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The Critical Corner - 09/09/2003

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Why we should read...

"The Humble Ones" by Hagop Oshagan, 616pp
Selected Works, 1998, Antelias, Lebanon)

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 9, 2003

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Among many Armenian literary critics Hagop Oshagan's (1883-1948)
stature as a novelist is unrivalled and he is frequently named in the
company of Balzac, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce. Such
comparisons are not mere patriotic bombast. Once the reader has
mastered Oshagan's unique Armenian style, s/he cannot fail to be
dazzled by the remarkable skill with which he mines the deepest
recesses of the human soul and brings to light the vast contents of
its driven, troubled and tormented psyche. In his best work we are
witness to the most majestic weaving together of almost every aspect
of life - social, psychological, individual, collective, sexual,
romantic, ethical, historical, national, economic and political. Some
of these elements are present in 'The Humble Ones' a collection of
Oshagan's early short stories.

Here, Oshagan introduces the reader in a totally original way to the
social misfit, the outcast and outsider whose life is traumatised by a
brutal and iniquitous social order. These men and women, physically,
emotionally or psychologically wounded, are ostracised and abused,
exploited and discarded by society.  Their characters moulded by
broken hopes and frustrated desires, they exist on the edge of life,
on the edge of society.  But for all their pain and despite social
disdain they remain profoundly and comprehensively human.

There is grandeur and generosity in these stories that show behind the
dishevelled appearance and abnormal behaviour of the misfit a spirit
possessing the same richness of aspiration and desire that is to be
found in the most fortunate of beings. However extreme and miserable
their experience, they preserve within them the yearning for love,
warmth, communal solidarity, physical comfort and the desire for a
harmonious intertwining of individual and society that all together
makes us human. Their yearning may be scarred by bitterness,
disillusion and age, it may be misshaped in expression but it is not
altered in its essence.

Free of all vulgar a-priori social determinism or subjectivism Oshagan
examines the relationship between the individual and his or her social
environment in all its diversity, subtlety and complexity and in its
originality and unpredictability. Many of the colourful eccentrics
that roam this volume are victims of exploitative and unjust social
and class relations. But they do not experience society in similar
fashion. Society does not fashion all in the same mould. Besides the
broad mould of social relations and class status, each individual's
unique combination of instincts, desires and ambitions contribute
their significant share in shaping their fate. The experience of
poverty and misery is not a direct and immediate result of class or
economic inequality. These merely set the terms for misfortunes
mediated by many countless other factors.


The natural optimism of the protagonist in 'Kolo', his pleasure for
life and his energy for his labour is slowly sapped through family
tragedy that leaves him responsible in old age for the upkeep of two
children. With the passing of time his woes are compounded by the pain
of creaking bones and debilitated muscles. Unable to labour as he once
did the dread of seasonal hunger beckons.  Kolo's personal experience
of social and economic forces is filtered through his own emotional
and psychological makeup. Albeit poor, whilst still young he is happy,
fired by hope and energy as he confronts life's challenges. But both
perception of life and response to it alter and falter as death in the
family hurls him into loneliness and growing age deprives him of his
vigour. It is then that he feels the cutting burden of economic
injustice, of the unequal access to nature's resources and society's

To fend off hunger, Kolo turns to silkworm cultivation, a process
Oshagan describes in minute detail. The detail provides more than just
a valuable social record. It gives dramatic intensity to Kolo's battle
against life's harshness, for silkworm cultivation is a high-risk
business always existing on the edge of triumph or disaster. For the
wealthy the risk is low. For people like Kolo it is high, and depends
on the unpredictable vagaries of the weather. Though bending beneath
pressure Kolo keeps battling on and cracks only when rain destroys the
vital silkworm's feed upon which he was relying to get through spring.

A similar consideration surfaces in 'Dourig'. Dourig's deep distress
for being childless is compensated for by having to care for her
brother's son whose wife dies. For brother and sister life remains
tolerable and even joyful despite the exactions by the local rich.
They can make ends meet, and furthermore have their growing boy Margos
to delight in. But things come to a crunch when Margos falls ill. They
cannot afford any medication beyond Dourig's impotent herbs. It is
then that the ruthlessness of the wealthy bears directly on their
future. Desperate to obtain cash for medicine they sell their cow. But
swindled throughout their lives they are swindled out of this money
too. Margos dies and their lives are shattered.

'Doksan' and 'Bagdo' have as protagonists disabled or acutely
impoverished orphans with little experience of love and tenderness,
young boys who from an early age had to fend for themselves working
for whatever would earn them a penny and a farthing for a scrap of
food. They become objects of abuse and exploitation hired for menial
tasks. Accorded some paternalistic charity for as long as they can
labour they are treated as emotionless robots. Frowned upon and
disdained, they remain nevertheless fully human in every sense.
Society recognises this but offers them no means to flourish and
develop. Worse still it exploits their desire for lives of comfort,
family warmth and sensual fulfilment fraudulently promising their
realisation in return for loyal and cheap labour.

The theme of dashed or unfulfilled but still enduring emotion, desire
and ambition reappears in different form in all the 17 stories in the
volume. 'Madmoiselle Eve' tells a common tale, but with a difference.
Eve is seduced, made pregnant, forced to have an abortion and then
abandoned by the son of a local wealthy family. But Oshagan depicts
not just the vice of the social relation. He shows the psychological
and emotional coping after the crime. With no prospect of marriage or
children Eve's capacity for emotion and love finds other bittersweet
and melancholic expression.  In 'Dobige' a man's turn to drink drives
away his wife and leads to his impoverishment. His desire to escape
from loneliness to the warmth and comfort of a home explodes in gloomy
and regretful reminiscence as he confronts mortality all alone.

The hardships perpetrated by money and the monied class feature
prominently in this volume. 'Maghak', despite a certain obscurity in
exposition, is a particularly powerful account of the icy cruelty of a
wealthy man who abuses an innocent woman. To conceal vice and retain
social standing as an impeccably moral man he arranges her marriage to
the first available tramp thus locking her away from society.

But this is not only Papette's tragedy as a woman abused. Maghak too,
the outcast husband, is a victim. In a society where arranged
marriages are the rule Maghak he believes that his marriage, put
together by none other than a local dignitary, is an act of human
kindness and generosity that will enable him to realise his dreams of
a refuge for tenderness and sensual fulfilment. But Papette, seething
and with wounded spirit, is neither able nor willing to satisfy his
expectations. So his suffering is that much harsher for the collapse
of his beautiful hopes.

The corrosive role of money finds a very modern expression in 'Vatman'
a biting remark on the callous and soulless materialism of lower
middle class urban life. The setting may be Istanbul just after the
Armenian Genocide and First World War but the sorry story of Balioz
Artin's spiritual and emotional purgatory repeats itself endlessly
wherever the lure and allure of money and wealth play a role in
forming and then deforming intimate personal relations.

A provincial boy made good in Istanbul Artin secures marriage to his
former landlord's daughter only however after he has built a
respectable fortune. He is happy despite the humiliation and pain of
being denied the joy of inviting his family and rural friends, all
considered too lowly and vulgar for the aspiring bride. Artin loves
his wife. But she loves only his wealth and has no qualms squandering
it.  When his business is in difficulties she refuses to offer up any
of the substantial quantity of jewellery, which his wealth bought her,
against financial demands on his business that threaten to break
him. Artin is broken and reduced to driving trams to make ends
meet. This 'humiliation' is just too much for his wife and her

Criticising Shirvanzade's theatre, Oshagan once remarked that
naturalism not enhanced by poetry and by a perception that goes beyond
immediate appearance is not art. It reproduces only what we see and
offers no insights into the hidden springs of life. Bringing 'The
Humble Ones' to a conclusion is its masterpiece and longest story
'Shahbaz' that shows Oshagan indubitably going far beyond the narrow
limits of naturalism.


Knitting together the individual, social and psychological experiences
of Shahbaz and Shogher, Oshagan salvages the Armenian peasantary from
literary caricatures that depict them as simpletons devoid of all
instinct and passion or as paragons of innocent Christian virtue.
Oshagan offers us not dumb animals or idealised saints, but human
individuals - men and women - possessing powerful desires, instincts,
sexuality, emotions, vices and virtues

Individual ambition and desire are however limited and tempered by the
brutal realities of village life which 'has its own laws' and which
'has a mind of its own'. The combination leaves no room for free
development.  It punishes those who dare to defy it with the most
terrifying ostracism. The 'free spirit' is destroyed even before it
begins to bud. Old men preparing to die are already half dead, lacking
any inner life or richness - all destroyed by village life.  Shahbaz
is one such man, now caretaker of the local cemetery. He too, though
relatively young, is already broken having failed to withstand the
psychological trauma induced by 'village law and mind'.

When younger, Shahbaz is prevented from marrying his first and true
love.  Forced into an arranged marriage, the memory of this first love
becomes a wound that transforms his 'inner world into a sunless
desert'.  He retreats into himself, there to nurse the hurt and
pain. Though he does not love his wife, her role as mother to his
children produces a degree of intimacy and compassion.  But disaster
strikes - all the children die early as does his wife. Shahbaz cannot
cope. He is gripped by the fear of death, by a consciousness of its
imminence. He is terrified at the prospect of dying alone. He suffers
an appalling nervous breakdown, attempts suicide and declines. Losing
all his vigour, passion and ambition he becomes the helpless prey of
local greed and is rapidly robbed of all property, the local priest
even helping himself to a share. What remains is the equivalent of the
village idiot.

But this is only half the story. In the cemetery Shahbaz has a second
chance - a damning irony this, that it should occur in a cemetery and
outside the control of 'village law' - to live, to be human, to escape
his loneliness and to recover his sexuality and to love again. In the
cemetery he meets Shogher, herself a victim of 'village law'. A
companionship, compassion, sexual attraction and love begins to
develop again for both. But tragedy is not far away.

Oshagan's artistry is revealed at every turn in this account of
Shahbaz's inner destruction, his subsequent recovery with Shogher and
his ultimate death.  Through a series of perceptive, finely cut
portraits and a flood of vivid metaphors and images he succeeds in
articulating those profoundest of emotions and sensations which, while
powerful enough to determine human action and mood, are nevertheless
rarely articulated in words. The description of the death of Shahbaz's
wife Anna, is a brilliant example. Describing just the content of a
glance of an eye or a single tear dropm Oshagan communicates the
entire agony and despair of an unlived life, of failed hope and dashed

Requiring the conscious grasp of sentence structure to infer meaning,
'Shahbaz' is like most of Oshagan's works, difficult to read. But once
one penetrates the meaning of a sentence, a paragraph or a page, there
unfolds a world of such wholeness - captured in all its dimensions -
as one rarely meets in literature. Is this fiction or reality one asks
- only to realise that it is life being enfolded by artistic

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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