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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 I. THE HUMBLE ONES 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. II. THE SHORT STORIES 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 wealth. 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 family... 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. III. THE LONGEST SHORT STORY 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 expectation. 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 imagination. -- 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.