Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 10/30/2016

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 30, 2016

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Mkrtich Armen - the artist in the age of revolution

Melkiset Melkonian's `Mkrtich Armen' (1906-1972 ; 192p, 1981, Yerevan)
is an undiluted pleasure, an honest and intelligent evaluation of an
author who produced nothing else as accomplished as his early short
novel `Heghnar's Fountain' published in 1935. It is a great pity, for
Armen possessed outstanding literary ability, a knack for grasping the
issues of the day as well as the skill to summon with vitality the mood
and atmosphere of the times he chose to focus. Melkonian's commentary
affords in addition insight into some of the circumstances that
contributed to artistically derailing not just Armen but many other
literary talents in the early Soviet Armenian era.

Armen's first stories capture something of the enthusiasm of the young
generation for the early Soviet experience that promised relief for a
people shattered by war and genocide. Through a lengthy literary career
punctuated by exile and labour camps during the Stalin era, a prolific
Armen surveyed life beyond that of the young. `Heghnar's Fountain' is
set in pre-Soviet Gyumri, the author's birthplace. `Yassva' tells of the
harshness of the Second World War years. The `Golden Reaper' touches on
troubles of rural life. Life in Stalin's labour camps finds reflection
in a collection of short stories `They Asked Me to Pass This to You',
while the challenges of readjustment to post-camp `normality' feature in
`Jerry Klenz'. Among Armen's writings for younger readers `Scout 89' and
`Red and Blue Ties' stand out.

The best of Armen's early work captures youth, many Genocide survivors
from western Armenia, as militant cadre for Soviet economic, social and
cultural development that inspired in them a confidence and hope of
recovery for a people ravaged and ruined. Armen reveals something of the
optimism of the age in stories that reflect on social transformation,
the contesting of old religious superstition, the battles to right the
role of women, the educational and propaganda campaigns and much
else. Here Armen appears as the novelist of an urbanising Armenia,
though centred in Yerevan not in his native Gyumri. But alas he was not
to become the Axel Bakunts of an emergent urban Armenia!

The bulk Armen's work, and that of many of his literary contemporaries,
failed to artistically reproduce in its protagonists the turbulent and
contradictory spirit of the age. Repeated depictions of economic
development and industrialisation are often mechanical and dull, lacking
in life. Fine prose is frequently schematic, scattered with declamatory
authorial opinion. Characters are often one-sided - voices of ideology,
albeit honest but lacking in depth and genuine personality. But then,
only a genius could surmount hurdles to artistic creativity born of any
revolutionary epoch.

Armen and his contemporaries were not just artistic, literary observers.
They took sides and made it their business to propound the advantages
of their chosen side. Many worked with a missionary dedication to
convince others, through art and literature, of the benefit and the
promise of the new social order in Armenia.  Even before the era of
deadly Party dictates on the direction of artistic endeavour, Armen's
generation was already inclined to flaw. With committed writing the
order of the day, without exceptional execution, attempts to depict the
contradictory turmoil of human experience in a revolutionary period
carried an almost inescapable risk of wooden one-sidedness, of crude
bending of sticks, of exaggeration, of disregard for the unfavourable.

Armen, in contrast to Charents and Bakunts for example, lacked a
necessary critical thrust to surmount artistic hurdles. Craftsmanship
was always in evidence. But critical, realistic engagement with human
troubles of the day, with its all its clashing political and social
realities born of an undeveloped and conservative Armenian reality was
wanting. Constrained perhaps by his own loyalty to the Soviet enterprise,
his characters appear in Melkonian's words `bloodless', `one-sided',
`impossible to believe' and `unconvincing'. It is worthy of note here
that Stepan Zoryan also suffered similar troubles with the short
stories he wrote and set in the revolutionary era.

Though Armen's fiction for the younger, teenage reader is similarly
tarnished, here moments of artistic success are registered more
frequently.  `Scout 89' and `Red and Blue Ties' picture the lives of
orphans whose future had been blocked by war and genocide and who in the
early Soviet era remained incarcerated in American-ARF run orphanages.
Such orphanages became centres of struggle for the new and as Armen
recounts these, he creates not just a historical document but art
too. At least so says Melkiset Melkonian.

Mkrtich Armen's one unquestionable success is his `Heghnar's Fountain'
(see The fascinating art of medieval Armenian manuscript scribes, The
Critical Corner, Groong, 24 August 2000), a story of passion with a
rich and moving presentation of the lives of women in the pre-Soviet
age, of then prevailing inter-ethnic relations, the family and
conservative tradition, all in the context of honourable labour,
skilled fountain-building in this instance. Acclaimed among others by
Zabel Yessayan, Khoren Sarksyan and Avetik Issahakyan, Melkonian
rightly offers this as master-work. Its portrayal of the diverse
nationalities that inhabited 19th and early 20th century Gyumri
remains a valuable reminder of what Armenia once was.

'In its almost total excellence `Heghnar's Fountain' was never to be
matched. But with `They Asked Me to Let You Know', short stories from
life in Stalin's labour camps, Armen secured some renewed critical
acclaim. Here Melkonian, with honest critical reservation, underlines an
overall success in evoking the terrible suffering of the victims of
these camps through repeated counter-positions of brutal reality and
individual fantasies of freedom and release.

Mkrtich Armen was a prominent figure of his time, a comrade of Charents
and his group, an intellectual and artist who participated wisely in the
literary debates of the day. It is tragic that he appears to have been
side-lined on his return from Stalinist labour camps. Even more tragic
is the failure to realise that remarkable potential that Charents saw in
the young Armen (p182). Mkrtich Armen in his life, his novels and short
stories, his critical writings and his role as social activist stands as
a typical case and invites study of the challenge faced by the committed
artist in an age of revolution.

For all his qualifications and reservations about Armen's legacy,
Melkonian's enthusiasm and acumen encourage the reader to return to
Armen's opus in order to judge for her/himself.


Krikor Narekatzi's impact on the evolution of Armenian literature

Mkrtich Mkryan, one of the most perceptive and acute Soviet era literary
critics devotes an erudite and meticulous forty-five page essay to the
influence the great medieval poet Krikor of Narek (950-1003) has had on
the subsequent development of Armenian poetry.

Mkryan's comprehensive knowledge of Armenian literature enables him to
highlight not just radical departures from the past but to demonstrate
how new authors opted for styles created by a great predecessor. First
underlines Narekatsi's own revolutionary contribution. Narekatsi was the
first to use poetic meters of certain types, the first to use extensive
accumulation of metaphors, the first with the talent for prolific
alliteration and an unprecedented capacity for compound word formation
and then too for injecting a compelling musical rhythm into poetry. All
these features Mkryan shows are used by many outstanding Armenian poets
that followed.

Krikor of Narekatsi's influence was deeper still asserts Mkryan. For
the first time in the history of Christian-era Armenian verse,
Narekatsi writes poetry for use outside official Church-anointed
ceremonies.  He writes to serve individual need. Escaping the bounds
of the official Church Narekatsi's poetry begins a decided march to
secularisation, expressed in a focus on the relationship between
man/woman and nature, in detailed colourful descriptions of the world
of man/woman and of the world of secular society with stunning images
of the harshness of social reality. Here too Krikor of Narek inspired.

Immediately after his death, scores sought to emulate Narekatsi.
Armenian manuscripts contain dozens of pages of poetry, some outstanding
and even wrongly attributed to Narek. Thereafter Armenian authors from
Frik to Constantin Yerzengatzi and Nerses Shnorhali in the 12-14th
century, right up to Ghevond Alishan, Missak Medzarents, Siamanto and
Vahan Derian in the 19th and 20th centuries were overwhelmed by
Narekatsi's poetry.

Krikor Narekatsi's status in Armenian literature indeed was unrivalled.
It challenged even the Bible, with Narekatsi's `Lamentations' copied
in tens of thousands of times. It was also one the first Armenian
books to appear in print.

In his rooting of Armenian poetic, artistic and cultural development in
history Mkryan's essay is a valuable addition to the polemic against any
falsification of Armenian history. Albeit indirect Mkryan's essay is a
rebuttal of those who would deny that Armenian history has any long-term,
coherent, organic, inner continuity and development. It is also a
contestation of those who would claim that modern Armenian literature
is but a pale copy, a valueless aping of foreign influence. Mkryan's
essay opens up for view native Armenian roots of many artistic forms
that could easily be deemed foreign, roots that furthermore go back
earlier and deep than similar forms Armenians have supposedly copied.

More than just worth a read!

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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