scale. Whatever the overall
judgement on the Second Soviet Armenian Republic, and even when
accounting for the catastrophes of the Stalinist purges and the damage
done to national, cultural and linguistic development, Soviet Armenian
printing has left a durable legacy.
With many Soviet Armenian print runs in the thousands, tens and
hundreds of thousands almost the entire body of ancient and medieval
Armenian literature was made available to the common man and woman and
that in modern Armenian translation. Classics of 18th, 19th and 20th
century literature - eastern and western - and a huge body of
translations also regularly rolled off Yerevan's presses. Despite the
deadening weight of censorship and the damage to linguistic
development Soviet Armenia also produced a substantial body of
scientific, literary, historic and other journals that contained
besides the mounds of rubble, gems of the highest order.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the
post-Soviet Armenian elites to offer it adequate state support the
Armenian publishing industry and the Armenian language itself has been
terribly undermined. In an age where communication is supposed to be
everything the Armenian state refuses to support the most vital, the
most essential and indispensable element of effective communication -
the language that is spoken by the people and that defines a
people. Current government legislation to enable the re-introduction
of foreign language schools - historically instruments of colonial
domination in Armenia - represents only its latest irresponsibility.

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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