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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 March 11, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. 'The Man Without Ararat in the Depth of His Soul' by Vasken Shoushanian There are books that one must read with extreme care and caution. 'The Man Without Ararat in the Depth of His Soul' (Hamazkayin, p176, Beirut, 1998) by Vasken Shoushanian (1903-1941 - novelist, poet and political activist) is one such book. Written in 1939, but never published in the author's lifetime, it is his last polemic against what he saw as a trend in French-Armenian intellectual life that was engaged in a systematic denigration of the legacy of Armenian culture. Shoushanian's particular target is his contemporary novelist Shahan Shahanour, author of the famous 'Retreat without Song.' The elaboration and defence of Shoushanian's central argument is frequently eclectic and full of ill-considered and frequently contradictory ideas. Yet through the web of confusion it is possible to distill something of significant value that deserves a positive reception even today. It is additionally of value as a historical document throwing important light on the bitter intellectual conflicts that raged in the French Armenian Diaspora before World War II. Set in the context of a vision of national revival after the 1915 Genocide, Shoushanian's polemic can be read as a rejection of national self-hatred and a rejection of that national inferiority complex that is so common among intellectuals from oppressed nations. Shoushanian regards Shahanour as the typification of the self-hater who seeks out praise and affirmation from foreigners as a condition of his existence, forgetting that people of small nations possess a culture quite capable of affirming their humanity. Needless to say Shoushanian is insistent on the need to appropriate the achievements of international culture too: but not at the expense of own national accomplishment. This is especially so for refugees and exiles living in the heart of imperial states. As he aptly notes 'the bright eyes of the French cockrel are...stamped in burning letter with the phrase "Dirty Armenians"'. French imperial powers 'even after granting you citizenship will never fail to remind you of your foreign origin' and each time you raise yourself to the challenge 'he will bring down the full weight of his vengeful cosh.' In its best parts 'The Man Without Ararat in the Depth of His Soul' is a tour de force, a raging, tortured poetic eruption of will and hope. Despite the dispossession, slaughter and dispersal of 1915, Shoushanian's voice rings with the conviction that better days will come for the mass of refugees so recently uprooted from their homelands. But such a future has to be fought for. And critical in the struggle must be the will to protect and develop the national cultural and intellectual heritage and use it to fashion life today and in the future. It is this battle that Shoushanian charges Shahanour with abandoning. Posessed of 'infinite arrogance' Shahanour rejects everything Armenian from 'Narektazi to Zartarian'. He subjects 'every noble flight, every endeavour and every decent aspect of Armenian life' to his 'disgusting sarcasm'. Nothing is spared his 'pernicious irony'. He shows no respect for Varoujan, Siamanto, Oshagan, Charentz and others. With 'the crooked scales of a Bolis shopkeeper' Shahanour tries to measure the 'vulgar contents of his dark defeated soul' against 'a nation's entire civilisation'. For Shoushanian the task is therefore simple - 'we have to choose between Narek and this bit of vermin.' Shoushanian's unbounded flow of vitriol is however at the same time an indirect, almost unconscious expression of a deep anxiety about the sustainability of the Diaspora. It expresses also a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the rapidity of assimilation. While many of its passages are of unarguable value and a treasury of fine and noble thoughts one cannot pass over the serious flaws of this volume. Dozens of pages marred with tiresome repetition of idea and invective that could be cast out with benefit. A more serious failure is the absence of any substantial extracts from Shahanour to substantiate what are serious charges. There is additionally the clear influence of the then fashionable irrationalist philosophy. Certain passages of the book suggest an elitist view of art in which creativity is conceived of as the product of some individual mystical energy beyond the grasp of reason. Such dangerous concepts are often contradicted by other, perceptive, passages affirming that the artist 'never begins from absolutely nothing. There is a portion of the collective in the most individual, the most intimate and the most original expression of beauty.' In such a presentation the individual is 'the sum of distant efforts, a compound of everything from the song of the labourer in the field right up to the order of the commander in chief.' With the passage of time the particular individual character of both author and target cease to be of direct relevance or import. In the valuable portions of this book, rising above historical circumstances Shahan Shahanour and the author becomes a poetic metaphors in a polemic that opposes the virtues of passion, enthusiasm, energy vigour as the path to development and progress to the cynical sarcasm and irony of the destructive self-hater. It would nevertheless be unjust to Shahanour were one not to remark on the fact that shortly before his death he acquitted himself well when he opposed Zionism and defended the Palestinian right to nationhood. Here in one respect he marked a retreat from the positions that Shoushanian attributed to him. 2. An enthusiastic evaluation: Shirvanzade - the novelist of city life Hrant Tamrazian's literary biography of Armenian novelist Alexander Shirvanzade (503pp, Armenian University Publication, Yerevan, 1978) is a real pleasure to read - whatever your evaluation of Shrivanzade as an artist. Tamrazian, writing with a good command of his subject and a great deal of literary and historical erudition, produces a valuable portrait of Shirvanzade and his times. Born in 1858 in Shamakh, not far from Baku, Shirvanzade's relatively well-to-do parents fell victim to a destructive local earthquake from which neither they nor the town recovered. Reduced to ruin many of its inhabitants, among them Shirvanzade, like thousands of others in the region flooded into Baku attracted by the promise of easy fortunes to be made from its booming oil industry. But instead of wealth and luxury Shirvanzade witnessed in Baku the wreckage of thousands of young lives consumed by the ruthless drive for profit by Armenian, Russian and Azeri oil field owners. The heartlessness of the newly moneyed class of Armenian capitalists generated in Shirvanzade a deep and lasting hatred. 'The Armenian merchant' he wrote 'is an enemy of the Armenian nation. Armenians have no enemy more dangerous, more ruthless and more savage than the merchant.' Both as social critic and artist Shirvanzade never ceased his attacks on the Baku capitalists whether Armenian, Russian or Azeri. Shirvanzade's experience in Baku and his sympathy for the struggling poor led him to adopt a radical democratic politics and to join the Hnchak part. In 1905 he denounced the anti-Armenian pogroms in the city and attributed them to 'dark', 'external' Tsarist designs seeking to divide and rule the region. He joined in initatives to secure reconciliation between Armenian and Azeri. In discussing the roots of the conflict Tamrazian endorses Shirvanzade's naive view that failed to take account of any of its local sources. Whilst Tsarist policy did indeed conspire to encourage inter-communal clashes these, had a foundation in the growing competition between Armenian capitalist money in Baku and an aspiring Azeri nationalist movement that was fired by Pan-Turkish ideology. In opposing divisive Tsarist policy Shirvanzade also protested against the persecution of Jews in the Empire. While by no means a Marxist, let alone a Bolshevik, criticising Tolstoy, he welcomed the late 19th and early 20th century working class and peasant movement as a counter-weight to Tsarism. For his pains Shirvanzade suffered both imprisonment and exile. But Shirvanzade was of course primarily an artist - a novelist and later a playwright and his Baku experiences were to provide him with the substance of his novels, short stories and plays. A prolific writer, he was to become the first and pre-eminent Armenian novelist of urban city life. The scope of Shirvanzade's novels is vast, incorporating all aspects of life, all classes of society and all nationalities of the region. Claiming that Shirvanzade's novels are an unrivalled artistic record of town and city life in the Caucuses of the late 19th century Tamrazian puts them on a par with the best work of the European critical realist tradition. Disputing claims that Shirvanzade was the first Armenian critical realist Tamrazian argues rather that his greatness rests in bringing the realist novel to its summit. Broshian, Aghayan and Muratzan, and even Raffi, were realists before Shirvanzade. But they were artistically limited. Whilst accurately recording the decay of village life, the destructive role of money and the brutality of usurer, government official and predatory priest, their novels did not rise above the sociological. They did not create characters revealing the psychological and emotional results of rural disintegration. Additionally they focussed exclusively on rural life and the threat presented by the town to an idyllically conceived rural past. Shirvanzade goes a step further. He is the novelist of transition. He does indeed chart the decay and decline of the old rural life with its steadfast traditions and customs, all breaking under the weight of the emergent oil capitalism in the Caucuses. But his focus is on the rise of urban life. He was par excellence the novelist of the city and his artistic accomplishment was the creation of genuine city characters, portraying them with psychological depth and realism. The enthusiasm and erudition with which Tamrazian assesses Shirvanzade's fiction demands, as a minimum, that one must first reread the novels and plays before questioning the critic's assessment. Besides writing fiction Shirvanzade also participated in the literary and aesthetic debates of the day. In polemic he rejected formal divisions between realism, naturalism and committed or politically orientated literature. He argued that realism in its focus on actual life inevitably incorporates elements of naturalism and simultaneously by shining a light on social ills indicates a need to transcend them and thus reveals elements of committed literature too. The central divide that Shirvanzade notes in the literary world is between talent and mediocrity, between genuine critical realism and the literature that parroted the corrupt fashions of the day. The genuinely talented and honest writer cannot but produce a critical art that exposes the truth behind appearances and the self-flattering descriptions of the society of the age. In contrast mediocrities in return for a place in the bestseller list happily flatter the vanity and dishonesty of the age. A view that has not become dated! If you do not like Shirvanzade the novelist this volume is a challenge to reconsider. If you do like him, it is not to be missed. 3. Gourgen Mahari's Troubled Days Troubled Days (Selected Works, Volume 5, 1989, Yerevan) by Gourgen Mahari is the only completed portion of a much larger novel with the intended title 'Days of Youth'. It was to be the sequel to his excellent 'Stories from My Early Life' and was to cover life and politics from the relative freedoms of the 1920's to the grim 1930's. What we have is but 70 pages covering just about one year. It reads nevertheless as a self-contained entity and has all the charm, the humour and the compassion characteristic of Mahari's best writing. A ramshackle, provincial Yerevan, whose Russian Church is its only remarkable building is the backdrop to the sad tale, told with immense tenderness, of young Amelia driven to despair and then suicide by the shame and humiliation she feels at the prospect of giving birth out of wedlock. Within this and another sub-plot, depicting a growing love between the narrator and Amelia, we are treated to some rich detail of contemporary life in the aftermath of the Genocide and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Yerevan, a gathering point for hundreds of thousands of western Armenian refugees is also the site of bitter, internecine conflict between western and eastern Armenians, between the settled locals and the immigrant newcomers. Regarded with hostility by the native population the newcomers are also bemused by the character of Bolshevik power. 'How can you have a country where people are not allowed to engage in trade' one exclaims. 'Fine let the government handle the big factories, but to have to run the corner shop - that just brings shame on a state.' Mahari gives us no false images. Some vivid narrative brings to life the sense of anxiety and fear that resulted from some of the early excesses of the new Bolshevik regime. Significantly Aghasi Khanjian, later assassinated by Stalin, is portrayed as a critic of these excesses. In this glimpse of life that Mahari offers there are no upright party cadre, no 'socialist realist' inventions to mar the record of the times. We come across many of the types that made up the times: committed communists as well as the hangers on and opportunists; officials running the English and American orphanages that then dotted the land and of course their young inhabitants with all their ambitions. Written when Mahari was 66 and after 'enduring 47 years bitter winter years' of repression, imprisonment, exile and dire ill-health these pages are touching for the tenderness and humour with which he tells of hard and harsh times. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.