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Worth a read... Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet none will bore the lover of literature. Reading them, one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong August 24, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. The fascinating art of medieval Armenian manuscript scribes 'The Linguistic and Grammatical Theory of Armenian Manuscript Scribes in the Middle Ages' (Academy of Armenian Sciences, 408pp, Yerevan, 1962) sounds as if it could be an awfully dull read. But quite the contrary! If you don't want to read all four hundred pages, including some original texts, at least read the author Levon Khacheryan's thought-provoking introduction. Seeking to explain the existence of Middle Age texts on grammatical and spelling skills necessary for good manuscript copiers, Khacheryan persuasively, if not comprehensively, argues that the best of Armenian scribes had to, and did, have a thorough command of the laws of etymology, spelling, pronunciation and hyphenation. Indeed a number of scribes raised this knowledge to the level of a theory encompassing aspects of grammar too. Historically the craft of copying manuscripts embraced every stage of production from the manufacture of the pens, the ink, the colours for the paintings, the cured leather for the covers and parchment, the binding as well calligraphy. As important, and if not most importantly, the craft of copying required of the scribe the skill to copy correctly and sensibly, to reproduce and render meaning clearly and accurately. This, it should be stressed, was not a mere technical accomplishment akin to photographic reproduction. Due to the divergent historical development of written and spoken language, accurate copying, not just in form, but in content also, required a great deal of specialised knowledge of laws of the written language, its spelling, pronunciation, hyphenation and etymology and grammar. As spoken language increasingly deviated from the its original written forms which remain relatively fixed, the two appear totally dissimilar. Through history, use polishes, refines and glazes words to alter them beyond all comparison with their ancient and originally written form. Frequently, not only appearance and sound, but meaning also is substantially refined or even fundamentally changed. A scribe possessing knowledge of the spoken and heard language alone, and possessing none related to the structure, developments and changes of the language from and within its written forms, would inevitably have great difficulty understanding what he (as was then invariably the case) was copying. Indeed the task would be full of dangers. Blind copying in any circumstances is error prone. It also tends to assume that written words that do not appear comprehensible or are not understood are themselves errors. A process of 'correction' would inevitably lead to alteration and even corruption of original meanings. A truly skilled scribe, with a command of the laws of language would be able to decipher more accurately the meaning of a text, trace the transformations and variations between spoken and written variants. He would be in a position to understand the meanings of evidently senseless written words, phrases, turns of phrase, expressions and thus transmit cultural heritage into the future in a more faithful manner. Without such knowledge preservation of the authenticity, and transmittal of cultural heritage in written form would be immeasurably difficult if not impossible. The recognition of these essential requisites of copying compelled a number of Armenian scribes in the Middle Ages intent on correct copying to develop theories of Armenian spelling and grammar. Among them are the works of Krikor of Datev, Kevork of Skevar, Scribe Arisdages and others reproduced in this volume with extensive, informative and enjoyable commentaries on each. For the record it should be mentioned that Khacheryan is, as Armenians say, still on the barricades. In this Soviet era publication it is evident that he remains a proponent of classical spelling against any reformed version. Clearly disdainful of the 1920 reform he accepts the 1940 version only unwillingly. In his view, spelling reform risks losing an important portion of our linguistic heritage and from LA he has just published a history of Armenian spelling from the 5th to the 20th centuries. This debate has yet to be resolved and does not detract from the admiration of the works of Armenian scribes from the Middle Ages. 2. Mgrdich Armen's (1900-1972) novel Heghnar's Fountain, (Nubar Printers, 1948, Cairo, Egypt) written in 1933 in Soviet Armenia, is a virtually flawless masterpiece. One of a limited number of great works of fiction produced during the Soviet era, it is a moving poetic journey into a world of love torn asunder by obscurantism, religious and ethnic division, bigotry and the traditional subordination of women to men. The Gyumri of the early 1900s (one time Leninakan and Mgrdich Armen's birth place), inhabited by Armenians, Turks and Greeks, is vividly brought to life as the setting for the thwarted love of Heghnar and Varos. Heghnar is the victim of a forced marriage to a respectable and skilled fountain builder. Varos is a local layabout. Their illicit love leads to Heghnar's death. On her tomb Heghnar's husband constructs a special fountain inscribed with the words "In this life woman is the fountain only for her husband". As if to confirm this moral dictate no one but the husband can tap any water from Heghnar's fountain. It flows freely, only to dry up every time a stranger approaches. Here, an apparently miraculous sanctification of the tradition of arranged marriage begins to slowly destroy Varos's faith in natural human love which he had felt to be stronger and superior to social traditions and more beautiful even than the love of God. It destroys his faith in the goodness of natural love. Love is not to be of this world. It is not part of the law of God. Varos becomes a recluse and repents for what he now considers to be his sinful escapade and spends his weeks in prayer. But as Heghnar's husband is lying on his deathbed Varos is stunned by the discovery that the 'miracle' fountain was but a product of the husband's technical ingenuity. He is devastated as he grasps that the destruction of his faith and belief in a human love is caused not by the supernatural but by that complex web of tradition which determines other foundations for the bond between man and woman. Heghnar's Fountain is a remarkable achievement for so adroitly communicating the essential tragedy of the human urge for love trapped beneath the crushing burden of tradition. To read it is to experience something profound. Alas Mgrdich Armen did not produce other work approaching the standard Heghnar's Fountain. Even though suffering for many years in Soviet prison camps, he was prolific, producing vast numbers of short stories and novels. The technique of Heghnar's Fountain is there - a splendid command of language, a poetic sensibility, an ability to observe, the capacity to create character and human dialogue - but the real stuff of life is missing, squeezed out by the demands of 'socialist realism'. His post-war novel Yassva is a tragic example. It has a superb opening, with a profound sensibility for the the times. But it degenerates into ridiculous caricature because 'socialist realism' required as a protagonist an ideal, flawless, totally dedicated party cadre apparently bereft of any inner-conflicts between party duty and private life. Che Guevara, who was also an astute literary critic offered a stinging criticism of the damaging effect 'socialist realist' literary theory: 'General culture (in the Soviet camp) ... was transformed into a mechanical representation of the social reality they wanted to show - an ideal society, almost without conflict or contradictions... But why try to find the only valid prescription in the frozen forms of socialist realism... (which puts)... a straitjacket on the artistic expression of man who is being born and is in the process of making himself.' For shorter or longer periods some Soviet writers managed to evade the straitjacket and produce some enduring work. Along with Mgrdich Armen, Aksel Pagoontz, Hrachia Kochar, Vakhtank Ananian and others once in a while evaded the net and have left us literature that can be read with benefit today - by Armenian or odar. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.