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The Critical Corner - 05/17/2010

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Worth a read...

    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none
    will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will
    always find something of value...

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 17, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian


I. ARANDZAR - A FIRST IN WORLD LITERATURE?


Arandzar is another most interesting but now also almost forgotten
short story writer whose real name was Missak Kouyoumjian. He was born
in 1877 in western Armenia and died in Adana in 1913. It is a fact that
a good writer need not be honored with labels such as 'genius',
'talented', 'brilliant', and so on and so forth to be readable beyond
their day. Such is the case with Arandzar who was mostly remembered, if
at all, for 'The Laughter of Misery' that depicted an episode of mass
human suffering during the bloody devastation of Armenia by Leng Timour
and used to be featured in many a literary anthology.

Arandzar however perhaps deserves a greater accolade and not just in
Armenian but in world literature for his 'From the Gallows to a
Wedding' that contains one of the earliest references in international
fiction to the manner in which governing elites would put industrial
and technological development to the use of mass, scientifically
organized slaughter and genocide:

'Our modern civilization' he writes `along with lots of other things
has also made the business of massacre that much easier. From within
his four walls, the electrical cable, like death's unseen hand, within
a split second will communicate orders from the chief executioner. And
almost immediately, at a moment of least expectation his victims will
be bloodied and laid low. Villages and towns that were standing at dawn
will not witness dusk. Thanks to the advance of knowledge new
discoveries will further perfect this system in the future. But let me
not stray too far....'

`My Cotton Trade' further enhances his reputation for besides its
vivid detailing of the corruption of the Ottoman state apparatus from
the top to the remotest province at the bottom it registers episodes
of the 1895-96 massacres to particularly reveal the manner in which
the Armenian trading and merchant class was targeted. Here is a vital
record of the overarching Ottoman strategy to blight Armenian economic
development in historic Armenia.

Arandzar wrote little. But some of what he wrote offers excellent
insight into Armenian life in Istanbul and Ottoman occupied western
Armenia prior to the genocide, covering in fact the period from about
1890 -1908. With endearing charm and wit Arandzar creates warm and
living characters for who we cannot fail to have sympathy. They are
ordinary mortals like you and me attempting to live their lives as best
they can. Yet at each step their life becomes a misery or a nightmare,
a terror or a death, for they live as an oppressed group within the
Ottoman Empire. They exist as second class citizens, discriminated
against, regarded as inferior and treated unequally, with contempt and
humiliated as a matter of course. Arandzar's stories bring all this to
light and show how men and women must have felt at being so treated.

Though heavy with the burden of oppression Arandzar's stories gain by
the absence of any sentimental nationalism or declamatory patriotism.
We hear not the ringing slogan but the cry of pain. Giving Arandzar's
writing the quality of art is his humour, his capacity for telling a
story, his clarity of language and most of all the vitality of his
characters, underlined by focus on a critical particular or by a phrase
that is expressive of the type of character represented.

Deploying his sharp wit Arandzar also takes steady accurate swipes at
the mediocrity of the Armenian intelligentsia and artist in Istanbul.
His `Short Story of a Short Story' is literary criticism in the form
of fiction disposing of that segment of Armenian writers and
literature that artificially aped and copied French samplings and
produced tripe that was then duplicated and quadrupled. Arandzar also
targeted the press of the time that encouraged and gave a platform to
such mediocrity.  How appropriate to the decadent intellectuals of our
own times the ridicule that Arandzar heaps upon pretentious, pompous
language adorned by countless borrowings from the French designed to
cover vacuity with phraseology that is incomprehensible. His barbs hit
in addition at the pretentious, self-flattering but socially useless
stratum of students who whilst in Europe posturing as hard workers
aspiring to academic excellence lived lives of egotistical hedonism
whilst swindling charities to cover their expenses.

It is a great pity that Arandzar wrote so little and gave up his art
well before his early death at the age of 36.



II. BERJ BROSHIAN (1837-1907) - AN ARTIST AND ACTIVIST FOR TODAY


Nineteenth century novelist and educationalist Berj Broshian is today
undeservedly neglected. Slighted and even derided, his novels dismissed
as third-rate art, albeit admitted to owning valuable ethnographic
data, his educational work is also almost forgotten. Manoukian's
wonderful little biography (198pp, 1964, Yerevan) is an apt challenge
to such inept evaluations. In this endearing account Broshian appears
as a type desperately needed in contemporary Armenia whose people are
being abused and wasted by corrupt elites totally indifferent to the
lives of the common people.

Immensely talented Broshian possessed a phenomenal memory - at 15 he
could recite the whole of Narek as well as the works of Khorenatzi,
Barpetzi and other 5th century and classical historians. He also had
the ability to take courageous and risky initiatives and support these
with the stubborn determination of the most stubborn mule. Gifted and
talented Broshian, had he chosen, could have secured for himself a
privileged existence. But he dedicated himself instead to working to
advance the education and the culture of the people.

Amidst reactionary clerical forces that suffocated Armenian education
Broshian was a star and the work that he did here is as valuable if not
more so than his literary legacy for which he is better known and that
he perhaps loved better too. In 1861 Broshian set up the very first
public girl's school in Tbilisi. Thereafter in a life of teaching he
established yet another school in Yerevan in 1866 and two years later
still another in Akoulis. Regarding theatre as part of popular
education in 1863 he helped in the formation of the first permanent
Armenian theatre company in Tbilisi.

Inspired by Khatchadour Abovian's example Broshian fought to introduce
modern educational methods into the Armenian classroom and to end
flogging that took the place of discipline. He opposed the violence and
brutality of a clergy that drummed useless dogma and superstition into
their often cold and hungry students. For this he was reviled and
relentlessly persecuted by the dominant reactionary wing of the Church
that after much effort secured his state disqualification from teaching
in national schools.

The great historic accomplishment of 19th century educational work is
easily overlooked. Though there may be little direct trace of the
results of Broshian's pedagogical work it can be argued without
exaggeration that it contributed its very significant part to the
survival of the Armenian nation in the eastern portions of their
historic lands. The network of schools of which Broshian's were a part
served to generate among its students a powerful sense of national
identity and pride that was to serve future generations well in their
battles against Tsarist oppression and assimilation as well as Turkish
invasion and slaughter.

Committed to popular education, Broshian once again in Abovian's
footsteps, favoured literature in the spoken language of the people.
In 1859 when only just 22 writing in local dialect he completed his
first novel `Sos and Vartiter' that was judged by Mikael Nalpantian to
have established, along with Abovian's `The Wounds of Armenia', the
foundations of the modern Armenian novel'. Broshian was not however
able to devote himself to writing full-time. Relentless Church
persecution and the Russian closure of Armenian schools also denied
him the opportunity to earn a consistent living by teaching. So he
also turned to proof-reading, to photography and even did a stint as a
coal merchant. Broshian's photograph of Raffi remains in use to his
very day.

Despite obstacles and hardship Broshian managed to write a string more
of novels. `The Battle Front', `Shahen', `The Problem of Bread',
`Parasites', `Pghte', `Huno' and `Revenge' (still unpublished) all in
different ways give expression to his disgust for Armenian commercial
and Church elites, for their corruption, selfishness, ignorance and
superstition as well as his hatred of the thievery of parasitic
priests and merchants. Some also reflect a vision of the inter-ethnic
with the protagonist in `Khetcho' making it his business to warn
`greedy Armenians or Turks' `who seized a slice of bread from the
mouth of a poor man' to `correct their ways...or...become components
of hell' whilst the protagonist in `Huno' defends the downtrodden of
any nationality.

A refutation of the unfavourable artistic judgement passed upon
Broshian's novels must await another opportunity. For the moment an
evaluation of Broshian's `The Parasites' by great novelist Shirvanzade
must suffice. Shirvanzade never held back from the harshest evaluation
when this was necessary. Whilst noting some of the structural
weaknesses of Broshian's novels, as well as their psychological and
linguistic failings Shirvanzade nevertheless adds:

    `Broshian differs from our other writers in that he knows well
    that which he writes about. He grasps the common people's lives
    authentically. He grasps its language, traditions, sayings and
    turns of phrase better than any of our other authors... The
    characters that he depicts, whatever the flaws, are living
    people. They are not the author's artificially produced whimsical
    constructs.'

Beyond his educational and literary work Broshian stood by the common
people in journalistic work as well. In his memoirs he judges the 1865
destruction of the Tbilisi city mayor's offices by protesting workers
as `a very natural phenomenon', an `expression of the sacred principle
of self-defence'. A few years later in his `Letters from Yerevan' he
criticised the exploitation of the peasantry in rural Armenia where
`despite the rich yield of the land the native population lives in the
harshest poverty whilst others benefit.'

How then to explain Broshian's absurd consignment to the dustbin of
conservatism? Perhaps his refusal to join the influential Krikor
Ardzrouni in an uncritical welcome of capitalist development offered
ideological opponents ammunition to portray Broshian as a feudalist of
sorts. Perhaps the stringent secularist Ardzrouni and his cohorts who
then dominated Armenian public life demanded of a Broshian a commitment
to the complete separation of Church and education that he could not
accept. Conscious of an enlightened trend within the Church Broshian
sought to collaborate with it in his pedagogical ambition. Whatever the
reasons behind the conservative label none sticks.

Berj Broshian was no revolutionary but neither was he a reactionary.
He was part of the democratic and popular artistic and intellectual
tradition alongside Toumanian, Shirvanzade, Aghayan and others. Indeed
as intellectuals, artists and public figures dedicated to the national
and the people's good they all, including the derided Broshian can
serve as role models for public life in Armenia today.


--
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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