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Why we should read... 'The Fool' by Raffi Sovetakan Grogh, Collected Works volume 4 Yerevan, Armenia, 1984 Armenian News Network / Groong June 30, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian This effort does not pretend to substitute for Donald Abcarian's excellent overview of both 'The Fool' and Raffi's work in general. These are available in the preface to his English translation of 'The Fool' (Komitas Institute, 2000) and on Groong's 'The Critical Corner' (See "Raffi -- An Overview" (June 24, 2002) and "Raffi -- A Biography" (December 9, 2002) By Donald Abcarian. My purpose, by means of enthusiastic reiteration, is to encourage both Armenian and English readers to engage with and discuss this work. 'The Fool' is so much more than just a rip-roaring patriotic adventure in the style of R L Stevenson or Walter Scott. It is an immensely readable political treatise containing a thoroughgoing diagnosis and prescription for the Armenian national movement in the late 19th century. Raffi's intellectual depth and vision, his facility with language and his enormous talent as a raconteur made 'The Fool' one of the most widely read Armenian novels of all time. Understandably so. Few historical documents can equal its excellent socio-economic and political picture of Ottoman ruled Armenia during the decade of the 1870 Russo-Turkish War. Knitting together adventure and analysis 'The Fool' illuminates some of the main structures of Ottoman oppression. It also pinpoints a critical turn in Ottoman state strategy as the government begins cultivating Kurdish clans as allies against potential Armenian rebellion. Equally illuminating is Raffi's portrayal of Armenian and Kurdish life, their economic organisation, their mores, as well as their national and local customs and traditions. Within a broad socio-political framework, the narrative with its vivid protagonists - members of the well-to-do Khatcho clan, the young Armenian patriots Vartan 'The Fool' and Dudukjian, Thomas Effendi, a merchant and many others - describes a nation which, though brought to the edge of destruction, is also in the process of transition, beginning to take up a struggle for survival and independence. In evaluating 'The Fool' one must abandon narrowly defined preconceptions of the nature of artistic excellence. Barouyr Sevak was right when he noted that had Raffi been born in 18th or 19th century France he could have produced work of the order of Balzac's. But Raffi was an Armenian whose work reflected and expressed the nascent national strivings of a people whose whole being was marked by centuries of destructive oppression. He was talented and brilliant nevertheless. So much so that his genius compels a less dogmatic affirmation of what is good literature. Raffi's protagonists in 'The Fool' may be less emotionally and psychologically complex than those we find in Balzac or Dostoyevsky, but they are no less real and convincing. The main characters in 'The Fool' are defined by precise social and moral traits and together reproduce authentic types that inhabited Armenian communities at the time. Khatcho, a family head, concentrates some of the typical features of the well-to-do Armenian peasant village elder and leader. The same goes for the merchant Thomas Effendi, the predator and collaborator with Ottoman repression. Vartan 'The Fool' and Dudukjian reflect well the emergence of a new generation of nationalists and patriots. The authenticity of Raffi's characters is also assured by their being placed in a well-constructed and detailed social and political framework. With life breathed into them by a wonderful imagination and a talent for story telling, neither plot nor character collapse into fantasy or caricature. So they become effective mediums for the author's message urging national education, political organisation and armed self-defence as critical components of national survival and revival. In 'The Fool' Raffi appears as a fierce critic of the Armenian religious and secular order. Thomas Effendi, one of its best-conceived characters, synthesizes Raffi's hatred of the Armenian merchant who acted as a direct agent of Ottoman rule in return for the privilege of further fleecing an already impoverished peasantry. This is all brought out well in Thomas Effendi's role in the persecution and arrest of Dudukjian. For Raffi, the 'brave and large-hearted' Kurdish bandit is noble compared to the 'low-life, deceitful exploiter' that is the Armenian merchant. The Church comes off no better. Condemnation of its backward traditions forms one pillar of the novel. The Church's endorsement of fatalism, passivity and primitive prejudice is depicted movingly in the death of Khatcho's first daughter. Raffi is equally sharp in condemning the Church's refusal to support an enlightened educational system to replace one that merely reproduced obscurantism. The powers of the time must surely have been stung by criticism which was as unyielding as it was systematic and persuasive. In opposition to Church and elite are the likes of The Fool, his energetic organiser friend Dudukjian and the younger members of the Khatcho family all of whom hold up the banner of national liberation and the cause of armed self-defence. They represent a new breed of Armenian, more conscious, with ambitions for freedom and a readiness to struggle. The origins and evolution of the younger generation are traced with accuracy and skill. Neither their personality nor their honourable characteristics are romantic or glorified attributions. They parallel the real historical experience of men and women educated in Europe, travelled through the empire and in touch with modern notions of national liberation. Through many of their dialogues, exchanges and monologues Raffi covers virtually every aspect of the Armenian question and shows a profound theoretical understanding of the real power of ideas, ineffective when held by a few, but awesome when held by many. Vartan's speech in the latter part of the novel for example is remarkable for its grasp of the internal obstacles to Armenian progress and national revival. The description of the dream that concludes 'The Fool' is a veritable manifesto of peasant emancipation and projects a vision of national revival that inspired not just 'The Fool' but Raffi's whole work. Throughout 'The Fool' Raffi never ceases to amaze the reader. His views on of the role of women in the struggle for Armenian national revival are exemplary. He grants them pride of place, urging their education and emancipation from domestic drudgery, ignorance and isolation. Reminding one of Franz Fanon's writings on women in the Algerian revolution he notes that men, drawn into the social and public life of the conquering power, are more easily assimilated. Women, in contrast, by virtue of their social isolation play a crucial role in preserving the ancient national cultural traditions, heritage, including the language. Releasing women from their isolation and educating them is therefore a vital component of the national revival. 'The Fool' reveals Raffi as an outstanding thinker of national revival who also recalls another great revolutionary, the Cuban Antonio Maceo, when he insists on the impossibility of freedom without struggle. Raffi's assessment of the Istanbul/Bolis intellectuals trapped within a romantic nationalism divorced from the realities of life in historic Armenia is brilliantly perceptive. Carried away by fantasy they were unable to prepare the ground for the hard and inescapable business of organisation and resistance in the historic homelands. The result was a young intellectual class wasting its energy while historic Armenia slowly faded under the burden of oppression. 'The Fool' does have its lapses. One in particular - the treatment of the Kurdish question and Armeno-Kurdish relations - is significant for reflecting a central weakness of Armenian political thought at the time. An artistic blemish is the forced nature of Thomas Effendi's sudden transformation into a decent being that is inspired by his romantic love for Khatcho's daughter Stepanik. 'The Fool' nevertheless remains to this day a text that retains significance for Armenians and for all oppressed peoples. It also retains its capacity to inspire. Its essential value is expressed best in a contemporary appreciation by an African-American jazz trumpeter who writes: 'Wow!! What a book. I absolutely love it and I feel it. I'd heard a little bit about the Armenian people and I was glad to delve deeply into this book. I used to wonder how Franz Fanon, a black psychiatrist from the little Island of Martinique, could become so involved in the Algerian Revolution. Damn he wasn't even Algerian. But I'll tell you, as I have been reading this book, if I lived during those times I'd be for the Armenian people. Raffi ... was the Malcolm X of the 1800's. What incredible foresight and beautiful poetic analogies.' Clearly 'The Fool', in its Armenian and English editions, deserves the widest possible circulation for which reason its English translator must be given a cheer! -- 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.