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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 September 20, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian I AN ARMENIAN INTELLECTUAL IN EXILE - VASKEN SHOUSHANIAN'S 'DIARY' Vazken Shoushanian's riveting 'Diary' (1999, 412pp, Yerevan) blends personal confession with political commentary, literary criticism, journalism, the short story and the dramatic dialogue. Free of self-delusion and a self-praise it touches on both universal human concerns that are characteristic of all Shoushanian's work and on issues of Armenian politics and culture where he communicates a mature sense of national pride untainted by preposterous pretension or chauvinist excess. A man of sturdy egalitarianism, Shoushanian's denunciation of the hired press and his exposure of the mechanisms by which money buys intellectuals is stunning. The diaries also tell us something about the war years in France where, as a teacher, Shoushanian was responsible for evacuating pupils before the oncoming German army. Additionally he offers glimpses into his personal preoccupations, passions and loves as well as his work habits when writing novels at a café table in Paris. Whether scathing about the Armenian Diaspora intellectual's ignorance and sectarianism, about the reckless waste of national resources or about the hopeless political backwardness of the French working class, he remains intensely contemporary and exudes a profound empathy and human solidarity. Threaded through the volume are reflections on the plight of the Armenian intellectual in a Diaspora undergoing rapid assimilation. Shoushanian's experience was typical of a generation who, born in the Ottoman Empire, survived the genocide and lived in Europe. His intellectual identity was fashioned by his early Armenian experience. He could not conceive of being intellectual without serving some Armenian political or cultural aim, some dream of national revival or cultural development. He was first an Armenian and then an intellectual. Yet he was washed up on the shores of what proved to be a thoroughly arid French-Armenian Diaspora that assimilated before his eyes. Dominated by material insecurity, the early Diaspora was driven primarily by the need to secure economic stability. Individual ambitions to prosper within the framework of a foreign land bred an indifference and even contempt for the Armenian identity and for culture and Armenian affairs that together defined Shoushanian's entire worldview. Such a community, neither Armenian nor yet French, could not sustain a Armenian intellectual or artistic class. In a community that he so relentlessly criticised for its grasping shopkeeper mentality Shoushanian was a total stranger, an alien who did not belong. Shahan Shahnour, lashed so remorselessly by Shoushanian, though of the same generation, represented a different kind of intellectual. Shoushanian did not tolerate pedantic poseurs and narrow-minded ignoramuses. But neither could he tolerate Shahnour who was an intellectual first and an Armenian second, someone who could shift easily from Armenian into French intellectual life. For Shoushanian this was out of the question and tantamount to treason against the Armenian people. Shoushanian died young and these diaries record his debilitating ill health and premonitions of early ageing and death. They also tell of the material hardships that prevented him from realising his life's ambition of writing a four-volume novel of the Armenian Diaspora. This is a rewarding read, though its language only occasionally bursts with the fluency and poetry of Shoushanian's best prose. After all he wrote them when effectively exiled from Armenian life, living among French people and sometimes desperately yearning to speak his mother tongue. II THEATRE AND LITERATURE IN THE ARMENIAN NATIONAL REVIVAL This collection of five essays edited by Sergei Sarinian (Literary Figures, 388pp, 1976, Yerevan) casts some interesting insight into issues of modern Armenian literature and history. Of particular note are two that reflect on the relation between the theatre and the novel and the 19th century Armenian national revival. Both the theatre and novel were born almost simultaneously with the national revival and played in it a central role being regarded as powerful mediums for enlightenment, education and refinement. The early repertoire of the Armenian theatre, dominated as it was by romantic themes of ancient Armenian glory and stubborn battles for freedom did more than inspire the popular imagination. Ottoman prohibition of critical consideration of contemporary life and politics ensured that romantic historical themes were used as metaphors for the battles of the day. A vigorous essay by S. Hayrapetian introduces us to Armenak Haykouni, an early practitioner of the Armenian theatre, author of at least 6 plays, a great deal of journalistic writing as well as a novel 'Eliza'. Haykouni's 'Ara the Beautiful' through the prism of the past worked to instill notions of political resistance to modern tyranny. Similarly, ostensible reference to social questions of bygone days focussed on current discontents. A radical and bold thinker, Haykouni went a step further in 'Olympia versus Barantzem' with his telling descriptions of contemporary social exploitation and poverty, whilst 'Eliza' for the first time in Armenian fiction treats openly of Kurdish ravages of Armenian communities in historical Armenia. Published in 1861 'Eliza' was only the second novel written in modern western Armenian. An adventure-come-romantic love story, it is also a critique of political passivity, of religious fatalism that enervates the oppressed and of the divisive role of foreign missionaries in the Ottoman Empire. Artistically the worst flaws of the worst propagandist novel are evident. One-dimensional characters - little more than cardboard vehicles for authorial opinion - inhabit a world with no organic coherence where plot and ideas are forced and resolutions are bizarre. Yet this novel remains significant for underlining the importance of political action and for its condemnation of religious intolerance. Harassed and persecuted by the establishment Haykouni died young, a mere 31. But he remained a spirited representative of the progressive intelligentsia. Possessed of an English education, he worked to introduce Enlightenment reason into Armenian life and was an enthusiastic proponent of the natural sciences, modern medicine and modern education. Calling for the secularisation of marriage and an end to the practice of arranged marriages he even urged its victims to rebel through unfaithfulness. Such views brought him into bitter conflict with both the Armenian Church and foreign missionaries then descending like locusts upon Armenian communities. Charging them with being agents of colonial domination, backing up this claim by quotes from the London Church Times, he noted rightly that they attacked the Armenian Church not in order to reform it, but to subjugate it. S. Ananyan's discussion of Armenian romantic novel in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century focuses on related issues. In Constantinople, the birthplace of the modern Armenian novel, there was no national narrative tradition into which this new European form could be absorbed. Inspired by a diet of translated novels, the western Armenian variant came into being as an artificial imitation of second rate European work. Nevertheless the early western Armenian novels were written with the loftiest of aims. In the early phases of the national revival all art forms - poetry, novel, drama or satire - were considered as vehicles for education and enlightenment. The novel plays the same role as an editorial article. It is a didactic tract to guide and instruct, to inspire and give leadership. Its form - stories of adventure, romance and high melodrama - was but a device to sustain mass interest and thus more easily communicate the message. Real life, as it was lived in Armenian Constantinople or in historic Armenia was largely absent in melodramatic escapades with brutally inept characters and circumstances. The Constantinople reading public nevertheless devoured these novels. Focusing on the first two western Armenian novelists, Hovanness Hissarian and Khatchadour Missakian, Ananyan notes their essentially Christian concern to propagate moral principles of family and domestic life that they regarded as crucial to national revival. Such devout Christian writers were joined by advocates of European democratic Enlightenment like Krikor Chilingirian and Stepan Oskanian, who wrote: 'rather than ape foreign fiction' Armenians should 'establish a domestic, native and independent one' (p185). Both in their fiction and non-fiction these writers confronted some of the burning issues of the day - the polarisation of wealth and poverty as well as other issues such as the challenge of Catholicism condemned as detrimental to Armenian unity. Their critique of the heartless wealthy, their defence of the needy and their urging for social solidarity comes across well in a vision that Ananyan defines as 'moral humanism' (p191). Though both the Christian and the secular authors were animated by the ambition to educate and enlighten, they nevertheless represented opposing forces in the national revival. Missakian was a fierce conservative who spent a great deal of effort trying to discredit Stepan Oskanian even charging him with communist sympathies. That these conservatives nevertheless had a tremendous enthusiasm for enlightenment and education prompts a thought. Why did they work to reverse decay and collapse they perceived in the Armenian Church and community? Why did they oppose assimilation and defend the use of the Armenian language? If the emerging Armenian commercial class and its secular representatives required a national revival as a foundation from which to resist European and Turkish competition, sections of the Armenian Church were propelled to internal reform and renovation for different reasons. The Church continued to represent a significant force in Armenian society. But it was faltering. The rise of secular society was undermining its popular support while the increasing assimilation of the wealthy class was draining away its financial resources and undermining its privilege and status. In addition the Church had to fend off renewed assaults from foreign missionaries. Such factors prompted men like Hissaryan and Missakyan to propose personal improvement and education as means of reform and revival for survival. Their stress on education and enlightenment had for them the advantage of avoiding political confrontation with Ottoman power with which they had no essential quarrel so long as it did not attempt to rescind the Church's privileges and its wealth. These and the other three essays, on the poet Indra, on Levon Manvelian and on Vrtannes Papazian as historian of Armenian literature, make up a volume that, though it does not excel, offers nevertheless some rich pickings for discussions on different but continually exciting issues of Armenian literature and history. -- 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.