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Why we should read... 'The Burning Orchards' by Gourgen Mahari (624pp, Yerevan, 1966) Armenian News Network / Groong July 14, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian A rude fate has been fashioned for Gourgen Mahari's (1903-1969) impressive 1966 novel of pre-1915 Armenian Van, capital of the historic Armenian province of Vasbourakan, set by the lake of the same name and now in Turkey. When it was first published, 'The Burning Orchards' fired furious controversy as its depiction of Van's Armenian revolutionary movement and its armed resistance to genocide offended both patriots and nationalists. Almost the entire Armenian and Diaspora intellectual and artistic elite rose up in vociferous protest. Mahari's last major work, one he regarded as his masterpiece and on which he had laboured since the 1930s was treated as outrageous blasphemy. Mahari was charged with grievously misrepresenting the Armenian resistance, of dishonouring the revolutionary movement that led it and of slandering its best representatives. So 'The Burning Orchards' was burnt in public and its author subjected to death threats. Intense hostility forced a dispirited and ill Mahari to radically rewrite the novel for its second edition. His critics however were not to be satisfied and long after his death they continue to wreak revenge on one of Armenia's most talented poets and novelists, a man of sturdy principle and enormous compassion who survived both the Armenian Genocide and Stalin's labour camps. Today Mahari's wife is abandoned, living isolated and in abject poverty in a cold Yerevan apartment. The case against Mahari is artistically and politically as groundless as the campaign against him is beyond any moral, political or intellectual justification. In a work of fiction, artistic integrity cannot sit besides vulgar or wanton falsification of historical truth. Had the charges levelled against Mahari's novel had any substance, these would inevitably be reflected in fatal aesthetic flaws. But the first edition of 'The Burning Orchards' withstands uncompromising scrutiny, aesthetic and political. Beautifully written, with an intensity of humour unusual even for the unrelentingly humorous Mahari, this novel presents a moving and comprehensive portrait of a community as it lives beneath the ominous shadows of an approaching calamity and resists murderous assault by hostile powers, in this instance the Young Turk government's army which, as part of its genocide against the Armenian people, attempted to slaughter Van's Armenian population. 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. Such merits put this novel alongside Yeroukhan's 'The Amira's Daugher', a masterly evocation of pre-1915 Armenian Istanbul and Charent's tragicomic remembrance of once Armenian Kars in 'The Land of Nairi'. 'The Burning Orchards' is not flawless but it is a work of art that reproduces real life in its varied richness. (This genre of artistic prose has a significant number of Armenian practitioners and is worthy of comment in and of itself.) An evaluation of this novel cannot bypass its political concerns. Mahari has a view and advances it angrily, sometimes with intemperate sarcasm. Yet his is not a slanderous but a critical examination of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in Van and its relation to the local population. In its politics it is a fictional attempt to go beyond the triumphant and self-congratulatory histories of Van in 1915 that have come to cloak a historic defeat - after all, despite escaping Genocide, the Armenian orchards of Van were burnt and its population forever expelled. That this novel was hounded out of the public arena is a reflection neither on its art or its politics but on the one-sided and underdeveloped nationalist consciousness of most, though not all, of Mahari's critics. I. THE CITY, THE MERCHANTS AND THE PEOPLE Mahari brings Armenian Van to sparkling life through the story of four Muratkhanian brothers and through the relationships between Van's leading merchants and the leadership of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). Merchants large and small, artisans, farmers, Armenian revolutionaries, intellectuals, Turkish colonial officials and police, Young Turk political activists, wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, dissolute sons, adventurous young boys and many more are brought together in dynamic coexistence. Through the accumulation of telling descriptions and observations and through the unfolding plot the novel becomes a sort of monument that reconstructs a lost world and gives it durability and solidity by etching into it those dreams, joys, fears and feelings of universal life itself. Time and place, feel and mood, atmosphere and tradition, local adages and wisdom are conjured in beautifully poetic descriptions not just of men and women but of places and nature, of domestic homes, shops, cafes and casinos, eating houses, Churches, schools, libraries and monasteries that together defined Armenian Van in the first 15 years of the 20th century. Dominated by a group of wealthy merchants around whom are clustered smaller traders, shop keepers, artisans, craftsmen and labourers Van's provincialism is underlined by contrast with cosmopolitan Istanbul where the ambitious Hampo Muratkhanian falls victim to venereal disease. The town's rural hinterland features in the story of another brother, the well to do farmer Mkho Muratkhanian. The social mores of the age can be divined by descriptions of the subordinate position of women expressed sharply by Ohanness Agha Muratkhanian, the eldest of the clan, who remarks to himself - 'what is a girl? A lamp for a stranger's home, a pillar for a foreign abode.' For all its expansive and sometimes sprawling plot 'The Burning Orchards' has a unifying thread in the tensions and clashes between Van's leading Armenian merchants and the revolutionary movement as the Young Turks begin to lay siege to Armenian Van. Mahari's characterisation of the merchant class is witty, withering and perceptive. Simon Agha, a one time street trader: 'with dexterous footwork skirted thorns in his path, with quick fingers seized whatever he could, with skilful tongue cheated as much as he could and with inconceivable dexterity overwhelmed those who commanded influence in the market. `He approached them with care, sycophantically at first. Getting closer he smiled, often assuming a pathetic, helpless appearance. Eventually he stood by their side and walked along with them. And when things went well for him he took a step back and struck his colleagues from the back. Many were ruined unable to withstand the bold assaults of a will tempered by poverty and misery. As the years rolled on and slipped by, many who once enjoyed status and name in the market disappeared into the mist and dust, and from within this mist and dust smiled Simon Agha - bent forward, eyes always focused on his worry beads but still seeing everything.' Most prominent among the merchants is the brilliantly portrayed Ohannes Muratkhanian who measures everything, whether it is his daughter's marriage, the revolutionary movement or patriotism, in terms of its contribution to enhancing his own personal wealth. As the Young Turks lay siege to Armenian Van, having looted and burnt the town's commercial district they prepare to slaughter its Armenian population. Responding Ohanness merely bemoans the loss of his property asking 'what sort of motherland' he is in. To objections he retorts 'keep it for yourself, this motherland of the impoverished and the hungry `if only I had converted my wealth into gold and left.'(p507-508). After all 'was it not Simon Agha or Panos Agha who said "what motherland! The motherland is where the bread is" (p611-612). Later when the Young Turk siege is lifted Ohanness Agha acquires a new lease on life and begins cooking up new schemes for making money. Strolling through his orchards 'looking there' at the pear tree where he had buried his gold 'he felt himself to be healthier than ever and even omnipotent.' (p574) But as Russian troops retreat from Van, unable to further withstand the Young Turk offensive, the Armenians prepare evacuate the city. Ohannes grieves but only in passing. He can already see prospects of prosperous business in far away Tbilisi. Needless to say Mahari while depicting Ohannes in his social role also recognises in him a complex humanity, one 'however that he has no wish to occupy' himself with being 'a poor swimmer in that deep and bottomless, that clear, yet and at the same time murky sea whose name is Ohannes Muratkhanian.' (p556-7) The expert dissection of the merchant elite's attitude to life, politics, nationalism and war runs together with a vibrant depiction of ordinary life as it was lived before and during the siege of Van. The reader is not insulted by tedious and unreal images of flawless men and women who in the name of 'the motherland' or some bombastic patriotic slogan applaud the blood, suffering, destruction and death of war. Here there are no romantic heroes pressed from some super-human and morally sanitized mould. All more or less well-developed characters are recognisably human in their vices and their virtues. Circumstance and people never spring out before us as fully-fledged or as unchanging entities and the impending crisis unfolds as a process, through the development of the relations and the actions of the characters. The population as a whole is at first largely untouched and even indifferent to the approaching threat. News of deportations in other parts of the country only gradually filters into Van, while the Young Turk noose tightens almost imperceptibly. Two senior ARF leaders are murdered, as is Ohanness Agha's friend Simon. Then comes the looting of Armenian stores, shops and warehouses in the town's commercial district and the quarantining of the Armenian residential quarters. Mahari's detail and account, with deft expertise, shows why popular perceptions of any cataclysmic event do not and cannot grasp its full enormity at the outset. The tragedy is felt only through the development of the process, only after the accumulation of initially small and apparently accidental and transitory incidents of want, thirst, destruction, suffering and death. Initially people continue to live in a 'normal' way, hoping for problems to pass. Only slowly will the realisation dawn that these will multiply into terrifying tragedy. Startling passages capture people's altering, war torn, perceptions of Van's natural beauty, its fruit, its birds, its orchards, its abandoned gardens and burnt out shops. 'From the first day of the fighting, life and spring were thrown from their normal groove into the devil knows where. It was Spring, but it wasn't spring. Men lived in a season that was not spring, but neither was it summer, autumn or winter. People lived now as if outside the four seasons.' (p519) Profoundly authentic descriptions suggest the mood, dedication and determination of fighters at the barricades (p494-499). Scenes of a patriotic speaker being heckled about the whereabouts of Haik Nahabet, the mythical founder of the Armenian nation are marvellously funny in their realistic grasp of popular perceptions of the revolutionary movement. On the lifting of the siege, the exuberance, the relief, the sense of triumph, the joy of having escaped the extermination is captured almost palpably in its social and psychological aspect. As Turkish troops retreat; 'There arose a wild Hittite, Khaltian and Urartian rejoicing as Van celebrated victory late into the night. Caskets of wine were opened, the wealthy got drunk on wine and ouzo whilst even before daybreak those who had nothing began to move towards the abandoned Turkish quarters.' (p562) Yet celebrations were overlain by bitterness. Mahari's descriptions of scenes of the slaughter of those trapped outside the city's Armenian quarters are heartrending. These are followed by some of the most moving passages of the volume that tell of the final evacuation of the city, the termination of all hope, the extinguishing of a whole community. Together with the story of Van's defence, its early victory and final evacuation Mahari brings to a conclusion the individual stories of the Muratkhanian family. Hampo has already died of VD in Istanbul, Mkho is murdered before the siege. Ohaness, the sole survivor, prepares to leave for other lands inspired with hope of profitable trade, while his younger brother Kevork, the alcoholic ex-teacher come revolutionary charlatan, dies a useless death at the barricades. The entirety is moving, powerful and evocative, salvaging the history of a time, the memory of men and women and something of the experience of life. II. THE POLITICS AND ITS CRITICS For all its other qualities 'The Burning Orchards' is also an intensely political novel about the relationship between population and revolutionary political organisation. Mahari could not avoid politics. Despite escaping genocide, the Armenians of Van were forced from their historic homeland. The town they left behind, rich with century upon century of Armenian culture and civilisation, with its monuments and institutions, was in many instances literally buried and annihilated. Van had been the heart of the modern Armenian liberation movement and its annihilation represented not just this movement's defeat but the final destruction of historical Armenia too. To tell this story of Van with any artistic or historic depth, Mahari had to go beyond ritualised celebrations of armed resistance. It is this that Mahari's opponents cannot stomach, for it questions prevailing and limited versions of modern Armenian history. Rather than deal with the novel's art and politics Mahari's critics suppressed these by spinning a web of malicious, fabricated and untenable charges. A recent view by Stefan Topchian's quoted in Marc Nshanian's essay on Mahari (Writers of Disaster, p104) can be considered representative: 'We can see here how the impossible had happened: the historical facts had been vulgarised, they had been distorted to the point of being unrecognisable. The entire course of history, even the meaning of this history, was tarnished. The road to freedom and the martyrs had been turned into a bloody road where the martyrs' blood was spilled in vain. The martyrs had been ridiculed. Only a Turk could pass judgement on our history this way, when in actual fact the one who was passing judgement was an Armenian writer.' It takes a heavy load of prejudiced preconception and a brazen disregard for the text to arrive at these conclusions! Even a casual perusal of the text shows that Gourgen Mahari was far more sophisticated than his opponents. A. The Criticism of The ARF and The Armenian Liberation Movement Mahari does not target the Armenian revolutionary movement or the ARF as a whole. He offers rather a critical evaluation of a precise period of the ARF's history in Van, a period that stretches from 1908 to 1915. The critique of this very particular period unfolds through its systematic contrast with what is presented as a healthier pre-1896 era of the revolutionary movement which, although dominated by the Armenakan party, included its ARF and Social Democratic Hnchak Party (Hnchak) wings. Before 1896 'men like Avetissian (the Armenakan - EA), Bedo (the ARF member- EA) and Mardik (the Hnchak leader - EA) were shining lights' who 'never raised a hand against other Armenians' and who did not try and 'arm the people by force.' Though this glorious age of '96 has gone 'a new 96 will return'. But it cannot be brought about artificially, it must be an organic process developing from within. One must not force the pace, the 'people must arm themselves' and for this it is 'first necessary to win time'(p103). Throughout the novel the virtues the pre-'96' movement stand as criticisms of the post-1896 ARF that is charged with failing to develop local roots and with resorting to sectarianism, corruption and political assassination. Depicted as high-handed and frequently ignorant of and offensive to local tradition and need, the ARF are seen as outsiders. They 'speak Armenian' but it is 'another kind of Armenian' (p141). The ARF are regarded as 'interlopers' who usurp the position of the indigenous Armenakans by means of a bitter and sometimes bloody internecine conflict. During the Battle of Van the appointment of veteran Armenakan, Armenag Yegarian, as military leader receives popular acclaim for unlike ARF leader Aram Manoukian, Yegarian is a local man, familiar with its people and its needs. 'The Burning Orchards' also takes the ARF to task for its overall political vision. Diaspora-based, it is shown to have little or no understanding of the conditions of the people in historic Armenia (p175-176). In place of a serious strategy it offered cheap romantic poetry and vacuous sloganeering (p290, 311). At one point ARF leader Aram, who, though the butt of much sarcasm, is also depicted with some subtlety, considers the possibility that: 'these songs show that our strategy is hopeless. People who speak endlessly of the need to die for victory generally die but do not win.'(p289) Referring to the alliance with the Young Turks in 1908 the ARF is charged with playing 'at constitutional politics'. In 1908 'priest and mullah kissed, the Armenian and the Turk swore eternal friendship'. But the promise of friendship was 'all a lie, all a lie. Sheep remained sheep and the wolf remained a wolf.' (p198) Deluded by 1908 the ARF was in 1915 ill-prepared. Once the siege of Van has begun, Hagop Agha remarks ironically: 'The Turkish government accuses us of importing arms from Russia for use in a generalised uprising'. Now having collected together all our weapons it appears that we have more fighters than old fashioned firearms. What was all the fuss and bother from the ARF leaders about? (p523) In setting out this critique Mahari may sometimes stray beyond the bounds of propriety. But it remains within the terms of a legitimate and continuing debate. The Ottoman massacres of 1896 did destroy a whole swathe of the Armenian population of historic Armenia that together with the killing of 600 fighters retreating from Van devastated an emerging and indigenous revolutionary movement in the heart of Armenia. The ARF's emergence thereafter as the dominant force in the movement was accompanied by sectarian and fratricidal clashes. Its subsequent negotiations and alliance with the Young Turks in 1908 did lead to the disarmament of the revolutionary movement seriously diminishing the Armenian capacity to resist genocide. Among historians considering such issues are Garo Sassouni, a leading member of the ARF, Antranig Chelebian as well as prominent soviet and post-Soviet era historians such a Hratchig Simonian, Raffik Hovanissian, A. S. Vartanian and many others. Within this critical context Mahari's evaluation of the 1915 armed resistance to genocide is nevertheless unquestionably positive. B. The Resistance in 1915 Those critics are wrong or simply wilfully deceiving who chastise Mahari for neglecting or slandering the armed resistance in Van. Whatever his critique. it does no dishonour to the men and women of all parties including the ARF, who braved an empire fighting for their lives, their community and their city. Mahari's art takes us beyond customary hackneyed and one-sided perceptions. Not artificially sealing off fighters and their military engagements from the everyday life of the community 'The Burning Orchards' presents a deeply authentic depiction of war and resistance as one and not an exclusive moment, however traumatic, in the overall flow of life. Though not about armed resistance, armed resistance does in fact occupy a prominent place in the last third of the novel and particularly in chapters 20, 21 and 22. Here, once battle commences there is an immediately discernable easing of Mahari's vitriolic sarcasm and vengeful satire even against Kevork Muratkhanian, that errant alcoholic who, strutting round the city, does nothing but bring disgrace on all revolutionaries. Suddenly there is a degree of generosity for the movement, one that nevertheless makes no concessions to the earlier critique. Mahari has no time for the ARF leadership. But he takes no comfort whatsoever in the treacherous murder of two of its leaders - Ishkhan and Vramyan. Similarly, despite cutting barbs against the Hnchak party leadership (p337-338) 'the news of (their) 'arrest penetrated every home and heart like a bitterly cold wind. People were overawed with fear.' (p430) As fighting engulfs the city, passionate and sometimes lyrical passages (p491 et al) record courage and bravery in what is described by the author himself as a 'harsh' but 'heroic battle' (p494) that marks a new: 'era - where there was no Tashnak, no Hnchak, no Armenakan. There was only the fighting and battling citizen of Van and one Armenag Yegarian, and that without his Armenakanness.' P532) Thus united into a single solid mass, irrespective of party label or passed misdeed, the army of the Empire: 'could not breach the circle of Armenian defence, there was no weak link - the denizen of Van was fighting one against ten, yesterday's peaceful civilians were today engaged in combat against regular government forces.' (p532) III. MORALS, LOVE, POLITICS AND ARMENIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS To discredit Mahari's politics by other means some critics pretended moral outrage at his treatment of the ARF cadre and particularly of Aram, who besides being depicted as an ineffectual personality, is shown to have an affair with his landlord's wife. But it is to Mahari's artistic credit that he treats revolutionaries as human beings with their proportionate share of human passions and their share too of poseurs, decadents and philistines. Are revolutionary leaders really beyond affairs outside the bounds of marriage? 'The Burning Orchards' also remains within the frame of historic truth in showing revolutionaries living lives relatively isolated from the community and propelled by different needs and interests. Given that even the leadership did not anticipate catastrophe it is hardly surprising that they would to some extent devote a great deal of time to non-political activities. Here 'The Burning Orchards' demonstrates an unrivalled grasp of the real relationship between a revolutionary movement and the people on whose behalf it claims to work. Only in moments of extreme political tension such as an uprising does the population and the organised movement come together as a single force, as it did in Van in 1915. Outside of such times the relationship is more distant, complicated and fraught with difficulties. This truth is proved also by the experience of Asian, African and Latin American movements. There is nevertheless an unquestionably major weakness that scars this otherwise outstanding novel. Mahari's satire is frequently vengeful, vitriolic and one-sided. The dominant personalities defining the ARF are the buffoon-like Kevork, the venal Mihran and its three leaders Aram, Ishkhan and Vramyan who together suggest the post-1908 ARF was absolutely nothing more than a grouping of unsavoury opportunists and fortune hunters. The forgiving features of Vramyan, the complexity of Aram or the virtue of some marginal characters cannot compensate for this unlicensed exaggeration. For, after all the indubitable disasters, the ARF leadership was responsible for the overwhelming majority of revolutionary activists who joined the movement, and who were dedicated and honest people. Furthermore, elements of this leadership, despite its catastrophic errors, did in certain circumstances and at certain times play a vital and valuable role even after the fatal alliance with the Young Turks. A rounded picture would contain this truth too. By denuding all post-1896 revolutionaries of any and all honesty or principle Mahari seriously diminishes the power of his critique. Compounding this is the fact that a great deal of Mahari's criticism is reflected through the perceptions of merchants who were not representative of the mass of population about whose attitudes he has little to say. These errors are somewhat redeemed by the honourable, or at least honest or well-intentioned role assigned even to the likes of Kevork during the armed uprising. But such redemption leads into a deeper artistic morass. For in terms of the novel's characterisation of the ARF cadre prior to the uprising, it is inconceivable how they then participated in it honourably. Unquestionably this weakness leaves a sour impression on imagination, intellect and emotion, even of those who have no sympathy for the ARF. It is one thing to ruthlessly criticise the ARF and its leadership. It is another to express unreasoned contempt for the individuals within the movement who joined for the best and most honourable of motives and even gave their lives. As a historical novel 'The Burning Orchards' is also marred by its inadequate treatment of Armenian-Turkish relations. There is a provincialism and parochialism in the suggestion that Armenian-Turkish hostilities in Van had no real local roots and were determined rather by forces external to the community - the Young Turks from Istanbul and the ARF from Tbilisi or Geneva. Van and nearby Mush and Sassoon formed the heartland of historic Armenia and was the bedrock of the 19th and early 20th century national liberation movement. It stood as a threat not just to the Ottoman state in Istanbul but to its local representatives in historic Armenia who were a component part of the Turkish nationalist elite enviously eying Armenian land, property and wealth in Van too. On the other hand the so-called 'interloping' Armenian political leaders were in fact part of a nationwide Armenian movement of which Van was but a component, albeit one of the most important. Here their perception as interlopers in part reflects dangerous provincialism of Armenian life at the time. This aspect is alas not evident in 'The Burning Orchards'. Parallel with this however is a sure grasp of the essentially reactionary character Young Turk movement shown to be eliminating an older generation of Turkish political leaders and replacing them with younger, extreme chauvinist and xenophobic nationalists. Mahari is alert to the irony that these murderous nationalists who planned the genocide were European educated and generous in flaunting liberal poses and pretensions. He is also conscious however that they did not represent the Turkish people as a whole. Differentiating between them he writes that: 'It crossed Mihran's mind that the Turks have beautiful and heartrending songs. It is simple, indeed more than simple that Sultan Abdul Hamid was not the author of the Turkish peoples' songs, neither was Khdrig, or Djevtet pasha. It is humble and nameless men who turn the tone of their heart into song. They sigh with the sigh of their heart and that sigh is transformed into wonderous song.' (p279) None of these or other strengths and weaknesses however lay behind the campaign against Mahari and his book. 'The Burning Orchards' were burnt once again because it challenged received wisdom and received opinion, it challenged a prevalent mythological history of Van and Armenian nationalism that failed to account for the destruction of historic Van and that blocked any critical examination of the weaknesses and failures of the Armenian revolutionary movement. Why such an uncritical history came to predominate is the subject for another comment. But light is cast on the issue by novelist Mushegh Kalshoyan, who in a Soviet era essay defending the need for open discussion of the 1915 Genocide and the Armenian liberation movement asked rhetorically: 'Is it not the case that national narrow mindedness and nationalist pomposity begins exactly at the point when people are ignorant of their history, when they suffer a loss of memory. The prohibition of discussion of the Armenian liberation movement and the 1915 genocide for a whole period of Soviet Armenia's existence played its role in sustaining ignorance and fashioning a one-sided and distorted national consciousness. In the Diaspora, sectarian hostilities between Armenian political formations had the same effect. Gourgen Mahari's 'The Burning Orchards' contributes not only to recovering the lost world of Armenian Van and its people but serves also to jolt our historical memories. -- 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.