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The Critical Corner - 11/07/2011

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Why we should read...

    `Pghte' by Berj Broshian
    (Selected Works, Volume 2, pp213-429, 1953, Yerevan)
    A novel within a treasure chest of a Chronicle

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 7, 2011

by Eddie Arnavoudian

`Pghte' a 1890 novel by Berj Broshian (1841-1907) is far more than
just a valuable catalogue of socio-historical data that some Diaspora
critics judge all his fiction to essentially be. To appreciate it
correctly, however, one must put aside the often restricting canons of
orthodox literary criticism. Over and above the work of fiction that
it is, with all its flaws and indubitable virtues, `Pghte' stands
simultaneously as a sturdy literary Chronicle, a veritable treasure
chest teeming with the experience of 19th life in the very core of
rural historic Armenia.  Always at its centre and with increasingly
impressive presence is the novel's protagonist Pghte, a provincial
usurer and corrupt businessman in cahoots with political authority.
Only the apologist could miss telling contemporary affinities in
business careers built on the exploitation of an impoverished
community and illicit fortunes amassed in the shadow of foreign
capital and foreign states.

Written with flashes of artistic imagination, dramatic energy and
flourish `Pghte', often with dialogue in regional vernaculars,
reproduces in substantial detail the everyday of village life. It
tells of popular custom and tradition, of superstition and prejudice
as well as of folk wit and wisdom. It tells of the region's
geographic, archaeological and architectural terrain, of the historic
origins of Armenian communities, of their agriculture, trade and
domestic economy and of their family life and relations between the
sexes. It tells too of peasant resistance to exploitation, of Church
corruption, of national relations between Turks, Armenians and Kurds,
as well as of Armenian gypsies and Jewish traders, of Armenian armed
resistance to national oppression and much else. All this is immensely
rich social history, but in its structure and its art it also
constructs an authentic landscape of human experience that was the
broader stage for Pghte's business.

Broshian trails his protagonist's ascent from petty hawker to usurer
and then to the summit of his career as a merchant, among other things
provisioning Russian troops stationed in the Caucuses. As the story
unfolds it becomes a register of some significant moments in the
evolution of modern Armenian history. The history of Pghte's home
village Garpi, in `large part' `a heap of stones, a wretched structure
of chaotic ruins' shaped and reshaped by demographic upheavals
following Russo-Turkish wars, is indeed a veritable metaphor for 19th
and early 20th century Armenian national life with its neglected,
almost abandoned, core treated as backwater by wealthy elites living a
flourishing life in the Tbilisi and Baku Diasporas. It is a metaphor
than can be stretched with little strain across Armenian life today.

Recent immigrants from Ottoman controlled Bayazed, Garpi's current
residents are daily reminded that freedom from Ottoman barbarism was
no automatic pathway to social emancipation. With contours that fit
contemporary elites, in Garpi:

    `Families (from Bayazed) that had enjoyed rights and traditional
    freedoms (in the Ottoman Empire) were accorded the same in their
    new homes...Putting their heads together, they cut and measured,
    studied, examined... (and then) appropriated the best portions (of
    Garpi's land) for themselves dividing the rest among the common

The majority were left to fester and so many were once again forced to
abandon home and hearth as migrant labourers in search of work to feed
their families. Such was soil for Pghte's career and those of his
fellow usurers who then plagued rural Armenia causing untold misery
and suffering. Though grotesquely ugly, deploying a remarkable memory,
a capacity for cool calculation, innate charm and an apparently
compassionate concern for his victims, Pghte's rise is rapid. Soon
`there wasn't a village in which he had no debtors...their names
registered in his accounts that he filed in his jacket pockets.'

To reach the top Pghte must however depose Boghos Aghajan, the man who
first set him up in business and whose daughter he is intent on
marrying. Marked by moments of genuine artistic drama, their clash is
illuminating individually, socially and historically.  Aghajan, a
representative of an earlier stage of Armenian social and economic
development, comes across as a sort of morally motivated Dickensian
small trader who `helps the weak and gives work to the unemployed' and
`when royal taxes are due' `intervenes to assist the needy peasants'
never however charging `more than the legitimate interest.'  Pghte in
contrast is selfish and egotistical. He `fleeces and robs an already
destitute peasant' without mercy or qualm.  He is a man of the modern
world befitting a more ruthless era of capitalist development
following the Russian conquest of the Caucuses that `put even the
remotest corner of our world into motion.'

The conflict between the two is unfortunately resolved at the expense
of artistic integrity when Broshian out of the blue conjures up a
hoard of gold in an old Church, the discovery of which gives Pghte the
muscle to fell his opponent. Still, the historical existence of
treasures hidden within ancient ruins and the fears that disturbing
them was sacrilege punishable by terrible misfortune, whilst it does
not salvage the art, adds a certain force to the narrative. Pghte's
initial failure to reach his prize for the deadly bees protecting it
from his grasp, are gripping expressions of the man's greedy
desperation. Effective too are the portrayals of passions in flux, of
belief and disbelief in good fortune, of the conflict between
conscience and greed, between love of a Christian god and desire for
the riches that would serve to defeat a hated enemy.

Even as some images of greed and gold-lust are dramatic, it remains
the case that Pghte's character as a sort of Shylock or Eugenie
Grandet depends more on authorial assertion than on his role,
relations and actions within the novel. We rarely see into the eyes of
the hated viper-usurer. Even as Broshian gives us the grounds for
imagining it we do not see Pghte squeeze his writhing victims.  As a
completed representation of the rural usurer in Armenian society the
novel is limited further in an unfolding that shows Pghte's final
business triumph secured not by usury but through commercial trade he
builds using his discovered gold as capital.

With his new capital and in collaboration with Russian officials,
their lieutenants and hangers on, Pghte squeezes with a savagery that
`would turn the stomach of anyone who witnessed the (resulting)
misery.' The scale criminality, recalling our own adulterations of
commercial goods, is caught well in one particular discussion of the
proportions of sand one can use to corrupt wheat with and still get
away selling it. Thus it is that Pghte builds his fortune that almost
overnight transforms him from `posha to pasha', from `gypsy to lord'.

Money washes away his dark past. His `hawking days were soon
forgotten' and `every eye looked sweeter upon' him. Owner of
`countless shops', Pghte now `mixes with the privileged' and `travels
with mounted guards' among them Turks. By the volume's end, albeit far
removed from the opening axis and despite forced turns, some monotony
and deviation too, Pghte is alive and well, as a fine artistic
specimen of the amoral, greedy and dishonest man of business with no
concern for nation or people - fit and in possession of all the
political permissions to do good business in the Republic of Armenia

Exposing Pghte's sordid deeds Broshian shows himself at the same time
to be an acute social observer, particularly of the condition of women
and the role of the Church. Regarded as `non-talkers' joining the
family women `were prohibited from speaking to even the lowliest of
men' let alone to men of authority and status. Their role was to serve
their husbands who we frequently witness feasting. If ever they dare
defy male authority they are condemned as `black-hearted' and punished
among other things by having their `hair pulled out strand by strand.'

Women are not however victims and nothing else. A fine passage shows
Shoghig both in servitude and revolt when she:

     `...unconsciously raised both her hands and in turn surveyed the
     bed laid in one corner and those gathered round her. She was like
     an escaped convict who in the hope of freedom had taken a
     confident and decisive step but only to discover herself
     surrounded by hundreds of soldiers.'

Though Pghte succeeds in entrapping Shoghig into marriage she uses the
ceremony to expose his crimes. That he succeeds in so easily brushing
away the charges measures the power both of rural misogyny and of
class and money too. Rather than summoning Pghte to justice the
community turns on Shoghig and drives her to suicide. Deemed to be
deranged, independent and strong women such as Shoghig have no chance
against a moneyed man.

A stern critic of women's enslavement Broshian was equally focussed in
his exposure of Church backwardness, ignorance, greed and parasitism.
Against the likes of Pghte the Church was no protection. As corrupt as
its secular neighbours, `as they did in the ancient past' today too,
the `unmentionable scandals of its spiritual leaders `drives the
people to despair.' In Garpi the local priest's family was not only
`among most prominent' but formed a veritable feudal estate having
secured its position when along with Bayazed's other feudal elites' it
had `in accord with an ancient tradition' established its sons' `right
to inherit the parish.'

				* * *

Among Armenian critics Berj Broshian has received a mixed reception
that is historically of some significance. With no significant
exceptions western Armenian Diaspora commentators are intolerantly
dismissive. `It is a fact' writes one, otherwise exemplary critic,
that Broshian `is no novelist'. He was in addition, opines another,
`an extreme conservative' and of `limited intellectual ability' to
boot, according to a third. They agree that Broshian's novels have
`neither artistic shine nor virtue', and are `mediocre', `long-winded'
and `monotonous'. At best the novelist is credited with `a certain
charm' as `an ethnographer' whose work must be `cherished as a
precious museum' of Armenian life.

`Pghte', among its other more solid attributes, is sound refutation of
such one-sidedness. Without effort it upholds the judgement of Mkrtich
Mkryan, perhaps a wiser critic, who understood that both `the artistic
and social value' of Broshian's novels rests upon the fact `that they
reproduce Armenian rural life in a profound and truthfully authentic
form.' As for his ability to create living characters, Hovanness
Toumanian, another admirer, legitimately noted that together
Broshian's protagonists constitute `an entire album of rural
personalities.' Shirvanzade the master of the Armenian realist novel,
without tempering criticism noted that Broshian's novels `grasped the
common people's lives... authentically' and that his `characters...
whatever the flaws, were living people... not artificially produced
whimsical constructs.' These eastern Armenian evaluations that are
born of a more immediate and direct experience of Armenian life steer
closer to the truth of Broshian's work.

Little purpose is, at the moment, served by detailed rehearsals of
`Pghte' shortcomings as a novel or indeed of the limits of his less
imaginative critics. Suffice it to say in extremis that when gazing
upon a fragment in a museum we do not dismiss it because it is a
fragment or that its context is artificially set or that it may be
jagged or incomprehensible in isolation. So with `Pghte' and
Broshian's other novels. Read with due breadth of imagination and
intellect they afford a great deal of pleasure and edification, being
at the same time a slice of life, a story of corrupt business with
striking contemporary resonance, a panorama of 19th century rural
Armenia and a chapter of Armenian social 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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