Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 10/22/2012

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 22, 2012

by Eddie Arnavoudian


Vrtanness Papazian (1866-1920) is another accomplished short story
writer whose reputation has been undone by reckless critics. A fine
narrator, at once humorous and cutting, he has an artist's feel for
19th century Armenian rural life whose class divisions, class
exploitation and national oppression he describes in grippingly
dramatic developments. Grasping human relations in natural and
authentic flow Papazian adequately compensates for sometimes flat and
inauthentic characterization that can turn protagonists into
incomprehensible caricatures.
The Ottoman state, its courts and tax collectors with rights to a
portion of the peasants' product appear in all their brutality, some
plundering hand-in-hand with Armenian usurers.  `The Armenian usurer
indeed was more terrifying than any Kurdish bandit. Armed with
debtor's notes more deadly than Kurdish swords they seize and plunder
and then laugh at the beggars they leave behind.  Their brazenness
reaches disgusting heights when, in lieu of interest, they demand
beautiful women or village brides for a few days.'
A visible thread in many a story is contempt for the Church and its
priests preaching passivity when confronting such violence or asserting
Divine ordination of family homes burnt out, men murdered, women raped
and children abducted.
`Fair Judgment', with its depictions of gruesome, ghastly grime, with
the mud, the urine and excrement, the dankness and the darkness of
Ottoman jail cells, with descriptions of worn threadbare courthouse
curtains behind which preside `yawning judges ready to fall asleep',
features as metaphor for the nightmare that passed for Ottoman justice.
Here Papazian reminds one of Aranstar but with a difference. Arantsar
also sketches the corruption of the Ottoman judicial apparatus. He does
so convincingly, but through the prism of Armenian experience alone.
Papazian gives these same truths enhanced authority focusing them
through wider lenses that take in besides Christians also Muslims,
besides Armenians also Albanians, Arabs, Jews, Kurds and Greeks all
also trapped in the fatal claws of Ottoman `justice'.
`Monastic Yergo, with passages that remind one of another Armenian
writer Hrant, author of `Letters on the Lives of Emigrants', offers a
telling analysis of the processes that drove tens of thousands of
Armenians from their homelands in Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere.
Flooding into Istanbul's ghettos they nourished hopes that money earned
would repay voracious usurers threatening their families' back home.
Hopes alas are dashed with pittance earnings driving impoverished
emigrants to despair and drink while families back home suffer eventual
expropriation at the hands of thieving creditors enjoying the
solidarity of Ottoman `law'.
Papazian's artistic worth and the pleasure he affords is evident even
in flawed stories. `Santo - from the Lives of Armenian Gypsies', is a
gripping tale and an invaluable record of a forgotten phenomenon of
Armenian society, of those `tens of thousands' of Armenian gypsies who
traveled `through every (Armenian) village and every town selling
goods prepared during the winter' and who, like gypsies the world
over, were labeled `shameless thieves difficult to do business with'
(p563). Set during the 1895-96 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman
Empire when Armenian gypsy communities where also drawn into the
nightmare of genocidal repression we meet the fiery Margo, whose
traveling caravan is confronted by Turkish officials and she is
raped. Seething, she is humiliated further by a husband who having
failed to defend her then turns traitor.
In the figure of Margo who eventually avenges herself and her
community, `Santo' highlights the independence, the force and
decisiveness of women and their central and sometimes dominant role in
family and community life and in relations with outsiders. It was
women `who organized meetings' and `forced men to attend and to think'
about how to respond to critical situations.

     `It would be mainly women who did the trading, as well as the
    fortune telling and the begging, shocking one with their
    brazenness but also causing wonder at their moral rectitude, at
    the ease with which they dispersed and got rid of those who dared
    approach them with ill intent.  (p556)
Moments of jarring, scratching prose are easily exonerated in what
remains a dramatic human tale of a woman who passes into legend for her
struggle against marauding Ottoman officials and soldiers. The story is
also a veritable sociological mine on the life of Armenian gypsies,
their internal democratic life, their role in wider Armenian community,
how they earned their living, their marriage rituals and much else.
The value of these stories is not historical alone. In them features
something of the human condition, whether overwhelmed by repression,
living in fear of the powerful or standing firm in their human dignity.
In one of his apparently more generous moods, retreating from his
normally caustic dismissal of Armenian prose writers, Oshagan in the
same breath speaks of Vrtanness Papazian and of Maupassan, the
unquestionably superb exponent of the short story. Whatever the value
or validity of such comparisons, being offered by the wantonly and
often sneeringly ultra-critical Oshagan, they speak to the quality of
Papazian as writer and artist.

Kevork Matoyan's `Daniel Varoujean' (252pp, Sovetakan Grogh, Yerevan,
1976) lacks the intellectual flight of other Varoujean critics. It
does however assemble often forgotten or unknown but still valuable
details about the poet's life. Born in 1884 in village of Prknik not
far from Sepastia, we are reminded that Varoujean's early years were
representative of a wider harshness of childhood in Armenian society
under the Ottoman rule. Varoujean experienced the break up of his
family when his father, impoverished by incessant plunder, was forced
to Istanbul in search of work. His early education in the grip of the
local Armenian Church was another stage of endurance, victim to a
mind-numbing learning by rote `locked all day in a dilapidated
freezing building' that passed for school.
Losing trace of his father Varoujean's mother, in an extraordinary move
for a rural woman of the time, packed bags and with Daniel set out in
search. This was to open up a new future. Once settled in Istanbul,
despite grinding poverty Varoujean excelled at school and secured a
much prized scholarship to what was considered the elite Mekhitarist
run Murat Rafaelian College in Venice. There besides studying Armenian
history and culture he immersed himself in the magnificence of Italian
painting, sculpture, art and literature that was to so enrich his
Conflict with the narrow-minded clericalism of the Mekhitarists was not
long in coming. They censored Varoujean's poetry that was inspired by
the progressive thought of the era and tried to stifle his spirit with
mean and petty financial calculation. When he studied at the University
of Ghent, in dread of his intellectual challenge they refused Varoujean
summer accommodation in Venice where he wished to complete his theses
on the philosophical and cultural ambit of classical Armenian
literature. So dispiriting was Mekhitarist tyranny that Varoujean
contemplated abandoning poetry for a career as a businessman.
But, like many educated youth of his generation Varoujean was
possessed of a sense of mission, a determination to serve his people,
to contribute to their emancipation. From this he could not be
derailed by Mekhitarist constraints. Neither was his dedication
displaced by the egotistical individualism and the anti-social
prejudices that were then spreading among European writers and artists
who had such standing among the western Armenian intelligentsia.
Matoyan underlines Varoujean's precocious genius. When but 18 he
already possessed startling artistic and intellectual maturity, immense
powers of observation and an ability to use language with the precision
of a sculptor. By 22 he speaks with the poise, the authority, weight
and calculated wisdom of passionate maturity. With brilliant capacity
for appropriate metaphor and imagery and an insistence on precision and
intellectual clarity he was soon to be ready to `become the poetic
articulator of the people from the abyss.'
When 25 Varoujean returned to his home village where as a teacher in
Sepastia's main school he acquired a magnetic reputation with hundreds
attending meetings he organised. Here too, in the wake of his
Mekhitarist ordeals, he was to experience assault by the local clergy.
They were particularly incensed by Varouzhan's rejection of arranged
marriages and his insistence on choosing as partner and bride a woman
from a Christian denomination not his own! But a stubborn free spirit
Varoujean would allow no vice to clip the wings of his personal and
literary ambition.
Matoyan unfortunately, as was the want of lesser Soviet-era literary
commentary, furnishes Varoujean with more radical attributes than he
possessed. A speech on taxation shows Varoujean clearly possessing a
grasp of socio-economic matters with judgments that start from policy's
impact on the common people. But this made of Varoujean neither
socialist radical nor an opponent of the Young Turks. Like many
Armenian intellectuals of the era, even at the point of arrest
Varoujean retained misguided faith in the Young Turks and in the
inevitability of a beneficent foreign intervention on behalf of the
Armenian people.
Matoyan's aesthetic appreciation of Varoujean also has rewarding
moments noting the intense seriousness with which the poet approached
creative work, his determination to breach the barriers of tradition
for new artistic forms capable of yielding the truth of his own times,
his attempts to salvage the best of classical Armenian through compound
words capable of conveying a richer appearance and true essence.
For such insights and reminders this volume, pedestrian and at points
even dull, is a worthy addition to the library of Varoujean studies.

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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