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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 March 21, 2006 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. BERJ BROSHIAN: 19TH CENTURY ARMENIAN NOVELIST: CONSERVATIVE OR PROGRESSIVE? Nineteenth century Armenian novelist Berj Broshian (1837-1907) continues to suffer a terrible reputation. In his own day critics such as Leo derided him as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with no artistic talent. In the thirties of the Soviet era crude Marxists condemned his novels for failing to depict the Armenian peasantry as a `revolutionary class'. Dismissive tones were also heard in the Diaspora from critics such as Father Mesrop Janashain and Minas Teoleolian. Arsene Derderian's eminently readable literary study `Berj Broshian' (`Selected Works', pp343-568, Yerevan, 1960) is thus against the grain as he places Broshian firmly within the progressive trend of Armenian literary and intellectual history. To his credit and contrary to what was a widespread tradition in Soviet literary criticism, Derderian does not try and construct a Marxist, a revolutionary or even a radical democrat out of his subject. Broshian dedicated his life to the advancement, education and emancipation of the Armenian peasantry. Whatever his artistic and intellectual shortcomings and for all his compromises with conservative clericalism Broshian was still, Derderian argues, a talented artist whose work became an authentic and a progressive voice for the Armenian peasantry in the second half of the 19th century with novels that expressed the Armenian peasant's strengths, weaknesses and ambitions. Broshian's novels, among them the famous `Question of Bread', reconstruct Armenian peasant life with a profound realism depicting forcefully the exploitative role of the state, government officials, the landowners and moneylenders. In a barb against vulgar Marxists who attacked Broshian for failing to explicitly and politically denounce the oppression of the Armenian peasantry, Derderian rightly remarks that the novelist's passionate exposure of peasant suffering is more powerful criticism than any theoretical formulas. Furthermore, even though Broshian's novels do not denounce religion, they contain again a forceful indictment of its corrupt clergy who lived by the sweat of the labouring poor. Broshian, writes Derderian `along with his defence of the peasantry' was also `a defender of women's rights' and `a firm supporter' of their emancipation with his novels conveying something of the pain and the injustice of their lives in rural society. Broshian was also an enthusiastic proponent of popular education, for boys and girls. Along with men such as Abovian and Nalpantian, he worked to develop a modern literary language based on popular vernacular that was accessible to the people. He not only took issue with supporters of classical Armenian that was not understood by the people, but also criticised sections of the urban intelligentsia, such as Ardzrouni, whose modern Armenian was infested with so many foreign importations as to make it `an anti-national' language incomprehensible to the mass. Broshian not only wrote in vernacular, but also, and again contrary to claims by `liberal critics', made a significant contribution to the development of modern eastern Armenian. This, Derderian believes, remains the case even when accounting for the novelist's numerous linguistic retreats. Derderian also takes issue with those who criticise Broshian for the lack of the fiery patriotism one encounters in, for example, Abovian. Broshian's patriotism could not be of the same order as Abovian's. Abovian's passions were fired by struggle against foreign Persian rule. Broshian wrote in an age of early Russian rule that was perceived as an advance on previous Persian rule. Thus Borshian's focus was on social and not on political life, and though this may be a limitation in this social sphere it unquestionably displays patriotism - in his love of the common people, of the land, its history and its culture. Derderian goes a step further and argues that Broshian's patriotism had another, democratic and international quality that `divided him off from the liberals.' Supporting the emancipation of the western Armenian peasant from Ottoman rule, Broshian also `supported the poor and oppressed Turk'. In one of his novels he writes that the Ottoman state oppressed `not only the Armenian people but the common Turkish people too. They too heave and sigh beneath the burden of their own exploiters and immoral judges.' In `Huno' the Robin Hood like bandit of the same name `listened with care to everyone and within his means offered help without asking whether one was Armenian or Turkish.' Broshian's novels, Derderian continues, condemn all exploiters, usurpers and cheats whether Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian. `You can', he quotes the novelist, find exploiters `in whatever people you want. The Kurd is more vicious than the Turk, the Turk more barbaric than the Armenian and the Armenian more merciless than both.' Though Derderian does not say so, this quality of patriotism also places Broshian decidedly in the same camp as Abovian, Nalpantian and then later Aghayan, Shirvanzade, Toumanian and others. Whilst convincingly rehabilitating Berj Broshian as an intellectual and social activist, Derderian is less persuasive in his attempt to rescue him from the charge that his novels, albeit a valuable chronicler of peasant custom, tradition and language, are of little artistic value. Extensive extracts do indeed show that though Broshian was indeed a chronicler he also accomplished his task with some artistry. A critical realist, his prose is frequently touched by poetry, satire, hyperbole and epic narrative. He constructs his villains well says Derderian, even though his virtuous protagonists are wooden and unbelievable. Like Abovian, his narrative style with its extensive deviations from the central plot, its integration of folklore and song, accommodates local narrative tradition in order to make it amenable and comprehensible to the common people for whom he wrote. Derderian is not blind to artistic weaknesses - repetitiveness, lack of cohesion, verbosity, linguistic flaws, defects in the architecture of his stories and flaws in characterisation. Despite these weaknesses he insists that Broshian's novels remain readable both as social history and art. Nevertheless, even within Derderian's own evaluation the impression is that the positive in the novels are not necessarily their defining or dominant features. Still he has done enough to convince readers to turn directly to the novels so as to make up their own mind. Broshian's life and work record contradictory and confused views about society and politics. But Derderian is right: none of his artistic, social and intellectual shortcomings strip him of his honours as a partisan of the common people. 2. BERJ BROSHIAN ON HIMSELF Judging by his `Memoirs' (Selected Works, Volume 3, pp367-504, 1954, Yerevan) Berj Broshian's (1837-1907), a prolific novelist famous in particular for `The Problem of Bread', was never an angry man. In his social and political outlook he was always a moderate, even an extreme moderate if such a species exists. But certainly he does not deserve the epithet of `conservatism' that is usually attached to his name. Broshian was gifted and stubborn and had a phenomenal memory. Even as a young boy he could recite a score of prayers from Narek without understanding a single word of its classical language. Despite opportunity, and pressure, he declined the priesthood and turned down a commercial career, opting instead for teaching and writing in which capacities he dedicated his entire life to the advancement and enlightenment of the Armenian rural population in the Caucuses. He was also a vigorous supporter of the reform and modernisation of the Armenian Church that he considered the leading force of Armenian life. In these `Memoirs' Broshian's progressive outlook is revealed primarily in the record of a commitment to educational reform. Shocking are the descriptions of the beatings, the torture, petty tyranny and the mumbo-jumbo that passed for schooling in Armenia during his boyhood. Reminding one of Raffi and even Dickens on Victorian schools, Broshian writes that as punishment for `poor handwriting' `the ends of my fingers were beaten with a wooden ruler.' `Our teacher' he continues `preferred rope with which to whip the soles of our feet until they bled.' `Generally speaking those of us who were beaten seven times a day or less were regarded as the happiest of boys.' In contrast, Broshian has warm recollections of novelist Khatchatour Abovian's visit to his school when, as a regional superintendent, he determined to introduce modern educational methods. Abovian forbade the whip and discouraged learning by rote urging teachers to care for and inspire students. His instructions delighted the young pupils as much as it enraged the hidebound establishment. Broshian also speaks highly of other educationalists such as Hakob Garenyants, Shanshyants and Mzheshian who were persecuted by the old guard. Expressing his own concern for the education of the poor peasant children, Broshian is particularly admiring of Mzheshian who sacrificed the `the luxury of Etchmiadzin' for the `well being of local children from local villages.' An eager participant in the project to develop a modern literary Armenian, Broshian was inspired to emulate Abovian, whose novel `The Wounds of Armenia' was the first written in a vernacular comprehensible to the masses. Fired by enthusiasm he wrote his many novels in his own regional vernacular so that `literature ceases to be the property of the educated classes alone'. Broshian's progressive credentials are manifest also in his attitude towards the Armenian Church that for him remained essential to Armenian life. `For centuries the Armenian nation existed without any (independent) political life...' During this long period `all essential problems and issues of [the nation's] existence revolved around the Church.' The second, unfinished, part of these `Memoirs' is indeed a stout and, for Broshian, unusually passionate defence of the Armenian Church against `exploitative Protestantism' and Catholic missionaries for whom `the worst people in the world are those Armenians who do not recognise the supremacy of the Pope.' But even as he considered himself a loyal member of the Armenian Church, even as his friends, intellectual mentors and his bread and butter were all in one way or another connected to the Church, Broshian was stern in his criticism of its hierarchy and especially its leadership based in Etchmiadzin. Though not included in these `Memoirs' he tells us in a letter that the novel `Theatre of War' was written in part to `expose Etchmiadzin's rotten secrets.' `It features life 100 years earlier', but in it `Etchmiadzin's present reality shines forth in all its corruption.' One expression of this was the persecution of Shashyants whose modern educational methods were denounced by the Armenian Church hierarchy as anti-Armenian and Protestant deviations. Broshian in contrast claims them as expressions of a commitment to the Armenian Church and its ancient traditions. Broshian's outlook was fashioned in the heart of rural Armenia where the Church occupied a pivotal social position. His attitude to the Armenian Church however had nothing in common with the conservatism of `The Bee' and `The New Century'. His sympathy was for the reforming trend within the Church, a trend that, especially in rural areas in which he was most at home, was closer to the people and more sensitive to its needs. That this wing existed, as a decidedly progressive and sometimes even revolutionary force, is evident in both history (Khrimian Hayrig, the Church in Daron/Vasbourakan and elsewhere) and in literature (`Red Mass' by Arpiar Arpiarian and `The Monastery' Dikran Cheogyourian). Broshian, moderate as he was, was of this wing. There is one striking limitation to Broshian's progressivism that is worth remarking on. He is largely silent on political issues and problematic when he is not. In one instance when he does refer to politics it is in the form of homage to Armenian officers serving in the Tsarist army. He describes them as patriots defending Tsarist rule in the Caucuses against uprisings by local nationalities. Unlike men like Nalpantian, he demonstrates no awareness of the colonial and imperial nature of Tsarist power and indirectly underlines the role played by certain Armenians as a social bastion for Tsarist rule in the region. Backwardness and corruption within the Armenian establishment and within the Church too, as well as the retreat of the Armenian language against which Broshian stood firm, still threatens the fabric of Armenian life today. In this light Berj Broshian's legacy, for all its limitations, is clearly worth investigating and recovering for new generations of Armenians. -- 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.