Armenian News Network / Groong


MEETING ANTONINA MAHARI, WIDOW OF GOURGEN MAHARI (1903-1969)

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 9, 2004
Travel Wire

By Ruth Bedevian


YEREVAN, ARMENIA

Antonina Pavilaitite was 21 years old in 1944 studying law in Vilnius University, Lithuania when the Soviet authorities arrested her and sent her to Siberia. It was there in exile that she met and married Gourgen Mahari, another victim who was exiled from Armenia to the GULAG twice in his life (1936-1947) and (1948-1954). Gourgen Mahari is still remembered in Armenia today by those old enough and by youth who have been taught by their parents and grandparents. He was a poet and novelist. `Had he written in English, Mahari would now be considered a precursor of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway.' So states Ara Balizoian (Hye Forum - October 30, 2002).

House in Siberia Painting
House in Siberia Painting
( K. Vrtanesyan/Groong)
Writing his memoirs years later, Gourgen Mahari extols his wife, Antonina, `Now, when I am living in Yerevan in a flat of my own and writing this brief autobiography, Antonina, the above-mentioned Lithuanian cowherd, is sitting before me and reading the poetry of Salomeja Neris, the Lithuanian nightingale, and her eyes are moist. We were brought together by the hard times of deprivation and anguish, and had it not been for Antonina, my bones would be resting in Siberian soil, like the remains of millions...'

* * * * *

It was a sunny, clear, and unseasonably warm November day in Yerevan when my friend Karen and I arrived at Kassian Street, Building 3 and ascended the four flights of grey, worn steps leading to Apt 36 - Gourgen Mahari's apartment - where the door still is marked in distinct Armenian block letters with his name.

It was in this apartment where Gourgen resumed his writing career after being released upon Stalin's death (1953). Antonina, stood by his side, agreeing to live in Armenia with the man whom she loved and whom she encouraged to carry on despite the privations that his captivity forced him to endure. `When I met him, he was in such poor health. He was so ill. I had to give him courage. I said every day, `You must fight. Gourgen, you must live.''

Antonina Mahari
Antonina Mahari
( K. Vrtanesyan/Groong)
Antonina greeted us warmly in Armenian, `Hrametsek! Hrametsek! Welcome! Welcome!' As we prepared to get acquainted, she shut the television, declaring, `We don't need this noise!' She led me to the most comfortable spot in the room, insisting that I sit on the sofa while she sat on the wood chair adjacent to me. With customary and hospitable manners, she offered us tea.

From the onset, there was no `ice to break' as this agile-minded octogenarian engaged me in a rapid sequence of questions in fluent English (which she learned in her native Lithuania and subsequently improved in Armenia). `Where do you live? Where were you born? Do you have children? Did you vote in the recent elections in the USA? Do you like Bush? Are you happy that he won? Where are you staying in Armenia? Did you come alone? How often do you come to Armenia?'

My desire to visit, I told her, was to express my respect and to carry messages of approbation on behalf of others as well for her late husband and his work, particularly his courageous honesty in writing The Burning Orchards, a novel that deals with the burning of the city of Van during 1915 including the climate of resistance prior and during the city's ruin and ultimate exodus. Gourgen, a 12-year old child, was witness to the siege of Van, ending up in an orphanage in Dilijan and eventually Yerevan. During the turmoil, he was separated from his mother and his sister committed suicide. His father had been murdered. Antonina said, `Eventually he found his mother who was living in Tiflis where she was working as a nurse.'

The original publication of The Burning Orchards, by Gourgen Mahari in 1966 was burned in public on the street in front of his home in Yerevan. The writer was the victim of a malicious campaign of abuse because it was perceived by those in powerful positions within the intellectual and political communities in Soviet Armenia and the Diaspora that his novel suggested that the behavior of Armenian revolutionaries antagonized the Turks, causing them to commit Genocide. So badly was Gourgen attacked and so weakened and hurt, he succumbed to the commanding pressure from the Writers Union and he re-worked the book. Antonina was steadfastly against this revision, believing in her husband's artistic integrity. As a result of all the stress, sadly, Gourgen Mahari died three years later, a physically broken and spiritually shattered man.

Presenting a copy of Marc Nichanian's Writers of Disaster to her, I continued to convey compliments to her from the author. I read aloud to her a quote from Christopher Atamian's book review (recently published in the Armenian Reporter, `Reading the Aghed: Nichanians's Writers of Disaster' - October 30, 2004 issue) in which Atamian explains that each character expresses a different viewpoint and discourse and he writes, `This made Mahari's subsequent persecution by his fellow Armenians, including fellow poet Paruyr Sevak, all the more absurd, as no one view could be held up to a mirror as having been Mahari's personal opinion of the events in question.' Also included in this documentation of expiation was Eddie Arnavoudian's commentary published as recently at July 14, 2004 on the Internet in Groong's Critical Corner in which he wrote, `The case against Mahari is artistically and politically as groundless as the campaign against him is beyond any moral, political or intellectual justification. ....The 1966 edition of 'The Burning Orchards' remains as one of the most accomplished of Soviet era Armenian novels. Its reconstruction of Van's historic Armenian social structure, its custom and tradition, its artistic, educational, intellectual and political world is brought to life through the varied relations of a host of defining and authentically universal characters.'

Mahari Wall of Photos
Mahari Wall of Photos
( K. Vrtanesyan/Groong)
A vase of fresh autumn daisies, yellow and white, adorned a desk that was crammed full with books in English, Russian, Lithuanian and Armenian. Photos, paintings and memorabilia covered the walls like a patchwork quilt. The room had a certain coziness and lent an aura of nostalgia for times and events that have passed into history. Charents and Gourgen were very close friends,' she related. There was another photo of William Saroyan and Gourgen. Another photo of a fair-skinned cherubic faced child invited me to ask Antonina if she were the child. She replied simply, `That is my daughter. She died when we returned from Siberia. It was too hot in Yerevan and she died.' Responding to a question about her only son, also named Gourgen, she said that he was not well and was sleeping. She quickly moved the conversation forward and began to interview my friend, Karen. They spoke in rapid, fluent Russian.

While Antonina and I were chatting, an official Russian document interested Karen. It was the application Gourgen Mahari had written to the Ministry of Interior asking for the return of six copybooks with poetry that he had written while in prison (in Yerevan before he was sent to the GULAG) and which were taken from him by the prison administration. Mahari mentioned in the document that he considered those poems the best he had ever written. Karen interpreted, `I asked Antonina if the authorities had honored his request.' In English, she added, `They promised to return them back to him but never did so. Oh, those were terrible times! Terrible!'

Another piece of bitter-sweet memorabilia was a painting by Ashot Sanamian of the cabin in which Mahari lived in captivity. An inscription reads below the painting, `In this house Gourgen Mahari lived and wrote, `Eritasardutyan Semin' [On the Threshold of Youth]. Mahari wrote a series of short autobiographical novels, Childhood, Adolescence, and On the Threshold of Youth. Mahari never finished the second part to On the Threshold of Youth. The three books reveal the author's life in his native Van and the exodus of Armenians to Eastern Armenia and his experiences in the early years of the young Republic.

Antonina Mahari
Antonina Mahari
( K. Vrtanesyan/Groong)
A writer herself, Antonina wrote her memoirs, entitled "My Odyssey" in 1974. She wrote the original in Russian, but the Eastern Armenian translation was first published (in Beirut) in 1994. [There is no English translation.] The original Russian publication followed. She directed her comment to me, `Ah, it is a pity that you do not read Eastern Armenian,' as she inscribed a copy for Karen. `Indeed, `I replied, as I leafed through the photos. I asked if one group photo contained images of her relatives. `No. The people in this picture were very good friends. They were all killed by the communists.' She continued, `I have no family or relatives left in Lithuania. They are all gone, but I have some friends. It is complicated for me to go to Lithuania now. I have Armenian citizenship and Lithuania has strict rules for foreign travelers. Too complicated. Too much paper work.'

Thirteen years of Independence in Armenia have dealt a setback to the majority of people, especially the elderly. It is a day to day struggle for food, clothing and shelter. Antonina is not an exception to this plight, yet she made no complaints to me about her living conditions. Her comments and generalizations revealed an idealist beneath the surface.

Quick to share her opinions, she raged for a moment on the current war in Iraq and then apologized to me since I was her guest and an American. I appreciated her candor and responded to her apology by explaining an American idiom that appropriately describes her. `You shoot from the hip,' I said, and her countenance blossomed into a satisfying grin.

Personally experiencing her verve, I came to understand how she made a difference in Gourgen's life, first by sharing torment in captivity and then sharing intellect and integrity. His work is marked by optimism in the face of unimaginable adversity and this makes him and his writing extraordinarily valuable. To fully appreciate this man and artist, and therefore his life partner too, we need only to be touched by his words. In the last passage of his Autobiography (1963) he wrote, `Sixty years have been lived. If we consider that the conscious life begins at seven, and if we add to this the seven years of orphanages and streets and to these fourteen years the period of 1936-1954..there will remain to me twenty-eight years. But if at this very moment the most terrific and powerful of Jehovahs came in and sat in front of me, lit a cigarette and said: `I give you a second life. Trace it yourself from cradle to grave and your wish will be carried out. How would you like to live?' I shall answer Him without the slightest hesitation: `Exactly in the same manner as I have lived.'' (`Ararat'- Winter Issue 1979).

Antonina's tribute to her husband is this unpretentious museum- apartment where she has preserved her husband's memory and work. She has amassed memorabilia that document not only her and her husband's life experiences, but a portion, although dark, of Armenia's history. Antonina invited us to write our comments and sign the guest book, which we did with pleasure.

Upon reflection of more than a dozen museums that I have visited in Armenia, the House Museum of Gourgen Mahari [Kassian Street Bldg 3, apt 36 -4th Floor -27-15-92] was the most intimate and revealing by far. No finer docent can be discovered than the one who shared his heart!

Ruth and Antonina
Ruth and Antonina
( K. Vrtanesyan/Groong)
English translations of Mahari's work can be read in The Warmest Country: Stories, Essays, Legends, (Raduga Publishers, Moscow). The book contains some autobiographical writing as well as Mahari's Reminiscences About Charentz. Writers of Disaster by Marc Nichanian contains a translation of The Burning Orchards (partial and mostly based on the first edition which was burned in public - English translator, G.M. Goshgarian.). The Winter Issue in 1979 of Ararat Magazine, contains two brief pages with four poems and excerpts from Barbed Wire in Flower, Mahari's account of his experiences during eighteen years of internment (translated by Garig Basmadjian).


--
Ruth Bedevian continues her visits to Armenian authors' House Museums
around Armenia. Her articles in this series are at:
	http://www.groong.org/orig/armeniahousemuseums.html

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