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The Critical Corner - 10/04/2006

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Why we should read...                                                        

`Longing' by Anahit Sahinian
(Selected Works in 3 Volumes, Volume 2, 496pp, Yerevan, 1988)

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

October 4, 2006 
				  I.

`Longing' is the second volume of Anahit Sahinian's trilogy of Soviet
Armenian life that stretches from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The
main stage has now moved from the `Crossroads' of urban Yerevan (see
ANN/Groong - The Critical Corner, 24 May 2005) to rural Armenia.
Sahinian here constructs a panoramic overview fixed with rich detail,
particularity and authentic characters. It is this that gives
`Longing' an enduring quality of illuminating and critical insight
into the lives of the men and women and of the era it depicts.
Outraged Soviet apparatchiks blocked its publication for a full 8
years demanding that the author accept editorial damage to the
novel. Sahinian's refusal has enriched both art and history.
 
`Longing' takes us into the world of the Armenian peasantry during the
Stalinist land collectivisation campaigns and the purges of the 1930s.
There we meet real people who possess real complexity and who, despite
Party rhetoric, live lives fashioned by past traditions often powerful
enough to bend even those who sought to breach them. Relations between
the Communist Party and the peasant are not those of saccharine
harmony and socialist solidarity asserted in bad Soviet history and
art. We meet not just wealthy peasants who are hostile to party policy,
but the poor too, who, for whatever reason, resist collectivisation
and resent privileges enjoyed by party leaders. We note tension
between party leaders proclaiming a militant atheism and peasants
reluctant to do away with their God and priest. We feel the fear as
the purges take their toll, are moved by the hardships of everyday
life, shocked by the routine abuse of women and appalled by the
treachery and deception of party cadre in the service of their
personal ambition.
 
As it unfolds, the tangled story of Maro and Souren tells also of the
desolation of those whose lives have turned out to be a wasted
endeavour, it tells of the incurable ache of a lifetime of unfulfilled
love, of the hardships of social dislocation, of the barrenness of
isolated old age and of the tragedy of existence denuded of ambition
and hope. But the novel is also a story of unbreakable spirits and
particularly of triumphant women in a male dominated society.
Throughout, Sahinian touches the uniqueness of individuals so often
reduced to an anonymous component of the mass. At its end the
`Longing' of the title comes to embody that eternal yearning for life
to be beyond the enervating trial and tribulation that so often
accompany its everyday.
 
Though with fewer passages of poetic flight than `Crossroads',
`Longing' has the same authentic command over the flow life. However,
dialogue that is frequently in a difficult vernacular, though it gives
the novel an element of local and historical colour, creates obstacles
to our comprehension today and inhibits the grasp of character
development. There are in addition flaws of construction and a good
deal of deviation and verbosity. But persisting beyond the periods of
tedium repays.
 

				 II.

In a reconstruction that reveals with precise nuances and shadings
truths of class, party and community relations, Sahinian portrays
something of the brutal reality of Stalinist land collectivisation.
Its victims were not just the better-off peasants but the poorest too
condemned, ostracised and expelled, falling victim to arbitrary power,
personal vendettas or other unjust calculation. Some of the better off
were indeed hated for their greed and their grasping. But others,
separated from the poorest only by a hair's breadth and a bit of luck,
were respected and admired for the helping hand they extended to the
community. Despite the official proclamations of `irreconcilable class
antagonisms', `Longing' also reveals bonds of human solidarity that
did exist between the poor and some of the alleged profiteers
earmarked for deportation. So for example at a mass meeting when
peasants oppose proposals to expel Nazaret Vartumian:

    `Oh, oh, oh, true we have seen nothing good from them. But have
    pity on them... their mother and father lost the light of their
    eyes and now go about scraping against walls... the older boy is
    good for nothing...' (p90)
 
Even within party ranks there disquiet in the face of proposed
deportations:

    `What are you saying Souren? Throw men, their women and children
    out of their homes in winter, throw them out into the snow and say
    `Go!''? (p83)
 
Despite protest, collectivisation remorselessly rakes away its
victims. In Sahinian's depiction of the process that has a great deal
of historical authenticity, the Communist Party does not emerge at all
well. It appears as an unfamiliar, unwanted urban intrusion accepted
only on account of its unchallengeable power. Even as it recruits from
among the locals, it remains remote, an instrument of external
authority that does not understand local circumstance. Party members
enjoy privileges not available to the mass. They eat meat and drink
brandy whilst planning to confiscate `everything the kulaks have'
including all their food (p101). Writing with humour Sahinian tells
how:

    `Eventually in the collective stables `mine and yours' vanished as
    equality was proclaimed. All animals were watered or left thirsty,
    fed or not, as the case may be, all together, all equally...until
    that is the red stallion was isolated and pronounced to be the
    president's.
 
    From then onwards Vaska was put in an individual and privileged
    position...Grass was never short for him. The others may or may
    not receive water. Vaska always did. (p140)
 
Souren, then local party chief, becomes the proud owner of this animal,
`not a horse but a dream'.
 
As the story wends its way through the village it highlights the
immense conservatism that prevailed. Despite the revolution people
cling to old ways, to the old religion, to old mores and relations
between men and women. Reverences for the wealthy and the powerful
retain force though they are now expressed more frequently in
relations to the Party leadership. Souren is respected in a sort of
love-hate relationship forced upon villagers by their involuntary
dependence on the party apparatus for seed, grain and emergency help.
 

				 III.

Drama and tension mount as Souren is isolated and eventually falls
from grace. Though we are not sure why, relations between local
leaders reach breaking point. There is a stand off and Souren is
defeated, `promoted' out of the village. Thereafter at a tense pace
Sahinian takes us through the late 1930s, the great purges, the murder
of Aghasi Khanjian and the trials and tribulations of the Second World
War. The mood of terrible helplessness in the face of the Stalinist
state power that appeared incomprehensible and beyond challenge is
palpable.
 
`The ninth wave thundered down' writes Sahinian, `dragging along yet
another list of names ` Bukharin, Rykov, Yakir... all right-wing
Trotskyists, terrorists, spies, fifth columnists' (p312) - all
earmarked for annihilation. In the author's company we attend frenzied
party meetings to hear accusations and counter-accusations and witness
back-stabbings and treachery as atomised individuals fight for
survival against erstwhile comrades now indifferent or even hostile
and with help only from loved ones who care. Alongside the public
spectacle we are also shown private anguish - Souren's mother fearing
for her son's future as he too is dragged into the vortex.
 
Souren is arrested. Saved from execution, he volunteers for the army
and despite himself ends up a hero in the French resistance. But this
offers no respite. When their returning train arrives at the Soviet
border:

    `For a long while they did not understand what storm had rushed
    in. They disarmed them all and removed all their insignia and
    their decorations. From the border the train changed direction, no
    more towards the east but the extreme north. Goodbye
    freedom. (p335)
 
Reflecting the real experience of tens-of-thousands of post-war
returnee ex-prisoners of war Souren then spends more of his life in
camps or in exile.
 
Though he occupies a pivotal role in Sahinian's examination of the
rotten timber of Soviet society, Souren's character is artistically
flawed. At points his growing emotional and psychological weariness is
charted well. But, largely he remains opaque, an enigma lacking an
inner world, at any rate until the novel's conclusion. Unless
psychotic, for which there is no textual evidence, much of his
behaviour is incomprehensible. If however Souren was to be judged
psychotic, the novel would also lose something of its force. Souren in
this case could not then be considered authentically representative of
the thousands of middle level ordinary and decent men and women who
became party members and whose tragedy he personifies.
 
Souren's treatment of Maro does reflect rural misogyny, even within
Party ranks. But beyond this he seems also to suffer a touch of
misanthropic viciousness. There seems no ground for his unrelentingly
dour mood and his rages against his mother. A self-proclaimed
socialist and man of the people he seems nevertheless to lack any
sense of human generosity and compassion. He refuses for example to
permit the collective's horse and cart to be used transport a sick man
to hospital and punishes another official who does. Fortunately, this
inadequate construction of Souren is balanced out and is prevented
from collapsing by his depiction during novel's conclusion and more
importantly by the presence of the more rounded Maro.
 

				 III.

Sahinian does not shy away from exposing the routine and wanton
violence women were subjected to in rural society (p86, 92). But she
does so through characters that are or become conscious of their
condition and have a will to resist. Explaining why she turned down
one offer of marriage Maro remarks that the man:

    `wanted me...he used to say `my wife has died, I have no one to
    clean my home, no one to light my stove, come, let me take you and
    install you as my housewife. (p393-4).
 
In another scene, only when outside her own home can a young bride:

    `breath in some air, drink some water and come alive for an hour
    or two, before later having to return and enter the grave.' (p371)
 
But these women are not victims. If the earlier portions of the book
record Souren's rise and fall the latter part tells a stirring tale of
Maro's resistance, recovery and triumph. Unlike Souren who is
fashioned by circumstance, is its product and victim, his life ironed
into shape by others, Maro is active and shapes her own existence
taking circumstances into account but never passively yielding to
them. Maro clearly inherits something of the unruly defiance of her
mother who, with no regard for power or authority, would at any
opportunity `open her bagful of swears and curses to hurl handfuls to
her left and right' (p91).
 
Amidst a patriarchal Armenia wracked by political and social upheaval,
the Stalinist purges, the destruction of WWII and the reconstruction
thereafter, Maro is ever irrepressible refusing to be ground down
despite personal grief, despite a loveless marriage and despite her
undying passion for Souren who is now beyond reach (357-8). Here, as
she does throughout, Sahinian evokes vividly local rural mores (p368),
the helpless sexual innocence of rural people and the painful absence
Maro feels for the lack of passion in the man to whom she has been
married (p365).
 
Maro's is the story of ingenuity and triumph in the face of universal
odds. As people survived by resort to petty trade, the black-market
and bribery and through social solidarity in hard times (p354, 384-5,
390), it is also the story of women's experience wherever war is the
order of the day. Maro comes into her own during the war when men were
away at the front, demonstrating endless energy and initiative,
intelligence and will to overcome and to successfully care for family
and friends (p374-375). Following the war the same qualities of
energy, enthusiasm and initiative lead to undreamed of levels of
prosperity and contentment (p347) for Maro and her family as she
renovates and modernises her home and obtains all the latest fashions
and mod cons including the most up to date bathroom from abroad.
 
In the account of post-war recovery we also meet many people earlier
exiled as kulaks or counter-revolutionaries now become factory workers
in Yerevan. What was meted out as punishment proved to be good fortune
that secured them and their children a better future. `Longing' also
registers other signs of the beginning of the post-Stalinist economic,
social and cultural recovery with references among other things to the
rehabilitation of Armenian novelist Raffi. Meanwhile, and perhaps
significantly, throughout the Soviet Union even old aristocrats types
such as Natalia, whom Souren marries when in Russian exile, recover
some of their privilege in an account that hints at the emergence of a
new post-war privileged Soviet elite.
 
Sahinian's presentation, with its enthusiastic depiction of Maro's and
her family's pleasure, comfort and contentment, suggest a positive
evaluation and optimistic vision of the direction of post-war,
post-Stalin Soviet Armenian society. But the novel here can also be
read as perhaps a more damning indictment of the Stalin legacy than
anything that focussed on the Stalin years themselves. In Maro's
strivings that so dominate the narrative we cannot fail to note a
triumphant spirit of apolitical individualism and a consumerist ethos
not very different to that, which existed in the west. Also
significant here is the pivotal role of the nuclear family with Maro's
vision and concerns rarely ranging beyond. Here `Longing' unavoidably
suggests a judgement of the Stalin years as a burial ground for the
collective, social and egalitarian vision that had inspired its
thousands of activist victims such as Souren who in contrast to Maro
now end life collapsed into a heap of disil
 

				 IV.

Such is the setting for a tear-jerking conclusion that depicts the
closing years of what Souren painfully feels to have been a wasted
life. He revisits his old village but only to feel the bitterness, the
loneliness and even despair of many who suffered from 1937 purges. He
recognises no one, with the exception of someone he never got on
with. Near the old Church he overhears galling accusations as the
young condemn those like himself who in the 1930s had wrecked
religious artistic monuments.
 
In Yerevan Souren is deemed too old to work. Pensioned off he has
nothing left to live for, no social function, no family, no children,
no grandchildren. Sahinian's depiction is deft. So is her capacity for
observation and her perception:

    `He is already old; accept that you are old. For better or for
    worse, wisely or foolishly you have squandered your life. Now you
    sit waiting for death. People have covered you over. They have put
    bread on your table, eat and wait...the door has closed on you.
    Have no hope that someone will knock and come in. But go out so
    long as you have breath in you, it is better you die on the
    street, people will see you, they will then react.' (p474)

Souren's only respite are pensioners who gather in a local park known
as their `Club' where they endlessly chew over a past that can never
be substitutes for real life. Only Maro really cares for him, feeling
the still warm embers of the unfulfilled love of their younger days.
 
As `Longing ends Souren's inability to adjust to post-war life and
Maro's ruing of a lost love that lurks as endless sadness beneath her
always smiling and well-garmented exterior capture vividly the urge to
life, the emotion and sensibility for the passing of time, for lost
opportunity and the very mystery of being, of happiness and suffering
in life that seems always all to short.
 

--
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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