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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 June 10, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. Raffi on the experience of the Armenian emigrant labourer in 19th century Istanbul Donald Abcarian, whose modern translation of Raffi's (1835-1888) 'The Fool' makes a seminal Armenian novel available to the English speaking world, notes rightly that 'it's a shame that Raffi has become a literary non-person to "modern" Armenians. I suspect there's no other writer in the world who approximates the particular kind of richness and character his writing has. I think he has his own, individual place to occupy in world literature, and that world literature is the poorer for lack of being translated -- particularly into English.' Raffi's Gharib Mshetsin (The Emigrant from Mush, Raffi, Collected Works, Volume 4, pp64 - 146, 1984, Yerevan, Soviet Armenia) a short novel, incomplete and by no means his best, gives us nevertheless an enjoyable introduction to the author's immense talent. It is a well-told tale in an unusual setting. We are in Istanbul, far from the historic Armenia that is the backdrop for 'The Fool' and most of Raffi's other novels. Panoramic in its presentation of Armenian Istanbul, its establishment is shown to be corrupt, morally degenerate and indifferent both to the plight of people living in the colonised homelands and to that of its migrant labourers seeking refuge in the metropolis. In contrast to this we witness those collaborative efforts through which the impoverished sought to survive a hostile environment. Ohan is one of the thousands of Armenian migrant labourers who flooded into Bolis driven from their homeland by poverty and oppression. Working as a carrier of human waste from domestic households to its dumping ground in the sea, he encounters a whole cast of Istanbul's citizenry from the aristocratic pasha and bey right down to coffee shop owner and barber and many in between. Among them is the demonic Elena who, for a price, offers to foster unwanted children with new loving parents. Ohan however discovers the truth when a 'waste' package he is to dispose of turns out to be an infant boy. In telling Ohan's story Raffi touches on the drama and tragedy of love across national and religious lines in a society burdened with reactionary and repressive mores and customs. The love between an Armenian bey and Zohra the daughter of a Turkish pasha underlines the irrationality and inhumanity of prevailing law and custom. Risking death if discovered they are forced to use Elena to foster out their beloved child, the very one that Ohan has been instructed to hurl into the sea. Also on display are those ugly features of Armenian life that Raffi sought to mobilise the people against. A faction of the degenerate Church is depicted as the lynchpin of an alliance of the privileged and wealthy ruthlessly fleecing the common man and woman (p113). An excellent critique of the pettiness of Armenian parliamentary politics in Istanbul runs along with cutting remarks on Armenian journalism. Despite their exploitation, manipulation and abuse immigrant labourers refuse to become passive, hopeless victims. They create their own structures of human and social solidarity and their own system of social welfare (p114-115). They are also the most enthusiastic militants, ever-ready enter the fray in defence of the people of the historic homelands. Of course neither The Emigrant From Mush nor indeed Raffi's more substantial work is free of artistic or political shortcomings. But even in this minor work we encounter those elements of talent that made him an outstanding intellectual and artistic representative of the Armenian national liberation movement. Raffi had a remarkable talent for telling a gripping tale of drama and adventure that pits social and moral virtue against its opposite. It is this art, akin to that of the epic raconteurs of ancient times, that enables him in his larger works to set out a vast body of profound social analysis and political thought without descending into tedious propaganda. His analysis, observations, criticisms and prescriptions flow generally from his dramatic narrative. The narrative in turn unfailingly touches upon both universal human and national concerns and reveals fundamental social relations as well as the hopes and dreams of the common people. At his best Raffi's protagonists are very accurately portrayed and brilliantly situated social types. Comprehensive and accurate depictions of human relations - domestic, social, political, economic, inter-national - come to form a realistic and compelling overall structure for the adventures of his characters. Raffi's warm humanity, his sympathy and generosity as well as his indignation and revolt against injustice and oppression inspires both mind and imagination. The result is that his novels can still be read with both pleasure and edification even in an age over-preoccupied with the individual psyche and consciousness meandering outside of any social context. 2. THE TRAVELLER AND HIS ROAD The praise heaped upon Gostan Zarian's 'The Traveller and His Road' (Works, pp9-360, 1974, Beirut, Lebanon), by Hagop Oshagan among others, is entirely understandable. Zarian's brilliant turn of phrase, his facility for vivid expressionist description and his mental sharpness blow life into the past evoking many of its truths in some breadth and depth. Yet this travelogue of his journey from Istanbul to Armenia in the 1920s does not deserve Oshagan's label 'a masterpiece'. Its intellectual and philosophic scaffolding is seriously uneven and unstable. Though frequently perceptive the narrative has no coherent axis while its political and historical substance is corrupted by a metaphysically conceived and thus unreal Armenian identity that could have little connection with the real world of the Armenian people. Yet for some of its impressions - of aspects of life in Armenia in the 1920s, of post 1915 Armenian Istanbul (Bolis), of the failings of the Diaspora intelligentsia and many others - it has historical value. The opening pages are striking evocations of the death of Armenian Bolis after the 1915 Genocide and the rise of Kemalism. Revisiting this one-time Armenian cultural capital, Zarian reconstructs it with its phalanx of writers, artists, teachers and journalists all nourishing grand hopes that were destroyed in 1915. Post-Genocide efforts to recover past glory have no substance as mediocrities surface to exploit the gap left by murdered talent. Yet Zarian notes that even at its height, at its most artistically and culturally accomplished, Bolis was never genuinely Armenian. Even then inane aping of Western, in this case French, vulgarity readily passed for culture among a broad circle of educated or well-to-do Armenians. 'Woe to the nation that thus loses its identity and sells its soul' exclaims Zarian.' The impact of the critique is however diminished by a marked Francophobia and a hostility to the French Revolution whose ideology is dismissed as 'derivative and drab' and whose principles 'explode and disappear into thin air' like 'cheap fireworks.' Travelling to Armenia through Turkey rampant with Kemalist nationalism Zarian observes that remaining Armenians and Greeks live in increasing fear and foreboding as Kemal's chauvinist movement attempts to reconstitute the once multi-national empire into a new homogenous xenophobic Turkish state. Among many we meet that ubiquitous predator remarked on by many Armenian writers: the merchant. Even in the midst of the ravages of war they seek out only personal financial gain. As Kemalism gains in confidence, and arrogance, Armenians cower more and more and begin to flee Bolis. In contrast to the disintegrating Armenian communities within the old Ottoman Empire the newly founded but also foundering Armenian state comes to represent hope and a better future. It is there that Zarian and his family are headed. The backward and arid remnant of a larger historic Armenia that now presents itself as the new Armenian nation does not however dim his hope. At least Zarian is at home in an age when membership of a nation state was deemed a necessary foundation for a better future. Zarian does not suffers sentimentality or romanticism. The hardness, the chaos, the careerism, the deceptions and the immense difficulties of the first Armenian Republic and the first epoch of Soviet power are conveyed in vivid colour. The wretched Armenian merchant reappears here too, but this time disguised as a patriot. Though feted as such his sole purpose remains to survey business prospects. American run orphanages passed off as humane institutions where 'boys will be able to develop their own lives' are in fact 'deadly marshes'. Truth be told an orphan's life was a dog's life: 'A bewildered pack of dogs trot by. Abandoned, pedigreed dogs without masters, now gone wild. Hungry, glistening eyes, lean, organised like everything else here, they roam the streets from one end of town to the other, and survive by thieving. Dogs, too, live like our orphans.' Yet Zarian tries hard to love the land. Joining scores of other prominent Armenian intellectuals he sacrificed much to return. But in contrast to many others he was never able to comprehend and appreciate the actual dynamics and processes of real life. This was to be his artistic downfall. The philosophic and intellectual framework that defined his vision of an Armenian identity was deeply flawed. His conception of an Armenian national identity was little more than intellectual icon to be worshiped but with no purchase on contemporary reality. Zarian, suggesting images of the European Renaissance, argues that every nation in transition or crisis turns to its classical heritage as an anchor and foundation for recovery and revival. However whilst acknowledging the wealth of Armenian classical culture, there was for him an unbridgeable gap between his conception of this tradition and the Armenia he witnessed. For Zarian, contemporary Armenia had no redeeming features to enable it to fruitfully mine the legacy of the past. Living Armenians allegedly deal only with 'petty feelings, middling ideas, and cheap goods imported from Russia and Europe'. Instead as the core of his prescription he demands that Armenians 'assert the fearless consciousness of a new spiritual aristocracy.' What this consciousness was and how the 'spiritual aristocracy' was to prevail we are given not a hint. Such ineffective meanderings differ little from those in Zarian's famous novel 'The Ship on the Mountain'. Zarian rejected all existing agencies that could, in whatever way, contribute something in actual reality to rebuild an Armenia emerging from centuries of colonial oppression, genocide, war and dispersion. The modern peasant is backward and ignorant, the intellectual has sold his soul to the devil and in politics people are thrall to foreign ideologies. Zarian dismisses them with haughty contempt. 'M lived with other people's ideas, as in a rented room, nothing to call his own, not a single idea' The eastern Armenian intellectuals suffered 'prefabricated, one-sided ideas - like a bell hung from the camel's tortured neck' Notwithstanding references to supposed inner resources, the population at large is equated to dumb animals 'wondering around, bent before destiny like cattle to before the plough'. Zarian's distaste for the newly established Soviet regime is palpable. But he would have turned against any regime whatever its political character, intentions or achievements. Blinded by his search for his 'fearless spiritual aristocracy' he was unable to distinguish between corrupt opportunists and thousands who were dedicated to the welfare of the people. He unilaterally dismissed the committed as fanatics and the idealists as dupes of nefarious foreign ambitions. Zarian seems unable to grasp that even while the regimentation of life, bureaucracy and illegitimate repression was an ever present tendency, the epoch he wrote about through the efforts of people like Alexander Miasnighian, Aghasi Khanjian, Yeghishe Charents, Ashot Hovannissian, Aksel Bakoontz, Gourgen Mahari, Hratchia Ajarian, Leo, Malkhasiantz and many thousands of others was also one of the most fecund culturally, socially and economically. Together they did a great deal to recover and build on the classical heritage as part of their effort to reconstruct an Armenian nation. Zarian, in contrast, reminds one of Aksel Bakoontz's hero in 'Hovnatan March' who, conceiving of Armenia only in the most unreal romantic terms, is incapable of making any realistic and accurate assessment of real conditions. Besides squandering unquestionable artistic talent this rendered him incapable of accomplishing or contributing anything substantial. It also condemned him to perpetual and ultimately useless intellectual and political wandering. How, otherwise, is one to explain his endless twists and turns, his departure from Soviet Armenia, his subsequent collaboration with the ARF, his return again to Soviet Armenia and once again his disillusionment. As an intellectual and artistic whole the book is additionally flawed by Zarian's treatment of women as nothing more than objects for men's sexual desire. Otherwise they are deemed to be 'transparent, easy to predict' with their 'fate fixed' and 'their role inferior.' Besides such intellectual corruptions the books is tarnished by verbosity and many overworked surrealistic descriptive flights. But read it nevertheless. It remains a useful historical document and is at the same time a good aid to learning Armenian. Zarian has a fluency of tongue even when his intellectual wings are clipped! (Note: With one or two exceptions, translated excerpts are from 'The Traveller & His Road' by Gostan Zarian translated by Ara Baliozian, Ashod Press, New York, 1981) -- 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.