Abcai: circles of dying': a novel about the enemy within Armenian News Network / Groong November 3, 2015 By EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN There is in Armenia today something of an exciting literary revival. Its quality and its future are, however, far from secure, with much depending on whether the nation can be salvaged from the hyenas mercilessly devouring it. Nevertheless, and perhaps ironically, one manifestation of this revival is Mesrop Harutyunian's wonderful short novel - `Abcai: circles of dying' that illuminates the sordid and tragic truths of the late 1980s transition from the Soviet Armenian to the `independent' Third Republic. A book for our times its truths have, additionally, an international resonance! I. First published in 2007 (with a digital edition available since 2014 - See Note 1), `Abcai' is a gripping story of the origins, the essence and the real character of the class now dominating and destroying the post-Soviet Armenian state and social order. In the very same breath it is a deeply moving remark on the tragedy of the Armenian-Azeri conflict. But this is no turgid political tract of a novel. An enchanting mix of realism, 'magical realism', surrealism, fable and philosophy, shifting between past and present `Abcai' frames its themes in a swirling tale of magical birth, love, sex, prostitution, Armenian-Azeri friendships, war, plunder, destitution, murder, assassination, police brutality and a great deal of philosophical contemplation too. And throwing light on it all is the protagonist Abcai whose name is a whole philosophical story, as the reader will discover. Possessed of magical qualities, a compound of `noble savage' and a saintly mystic, deeply suspicious of urban life, always eager to return to his mountainous village on the Armenian-Azeri border, Abcai is a counterpoint to the forces shown to be seizing command of the newly emerging state. In what is also a socio-political thriller, we first meet our hero in 1999 when he is on the run fleeing from security forces ordered to eliminate or neutralise him. To consolidate its power and secure ill-gotten gains, a parasite class, emerging to replace the collapsed Soviet hierarchy is ruthlessly wiping out opposition. They have already assassinated the Commander-in-Chief and are now gunning for his loyal lieutenant Abcai. Having usurped the mass patriotic Movement to plunder the nation's wealth this class is simultaneously prosecuting the Armenian-Azeri war ethnically cleansing Azeri communities from Armenia to carve additional spheres for looting now from deserted Azeri villages. For this class that remains in situ to this day: `Land, people, state are just words, beneath which they conceal their real design - enjoy a long reign and if possible pass power on to their own likes.' II. A reluctant recruit to the mass Movement Abcai's faith founders almost immediately as he witnesses hucksters and adventurers exploiting the vast collective patriotic enthusiasm of the 1980s for their individual private profit. It is on the very frontline of the Armenian-Azeri war that he `comes face to face with the brutal reality' of greed for personal profit drowning nobler patriotism. Such was the reality that defined the dominant forces of the movement and shaped the emergent elite and state. It is on the frontline that Apcai first meets men who will be among those who rise to power, men raucously `drinking to money and to riches', one bellowing `I, lads, am only `I' with money.' These are soldiers who: `...would strut around brandishing their weapons when in the market place, but never so in the mountains, never at their posts. There at the first moment (of danger) they would search for a suitable rock'. Even as bullets fly, such impostors braying patriotic and nationalist slogans build fortunes at everyone else's expense. Abcai sees `convoys of trucks' passing through his village loaded with the country's factory equipment being driven out of Armenia to be sold as scrap metal! These nation destroyers are also `enriching themselves' `at the expense of refugees' and cynically diverting supplies of bread from the front line and selling it at high prices in local markets. Never risking their own lives, they `began to demand, and received both office and wealth.' Managing to `come out of the water dry' fortune hunters, bandits and thieves `acquired office' and `organised new plunder' now leeching off the misery of the people. A striking moment is evoked in dramatic strokes of surreal colour following the Commander-in-Chief's funeral when Abcai ends up in a hotel with two women driven into prostitution. One turns out to be the daughter of Anik a young love whom he had not been allowed to marry as her parents judged him of too lowly a social rank, and here another story to delve into! The daughter recognises Abcai and mortified tells her story, one of thousands upon thousands ground down by the new order. Concluding she exclaims `I am no prostitute but I have...children to feed and no one to help...' In the passion of Haroutyunyan's narrative one can hear echoes of Barouyr Sevak. Writing against the Soviet era hierarchy, Sevak also writes about the leaders of the Movement of the 1980s and about the governing elites since! Truly the greedy cliques, then and now all: Speak in the name of the sea of society But flow towards their private lake. They are `burdens upon the back of the world' who `never risk or sacrifice', and have `never once experienced sleep on a damp floor'. Cruel and greedy they: `would wreck another's home for the sake of a single beam they want for themselves'. In the event of righteous opposition, as Abcai discovers, they have their gangsters, their prisons and police to beat, to brutalise and eliminate as necessary. And so the drama of the novel: a failed assassination attempt, Abcai's arrest and vicious beating, judicial fraud and the ghastly cynicism of the new elite. Through bitter experience does the truth dawn! Abcai comes to realise that `his war and their war were different things', that `his war had come to an end' while for them a new `war had begun.' His conception of motherland and theirs are irreconcilable opposites. For those now in power `motherland' never was and never will be the people of the land and their well-being. For them it is only `what they could squeeze from this land' and its people. This class continues its career into 2015, selling off what remains of the national heritage, most recently the national sports complex. It is disappointing that Abcai never ponders why and how the parasites seized command of the mass Movement with such ease. Only silences hint at absence of an alternative social vision, at the lack of organised popular democratic input into the leadership of the Movement. It was a lack that allowed the fraudulent `patriots' an easy ride, to dismiss the desires of the people for an improved life, to capture the state and use it to empty the nation's coffers and line their own filthy pockets. III. A high point of the novel is a focus on Armenian-Azeri relations as these emerge from the relationship between Abcai and the novel's second protagonist, the Azeri Hassan. Before the conflict Abcai was an honoured guest in Hassan's Azeri Village N that is located in Armenia. >From a passionate affair with Hassan's sister (Abcai is a man of great sexual energy) is born an Armenian-Azeri boy who is to grow up an Azeri and here again another whole story to relish in this novel of numerous sub-plots! A complicated but nevertheless genuine friendship grows, one that is torn apart by war. For all his honesty and integrity Abcai in Armenian Azeri relations is a man of his times, trapped in a template of overriding anti-democratic nationalism. He takes an active part in cleansing Azeri villages including Hassan's believing this necessary for reasons of state security. Though seeking to do so peacefully and without plunder he shows no empathy for those he drives out. He is blind to the connection between the domestic criminality of the new order and its anti-Azeri ethnic cleansing. He never questions the fact that it is the very same forces who `squeeze the motherland' and its people and who at the very same time engage in ethnic cleansing to draw state borders within which they will be free to do as they so greedily wish. It takes Hassan, now thrown out of a land that he considers his motherland to question the character of the dominant `patriotism' of both sides. Near the novel's end in mountains overlooking the now Armenian populated Village N, Abcai and Hassan meet in a last encounter. Their exchange offers a heart-warming redefinition of motherland and patriotism, that freed from political borders cut by greedy elites is rooted in the recognition of people's labour and love of the land upon which they build their lives and communities, irrespective of national or ethnic origin or state borders. In Azerbaijan Hassan's experience mirrors that of Abcai's. As Hassan begins to `resist injustices', Azeri authorities look at him `with sideway glances'. There `was not a charge that was not levelled against' him. He was accused of collaborating with Abcai and being a spy. Arrested repeatedly he manages to escape. Fearing for his family he moves them to Russia. As for himself explaining his return to his childhood hills in Armenia he says: `For me it makes no difference whether I am to be judged here or there... Anyway, I could not resist. I was longing for our mountains, even though you say that these are not ours. But look, I too was born and grew up here. I too have wandered through these mountains and have hunted there. This is motherland for me.' His people may be migrants `from who knows when'. But still `My grandfather and my father too were born here. Me too! Our dead are buried in our villages here! How is this not my motherland?' Hassan affirms the very same for Armenians of Azerbaijan. Having crossed into Armenia with invincible longing to revisit his family home he plucks up the courage and knocks on his old door that is opened by an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan, now living there. They spend the entire night talking and Hassan tells Abcai: `And so I understood that between him and me there was absolutely no difference...Longing was killing us both...' The historical and social validity of this deeply personal truth finds remarkable support in the history of the even more savage 1905-1906 Armenian-Azeri clashes. In its wake as reconciliation spread between bloodied communities an Armenian newspaper reports an Azeri peasant's view: `Yes, it was the government that set fire to our land. We Azeris and you Armenians have lived in a common motherland for centuries, we are the children of the same land, our interests are common and thus we have no cause to spill each other's blood...' (`On the Paths of National Liberation Volume 2' by Hrachig Simonian p9) As they part, Hassan in a gesture of common humanity speaks of Abcai's son `as my son and yours'. But reflecting the temporary reality of unresolved national animosities they go their own way. Still, Harutyunyan's novel, recalling short stories in the same vein by western Armenian Hagop Mntsouri (1886-1978) and eastern Armenian Stepan Zorian (1889-1967), in experience born of real lives, offers the means to radically rethink and to reformulate conceptions of nationhood and statehood for the benefit of all that inhabit a land. * * * The jury remains out for a comprehensive evaluation, especially of philosophic and existential beams in the novel. Abcai is a big reader his cave packed with books including the Bible, St Exubery and Nietzche. These contribute to his outlook, his judgements and his sense of future possibility. There emerges here a marked ambiguity, one that suggests the inevitability and permanence of the triumph of the parasites, unavoidable due to an assumed deep-seated human egoism compounded by an essential corruptibility of any urban civil society in the face of which there appears little recourse. Oblique references to Abcai being something of a Little Mher could point to an element of hope for the future. A lesser known hero of the Armenian epic `The Daredevils of Sassoon', Little Mher in the face of the abominations of the world retreats to a cave to await confidently it must be said, better days. But Abcai contests any comparison. He rejects this traditional reading and sees in Little Mher only fatalistic resignation and passivity that has put an ugly imprint on the people of his times. Yet Abcai himself appears unable to challenge this. In flight throughout most of the novel at its end he too vanishes. It is of course not the business of the novelist to offer a programme of action for the future. But then again it is not unwarranted for the reader to discuss what can be read as a questionable resignation to a grim reality. The impasse of which Abcai, and Hassan, is a personification may be an accurate reflection of the grimness of many a modern and more particularly post-Soviet state. But as they say hope burns eternal and indeed it is this hope that fires collective and individual effort to overcome the most daunting odds. The form this hope takes depends! One is the Electric Yerevan protest that swept the land in June and July, just as the parasites were selling off our sports complex. Nevertheless, one conclusion is beyond challenge. `Abcai: circles of dying' is an exciting, colourful novel of prime importance and deserves wide circulation, discussion and debate. With artistic panache and creative daring Harutyunyan has unearthed the terms of the triumph of the parasites that from their first appearance in the Movement and to this day relentlessly crush the nation, the state and its people. In this and in its contesting of received conceptions of patriotism and nationalism this novel has also a decided universal aspect, relevant to peoples and nations across the globe suffering the pretences of freedom often fashioned by elite nationalist diatribes that rip up all people's lives. Note 1: The digital edition is made available by Yavruhrat (http://yavrumyan.blogspot.co.uk/p/ebook.html) that makes available a great digital library of Armenian literature in epub, kindle, google and I-pad formats.-- 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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