Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 01/31/2017

Armenian Literature for the 21st Century...

    `Never Die - this is what I have to say', by Hovhannes Grigoryan,
    (164pp, 2010, Yerevan, a digital version is available at: thanks to the fantastic
    work being done by Marat Yavrumyan)

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 31, 2017

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Hovhannes Grigoryan's `Never Die - this is what I have to say' (164pp,
2010, Armenia, Yerevan) supplies us a heap of granite-hard poetic
stones to hurl at the mansions of power, at the social and political
hucksters, thieves, charlatans, hypocrites, warmongers and
environmental barbarians who today rule the roost, in Armenia and
globally. These poetic missiles are as clean and as ready for use
today as they were when he first wrote the poems gathered in this
collection.  Not common in Armenian poetry surreal, grotesque and
often gruesome imagery and narrative, dipped in sardonic humor and
irony display an Armenia devastated during the decades of transition,
from the Second, Soviet Armenian Republic to the post-Soviet Third,
that commenced in the 1990s.

Grigoryan possesses the clarity, the integrity and that power of
judgement peculiar to genuine artists in periods of dramatic social
transformation. Witness to life during the era of exit from the Soviet
age, he never takes the slogans of transition, its ideologies and its
promises, at face value.

We are struck by a proper refusal to join the fraudsters in passing
off corruption, abuse, plunder and destruction of community and nation
as the natural norm of `transition. Verse here registers rather that
sullen, silent, hostility of a disempowered mass, the stony-faced
despising for what is being done to the land and the people.

Here are poems of a reality immorally at odds with the proclaimed
ideals of 1989, poems of a nation being wrecked not by Armenian-Azeri
or Turkish Armenian conflicts but by the new powers in command of an
Armenia allegedly in transition to `prosperous', `peaceful' and
`independent' existence. Hovhannes Grigoryan's voice remains urgent
for it appears that the awful miseries of `transition' have become a
permanent rule of life in the `new Armenia'!  Witness the never ending
queues for visas to foreign lands.


`Sunday' (p6), a snapshot of everyday life during the `transition' is
also a metaphor for the emptiness of the promise that was supposed to
follow the end of a metaphorical never-ending alienated working week
of Soviet life. Sunday should be a day of rest, a holiday from the
hardships of labour. But spent in Armenia with Hovhannes Grigoryan it
is a blight of positive expectation besieged by poverty, by aggressive
evangelists seeking to snatch a tithe, by the nepotism of council
politics, by venal officials chasing accolades, by useless politicians
`canvassing for my permanent vote', for after all `of what value is my
voice for myself.' At the desperate end of the day, `in own my front
room `wearing my Sunday best' `I put my head through the noose and
kick away the chair.' Read the final lines yourselves for a shocking
scene of bitter resignation!

`Hot Seasons' (p44) tells in bizarrely humorous fashion of the poverty
that accompanied `transition'. In Soviet times with affordable gas and
electric prices, a dash of boiling water would silence the jarring
howl of mating dogs. Now cold water must do! But even that is becoming
too expensive and so these days cursing must suffice - `words being
the only commodity whose value has fallen!'

Worse still now, `For a scrap of bread', men and women must `learn to
crawl expertly through dirt and trash' (p8). And whilst common people
are priced out of normal life it is `utterly terrifying how/ a small
group of people, before our very eyes/is enriched at savage speeds.'
(p76). In such a world there `are no stars in the skies', or `perhaps
there are/but bent beneath dark thoughts/we never raise our gaze from
the ground' (p13).

Democracy, the supposed jewel in the crown of the new republic is a
total farce. In `Pre-Electoral Promises' the `mass of the electorate/
is worn out and down by the tedium/of endlessly electing the same
candidate' (p33) who utter platitudes about `improving the well-being
of the people'. Unsurprisingly in the promised post-electoral paradise
when `our long suffering people finally straighten up/ draw breath to
live lives fit for humans' they find themselves `inhabiting the large
and small prisons, the central or provincial hospitals, and most
particularly the cemeteries.' (p17)

Grigoryan's vision was international. He targets warmongers everywhere
who `speak most fervently of friendship between people' `just before
war' or `during breaks from mutual communal slaughter' (`About Men'
p11). Triumphal celebrations with marital music only drown the
deafening noise from factories producing yet more weapons of war. When
not waging war against each other we war against the environment. We
may have left the Stone Age behind and the Iron and Bronze ages too,
but in these `New Times' (p70) `if we look deeply into the soul of
man/we can confidently say/that we are actually living in the Early
Trash Age!'

It appears as if God, for some awful wrongdoings in another life has
condemned us to `The Worse Punishment' (p29) `he could design' -
reincarnation into new the Armenia.  `All that is left' (p43) today is
to dream, to dream of sunny isles endowed with natural bounty and
inhabited by good people. And from this dream it is `better not to
wake', for if we do, we will find ourselves again in `an ocean of bile
and poison.'


Unlike Barouyr Sevak's bounding optimism or revolutionary Shoushanik
Gurghinian's rousing calls to action, Hovhannes Grigoryan seems to
have no window onto a sunny side. It would be careless however to cast
his poetry as no more than a passive, albeit powerful display of the
cup of popular bitterness full.

Passivity or fatalistic resignation cannot produce the surreal
brilliance or the disturbing macabre that are screams of horror at the
sacrificing of decency among men and women. Grigoryan's surreal and
grotesque expose distortion and degradation and in unusual form they
measure the magnitude of loss. He echoes an abyss between reality and
a deeply felt moral order. This is not of course the order of the
Soviet age despite the hints that material life was more tolerable
then. But nor is it the order of anti-Soviet ideology or of Armenian
nationalist ideology.

Animating this poetry is a desire for essential mutual decency in
relations and conditions that are born of our being simultaneously
individual and collective.  `A New Line' (p155) is a telling
expression. A young man recalls his twin sister who died a few hours
after their birth on a hot `half-starved post-war morning'. Today no
one remembers her. But he does and oh so clearly and
movingly. Recalled against the reality of war, poverty and insecurity,
he remembers the nine months of warm, secure, gregarious and stable
life in the security of the protective womb. These `were the best
times of my life',

In a 2008 interview for the journal `Gretert,' Hovhannes Grigoryan
spoke of the `transition' having devastated `the greatest capital
inherited from the Soviet age - human capital.' Nevertheless, he was
hopeful that recovery had begun. But by 2013, the year Grigoryan died
the notion of `transition' already appeared as blatant fraud. There
had been no `transition', just the enforcement of mass degradation
that endures to this day.


Art and literature serve life and society. It cannot be otherwise. The
individual artist can be and often is passive or indifferent to
society. But, if their work does not speak to life it is not art, it
is irrelevant. Whether appropriated individually or collectively, art
and here poetry produces experience. It refines, enhances, alters
perception, sensibility and consciousness, whether individual or
collective and so influences men and women in their actions and

Grigoryan's poetry contributes emphatically to life. In our age of
global turmoil for any artist, more important than all else is being
necessary to our times. Hovhannes Grigoryan is! His is a startling
alternative voice to the soulless and heartless lies and propaganda,
to the financed deception and fraud that pass for public life in
Armenia and the world. Recited aloud to a mass audience or read alone
quietly his surreal and macabre not only confirm experience lived by
the people but by affirming an essential human need, fortify will to
action and resistance.

*  * * * * 
Together with those of surreal mix, a passion for life ran deep in
Grigoryan's poems of more traditional form. In one beautiful poem we
see an elderly man at his window in cold mid-winter. He `gazes
enraptured' as `two small children tumble about in the snow'
`shrieking with laughter and joy'.  `Unawares', unconsciously, he is
`stretching out his frozen hands' to `warm them over a bonfire of
children's joyous shrieks and laughter.'

Elsewhere with echoes of Vahan Derian, Hamo Sahyan, of Thoreau and
Walden, Grigoryan offers exhilarating gems of the four seasons. He
makes us feel afresh that wondrous sense of unity with nature, with
nature as an almost divine foundation of life, when it is free that is
of human violence and destruction.

2017 is still a good time to read this volume; take it with you to
school, to work, to meeting rooms and to the streets and the public

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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