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The Critical Corner - 04/13/2010

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Why we should read...

`The Dark Valley: Short Stories by Aksel Bakunts
(Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi, 149pp, 2008, Taderon  Press, London)

Part One: An  artistic history of the Armenian peasantry

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 13, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian


I. THE ART OF THE DARK VALLEY
  
`Almost untouched and wild' Aksel Bakunts's (1899-1937) Dark Valley
resembles `one of those forgotten places from an era when mankind did
not exist and the fossilised dinosaur felt as free as the bear does in
our days (p13, p140)'. It was from within the villages of this valley
nestled in remote mountainous regions of eastern Armenia that Bakunts
fashioned this, his first, volume of short stories. Published in 1927
they unearth dramas of maimed lives, deep sorrows, lost loves, wounded
spirits and sad remembrances, the artistic excellence of which is
conveyed in this ample English translation by Nairi Hakhverdi that
adds to that fine body of Armenian literature being made available to
English readers by Taderon Press and its associates at the Gomidas
Institute.

Novelist Anahit Sahinyan who demanded the highest standards for
translated literature found wanting even Hovanness Toumanian's
Armenian renditions of Pushkin, generally judged to be as near to
perfection as possible.  `Whatever Toumanian has translated', she
insisted `certainly offers the Armenian reader a taste of poetry, but
it is not that of Puskhin's, it is Toumanian's.'  (p148) If this be
the standard and so it should, then Nairi Hakhverdi's English
translation of Bakunts is a significant accomplishment. Though not
flawless, many of its lapses are technical rather than artistic. So it
succeeds in taking us almost seamlessly into Bakunts's fictional
world.

Giving us a sense of Bakunts's creative energy, his craft and his
technique, Nairi reproduces something of the scientific precision of
prose, the apt use of words, the graphic images and metaphors, the
defining detail and the poetic evocation of the original.

The best stories from `The Dark Valley' have indeed the quality of
fine poetry - brief but intense encounters with experience that is
grasped with revealing intensity. In just a few pages Bakunts presses
so much passion, so much love, pain, woe and bewilderment and so heavy
a shadow of regret and melancholy that has been the life of his
protagonists. His work is also

revolutionary and that in a deeper sense than is suggested by Bakunts'
support for Soviet power. With persuasive art he reveals the roots of
human woe not in inescapable flaws of human nature but in socially
constructed and therefore alterable relations.  Lives in the Dark
Valley are repeatedly distorted, bent, torn and snapped and the
spirits of men and women felled by repressive relations, by women's
servitude, by class exploitation and by the elite's conduct of war, as
well as by prejudice and superstition the wounds of which lie open on
almost every page of this volume.

In `The Dark Valley' that gives the volume its title, Avi's
grotesquely disfigured head and face is the result of a duel against a
wild bear that he is forced to undertake by a savage and sadistic
guard protecting the wood of the forest for its feudal landlord. In
`Vand's Badi' the haunting figure of a grieving father is fashioned by
the brutal state execution of his innocent son radicalised during the
war. The story of Tall Markar's personal tragedy, the death of his
wife and his subsequent emotional and personal recovery all flow from
the bitter realities of Young Turk state organised genocide.

Bakunts enables us to witness with deep empathy the experience and
sensibilities not just of the men and women, but of all living
creatures, of bears and birds, horses, dogs, lizards and worms and of
plant life too, of flowers and trees and shrubs. He does sometimes
falter with forced metaphors, invented as if to boast verbal
dexterity, rather than communicate content. But beyond exceptions
there dominates even in translation a particular quality of naturalism
free of redundant reproduction assumed to be the flaw of this genre.
If there is photographic quality, it is of photography as art, of
substance critically observed and recreated rather than of appearance
copied. Put, as it were into the skin and fold of people living in
almost indecipherable proximity with nature even the most hardened
city dweller will experience a sense of existence not marred by the
many dislocations of urban life. Further, encounters with protagonists
who are at one with themselves and with nature invite attention to
possibilities of existence free of the ugly consumerism peddled as an
escape from 21st century alienation.

Remote though it is, the Dark Valley is nevertheless fixed into the
world of 19th and early 20th century Tsarist occupied Armenia and so
is battered by the tides of World War I, the Genocide, Russian
Revolution and Soviet power. Reflecting their impact Bakunts's work
forms in addition a unique chapter in that artistic book of the
eastern Armenian peasantry created by novelists and poets such as
Khatchadour Abovian, Berj Broshian, Ghazaros Aghayan, Muratzan,
Hovanness Toumanian and others. Written prior to the triumph of
Stalinism, with subtle accuracy Bakunts illuminates the reticent, even
ambivalent albeit not entirely hostile attitude of the Armenian
peasantry to the 1917 Russian revolution.

II. The Darkness of the Valley Bent on destroying Bakunts and his
comrades at the behest the rapidly degenerating Soviet elite Stalinist
hacks rounded on Bakunts with claims that he idealised
pre-revolutionary rural life. There is however in fact nothing idyllic
about the Dark Valley. On the contrary, the lives to which Bakunts
introduces us testify to endemic backwardness and unending state
exploitation. The Dark Valley is dark not because of any romanticised
geographic isolation but because it exists impoverished, backward and,
critically, outside the mainstream of urban life and of the more
familiar rural world of the Ararat plains. (Note 1) On any `peaceful
working day no one in the city would have thought twice about the
village that lay behind the mountains' for after all Uncle Dilan,
Sandukht, Peti, Tall Markar and Sakan among others are neither primary
providers of food for the cities nor a source of significant wealth or
tax. Humble people they eke out a living on marginal land where
`unequal fight(s) between man and beast' (p16) are common and where if
land `is not tilled for two years, the forest will swallow (it) up' or
a sudden `flood from the mountains' will wipe out an entire village
(p34).

Ever alert to the ironies of harsh life on the edges of nature and
civilisation Bakunts evokes the touch and smell of squalid and
miserable community conditions amidst the beauties of nature. As Sakan
passes the bed of a visiting female Bolshevik activist `a pleasant
fragrance reached' his `nose as if someone had plucked flowers from
the mountain, squeezed them, extracted the fluid, and sprinkled it
like water on the sheets, the floor, the charred ceiling.' In contrast
to this natural beauty brought into his home by an urban visitor,
there hangs in Sakan's room `the smell of an unclean bedspread, a
sweat drenched shirt, a sunburned overcoat and an unwashed body.'
(p112) Lying besides his wife Sakan is for first time repelled by `the
strong smell that came out of (her) mouth, as if her teeth had
corroded and rotted and is `amazed that... he had never noticed the
smell of his wife's breath' (p112-113).

Elswhere, the `picturesque' village of Akar is `enclosed in forests
with ancient oak trees and age-old ruins of monasteries' (p34). But in
the fields cows `infected with foot-and-mouth disease' `limp as tiny
white maggots suck on the blood vessels between their hooves' whilst
its inhabitants have to endure a plague of `scabies ... aggravated by
the sun'. Victims of ` pink eye' its children suffering agonising
`itchiness' are forced to `walk about with bloodshot eyes and a dirty
cloth over their heads'.  Returning to his native village with his
daughter, Tigran realises that his:

    `...memory had only retained the attractive aspects of the
    village: the flowery mountains, the clear water sources, the green
    pastures....He had forgotten....the garbage on the streets, the
    burning dung, the rotting grass, the air coming out of the barns,
    and the heavy pungent urine-scented air...' (p81)

Over this valley stricken in addition by the most appalling prejudice
and superstition, the Tsarist state hangs as yet another dark cloud
with gangs of its venal tax collectors, judges and other officials
filling their pockets with bribes and extortions.

`In this fashion many years came and went. Hundreds of government
officials took oil, cheese, and carpets, and allocated the Apricot
Field according to what they received.'(p56) With a fine eye for
detail, Bakunts's exposes their egotistical greed.

Confronted by a child savaged by a dog, a government official
nevertheless shifted:

    `... his eyes from the wound...to the colourful carpet on the
    ground and put a price on it in his mind, comparing it to the
    bribe that Mrots had promised.'  (p55-56)

Robbing the peasant of his produce during peace time in war the state
assumes the form of `an armed fist' `ready to strike the village' with
its military officials pouring in to enlist young men for war and to
requisition its horses, cattle and foodstuffs too.  At first, there is
`joy and happiness '. But `just as a swallow that appears in spring,
arm less boys and boys with wooden legs started coming home....  and
the number of widows multiplied in the village.' (p48) During the
course of war:

    `...poverty was on the increase, the price of bread was rising and
    sugar had become medicine for the sick....wages had decreased...
    people did not give as much bread as they used to... Nobody gave
    away old clothes anymore... The rich and abundant days of yore had
    vanished.' (p48) (Note 2)

Perhaps it was because of such conditions that the Armenian peasant was
not averse to giving revolutionaries a chance to show a different mettle to
that  of the Tsarist state whose intrusion into village life only aggravated
their  already harsh and hard existence. But even prior to war that laid to
waste the  now imagined `rich and abundant days of yore' the Dark Valley was
witness to any  number of eternally tragic dramas that unfold wherever
crippling human  relations, customs, traditions and mores prevail.


III. THE RURAL BLIGHT UPON THE LIVES OF WOMEN AND OF MEN

Like the villagers in Hovannes Toumanian's epic `Maro', those of the  Dark
Valley too would have good reason to  wonder why it is that though:

    `We never eat during lent
    We always pray with devotion,
    Pain is endlessly piled upon pain
    As is disaster and loss'

As with Toumanian, with Bakunts too pain, disaster and loss flow from
distorted human relations and these weigh disproportionately on
women. `In Akar' Sandukht, frail and sickly, has her life destroyed by
a fatal combination of poverty and women's position as saleable
commodity little different to cattle.  Following her father's death,
to `lighten the burden on her shoulders' and enable her to `take care
of her two other children' Sandkuht's mother has no choice but to
marry her off. (p36) Sandukht's existence reduced to an economic
calculation at home is for bridegroom's family also an economic
opening to be pursued with fiendish determination. Examining her in
the way they would a horse, they make sure however to first `take a
look at' at the `threshing floor and hayloft' being offered as a dowry
(37).

Sandkukht dreads the marriage. Every time she sees her prospective
husband she hides `her face in her coat' and retreats `like a snail
that retracts into its shell'. Everyone knows she is not ready for
marriage. `In the name of the law' even the local doctor objects. But
neither Sandukht's wishes nor her health can block a transaction
enforced by ignoble but established relation and tradition emerging
from poverty. `Within a second' of hearing the doctor's opinion, the
groom's father `decided to break the law'. He jumped over it `as if it
were a narrow stream' `to put a lock' on the hayloft'. The lock
consisted of the parents forcing the couple cohabit without official
sanction.  The human tragedy that follows will leave no one
unmoved. But, despite the personal determination of the mother and the
ruthlessness of he groom's father, neither will any reader fail to see
the social roots of this tragedy.

`The Albion Violet' is a fine example of the perceptive evocation of
oppositions between urban and rural life and sensibilities that recur
in Bakunts 's work. It ends however in an explosion of misogynist
violence that buries the hitherto compelling story of a city artist's
and archaeologist's visit to a village overhung by the ruins of a
medieval fortress. Both are inspired by the fort's historical
symbolism and by the delicate violets that ring its battlements. Their
local guide however is utterly indifferent.


Bakunts's briefest description is replete with explanatory force: `If
Prince Bakur and the parchment were on the archaeologist's mind, and
the artist thought back to the violets and heard the Basuta's
deafening roar, the third horseman was looking at freshly baked
lavash, cheese , and yoghurt.' (p143)

Engrossed at this intersection of two wholly different appreciations
of the same reality that reflect also on the early Soviet support for
cultural preservation and the privilege accorded to intellectuals, the
reader's focus is suddenly shattered. Returning home from a day's
wearying labour, when the visitors' host discovers the artist has
sketched his wife's portrait.

`Jealousy struck like a bolt of lightening in the depressed reaper's
heart. His eyes widened and he became pale. The mother looked at the
boy and blushed, and the father saw the wife's red face. All of this
happened in a split second. The next minute the man was leaping
forward like an enraged bear, grabbing hold of his heavy sickle with
his hairy hands, and letting it fall with a terrible blow on his
wife's back.

The woman did not make a loud noise. Instead she curled up in
pain. She pressed her hand against her back and went out of the tent
to cry quietly.  (p147-148)

All images of historical grandeur and natural beauty crumble beneath
the weight of the wife's terrible pain as she passively and silently
leaves the room as if registering rural women's resignation before
violent injustice.

In `Tall Markar', `The Pheasant' and other stories individual
experience and social reality is sifted through the prism of memory to
reveal another characteristic of Bakunts's art. Bakunts's stories are
fine representations of how memory acting as an integral component of
consciousness fashions the present, colouring and texturing it and so
ensuring that individual, subjective life is lived as a unity of past
and present and never as simple unalloyed triumph or
disaster. Stalinist hacks of course seized on the prominence of memory
in Bakunts's work to charge him with also idealising the past. But
along with charges of idealising rural life, this one too is a gross
political fabrication. In `The Dark Valley' remembrance serves to
remind on of the social ills that prevailed in the rural village.

Tall Markar's individual remembrance of the Genocide is created with
an authenticity that enables a grasp of its hellish collective reality
and something of the barbarity of the machinery of the
genocide. Markar does however survive and settles in Soviet Armenia
where he lives his last years with a glowing optimism for his
grandson's future. But always seeping into his consciousness are
recollections of the circumstances of his wife's death. The present
eases the pain of the past. But it does not blot it out. In `The
Pheasant' Uncle Dilan's remembrance of the arbitrary termination of
his and Sona's youthful love underlines the damage done by women's
oppression not just to women but to men too. From youth to old age
Dilan's life on the surface at least was lived normally. But he
remembers that morning long ago when `Sona flew away like a pheasant,
(and) left behind her grief and sad memories' that have coloured is
life and will stay with him to his end.

Here it is perhaps necessary to remark on a significant lapse in
translation that conceals the fuller truth of what is being
depicted. Referring to the arranged marriage, the English rendition
reads of how Sona's and Dilan's love `chirped like a swallow they both
grew up' and then:

    `Sona walked past the neighbours' house one day with a bride's
    veil covering her face and, underneath the veil, bloodshot eyes,
    as bright as a lake in the mountains, from crying. (p62)

The original Armenian emphatically refers to social and economic
considerations that operated in the fixing of Sona's marriage. It
speaks of Sona ` crossing into the home' of a `well-to-do neighbour'
(medzadoun harevani shemkov ners mdav) and not just `passing' the
`neighbour's' house. The omission and the lack of precision lose the
original's critical content and dull the emotional drama.


IV. MORALITY AND CRITICISM IN LITERATURE

Bakunts's work is notable for the absence of authorial intervention or
moral judgement, even when the most brutal and violent episodes of
human behaviour and relations are described. This has led to
significant lapses in interpretation that merit discussion if only
because it allows a welcome consideration of the substantive moral
content of literature. For example in an extensive commentary on `The
Albion Violet' Vahe Oshagan writes: `Bakunts' would die rather than
write something like (Toumanian's) Kikor.

He rejected totally the melodramatic substance of that work and in
particular the division of human characters into positive and
negative, incapable as he was of reducing tragic human reality to the
position of virtuous or vice ridden.

`In this (ie Bakunts's) literature there is no freedom, no good, no
evil, no justice or injustice.'

Nothing in Bakunts's work can sustain such conclusion. His
dispassionate and objective descriptions of events pose moral
questions in the starkest of unavoidable ways. His stories invite
indeed a double moral judgement.

Individual dramas are always rooted in the social relations and so
within the ambit of individual action there is inherent a wider social
relation that calls for critical evaluation and judgement. In `The
Albion Violet', the representation of the husband's violence shocks,
not just because of its unexpected eruption but because of the clear
depiction of its substance and context. In the dispassionately
described act of unprovoked misogynist violence the moral question,
both social and individual, stares one in the face. If the reader
fails to note it then the problem is that of the reader's not the
absence of moral content or authorial intervention.

For after all, the moral content of literature is independent of
direct authorial opinion or narrative. Indeed when such opinion is
rife, as in the case of much of Armenian literature, it is imposed
artificially and surfaces as sanctimonious sermon. Authentic moral
substance in literature is inherent, albeit only potentially, in any
artistic representation of plot, character and their relations and
development. It impresses itself by virtue of this art and not by any
authorial intervention. The effective artistic representation of a
particular reality allows the critical reader to make moral
evaluations premised on the concrete development of both plot and
character.

But these will be shaped by contemporary concerns and standards and
will be possible only if readers engage with art as an expression of
life, as a means of grasping its truths, only when the work is not
approached from an academic, technical or abstract aesthete's angle
that narrows literature's artistic and critical reach.

In our increasingly alienated urban existence and our catastrophically
abusive relations to our natural environment, a critical reading of
`The Dark Valley' can in addition challenge those ideologues of
consumerism who incessantly advertise that human contentment and
development is driven primarily by a desire for material
accumulation. John Gray in a recent review of Raj Patel's `The Value
of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy'
takes issue with even the mildest critique of contemporary
consumerism:

    `It may be true that the imbalance between human demands and the
    environment could be diminished if enough people rejected material
    affluence as their goal in life. But this is an extremely nebulous
    possibility and one that highlights the deepest difficulty for
    Patel's analysis. (Guardian Weekly of 8 February 2010)

The `nebulousness' of the possibility does not however flow from any
essential human reality. It is born only of the particular social
relations of our own times fashioned by advertisers and manufacturers
of obsolescence.

This much is clear from `The Dark Valley' whose living protagonists
possess a vital capacity for life, for love, for passion and for
pleasure, all existing and evolving independent of any urge for
material acquisitions, and this in the harshest of natural and social
terrains. (Note 3) Sankukht's, Dilan's, Markar's and Sona's lives are
dented and disfigured not because they did not strive to possess two
cars and four TV's and `n' numbers of laptops, mobile phones and other
gadgets. Their lives are thwarted it is not for lack ambition for
material possessions but by imposed social relations that stifle the
dreams, desires and loves born of that essential human reality so
refreshingly reproduced by Bakunts. For this essential reality to
flourish what is required is not the accumulation of material goods
but essential social relations.

Bakunts's treatment of the 1915 Genocide and the Armenian peasant's
attitude to the 1917 Russian Revolution is significant enough to merit
a separate note but at another date.

Notes

1.  More productive and fructiferous the villages of the Ararat plains
were never far from the attention, not just of Tsarist state
functionaries but of all assortments of traders, merchants, usurers
and Churchmen eager to seize as large a portion of the peasant's
produce as possible. The blight that they were on Armenian rural life
finds reflection in the more successful of those nefarious
protagonists that populate Berj Broshian's novels.

2.  The historical accuracy of this account is supported by others
among them Leo, who in his bitter memoirs `From the Past' writes of
the outbreak of World War I:

    `Suddenly, unexpectedly in the wonderful silence of centuries old
    forests there exploded with a monstrous sound a vast tragedy that
    like a huge wheel flattening all before it took in man's life and
    began brutally running it over. ...Military call up...This is what
    the name of the disaster was.  Speedy and dominating it reached
    everywhere, even nature's remotest nooks and crannies, everywhere
    it caused pain and mourning, turned life upside down and
    impoverished it. (p263)

3.  These men and women in their richness, remind us of those in Hagop
Oshagan's `The Humble Ones' that also affirmed the humanity of the
disfigured, the alienated and the ostracised Armenian peasant in the
Ottoman Empire.


--
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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