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HOVANNES TOUMANIAN - POET OF A PEOPLE Armenian News Network / Groong June 14, 2010 By Eddie Arnavoudian Part One: Life and love in the Armenian Highlands In the popular imagination Hovannes Toumanian (1869-1923) is fixed as a genial, humorous and wise teller of folk tales, legends and children's stories. A wonderfully luminous teller of tales he certainly was. But this is by no means all that he was. With his epic poems, lyrical poetry, quartets, short stories, critical writings and letters Hovannes Toumanian is an artist and writer for all ages and this he is on an altogether unique level. I. No other writer is as quintessentially Armenian as Hovannes Toumanian. His work, in Souren Aghababian's apt description is an `encyclopaedia' of 19th century rural Armenia that, being then homeland to the vast majority of the Armenian people, defined an authentic national reality. To appreciate something of the essence of Armenia, to feel something of its defining features, its history and society, something of the inner lives of 19th century Armenian man and woman one must read, enjoy and study Hovannes Toumanian. Repeating for Toumanian what Engels had said of Balzac's focus of French society Barouyr Sevak argues that: `Taken together the whole and very substantial body of scientific literature on the history of the Armenian people cannot give even the vaguest idea of that which is offered so vividly in Toumanian's work.' But Toumanian's Armenian encyclopaedia is also an international one illuminating as it does some of the most diverse dramas of humankind that unfolded in the Armenian highlands. Protest against the suffocation of the human spirit, the cry of devastated love, the rage against national and social oppression and injustice and the confrontation with the existential awe of life's finite reality fires almost every one of Toumanian's poems. This it does with a force that focuses sharply the trouble and strife of our 21st century, in Armenia and beyond. Significantly for the Armenian people, in epics such as `To the Land', `The Old Fight' and `Mehri' Toumanian's authentic representation of aspects of Armenian national oppression can be read as ripostes against the Turkish falsification of the history of the Armenian liberation movement, claiming it had no grounds in the social condition of the people and possessed no indigenous roots. `Maro', `Anush', `The Old Fight', `Towards the Infinite', `Akhtamar', `Mehri', `The Rejected Law', `Sako from Lori' and other epics, ballads and poems are all inspired by or rooted in the concrete everyday experience of the Armenian village particularly from the author's native province of Lori in the north Armenian highlands. They draw deeply too from the common people's collective memory that in tales and legends, songs and poetry embodied and reflected the custom, the tradition and mores of bygone ages and so preserve something of the true history of the mass of Armenian men and women that had been disdainfully omitted from the pages of Armenian chronologies written by ascetic men of the Church. All of Toumanian's protagonists are common folk presented with lucid simplicity but never in a manner that reduce their human complexity to one-sided plainness. Often in a single line or two, Toumanian captures and richly so, an essential aspect of the inner world of his characters or of the complex relations of the world that they inhabit. No passion or emotion, no ambition or desire, no tragedy or comedy that together socially or individually shape a human life is absent from Toumanian's work. All flourish within brilliantly concrete reconstructions of Armenian rural life that feature almost every aspect of popular existence. It is all there - labour and love, sport, dance and song, marriage, death, blood feuds, honour killings, revenge and treachery, dreams of immortality and infinity, peasant superstition and mob drunkenness, Church backwardness, religious asceticism, banditry, madness, the plight of emigration, greedy grasping priest and landlord, rural banditry, foreign oppressor, ideals of emancipation, armed national resistance and more. As with all great writers Toumanian's writing pays specific attention to the condition of women. The Armenian woman, as was the case with women from neighbouring Turkish, Kurdish or Georgian villages, was required to be a passive and obedient servant to the will of her husband, her father and her brother. She was not entirely denied initiative and independence but these had to be pressed into patterns of her servitude normalised by a web of customs, traditions, moral strictures and rules that were in turn defended by the strictest of punishments meted out against the inevitable refraction or rebellion, rebellion that Toumanian so brilliantly reveals as an essential quality of the human spirit. Toumanian's body of work offers us an artistic totality that is at once ruthless social and moral criticism executed with clarity and straightforwardness that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Vibrant and dynamic in the depiction of the flow human passions that course through the Armenian highland, his poetry also has a cutting objectivity that dissects social and individual ills, individual pride and mob prejudice as well as delusion and superstition and much else. The moral judgement of social relations that emerge at the core of this work is never however dry and dull philosophical or sociological assertion. All becomes apparent and explicit through the actions of full-blooded protagonists who, never mechanistic functions of the social relations, develop in plots remarkable for their pace and dramatic tension. In the Armenian literary constellation Toumanian occupies a central position. He raised to the level of art the lives, the cultural traditions, the history and the hopes of the Armenian peasant that for the previous millennia had been excluded from official literature controlled by the Church and its intelligentsia. Emerging within a popular democratic artistic tradition established and developed among others by Khatchaour Abovian, Berj Broshian and Ghazaros Aghayan, Toumanian himself also turned literature in the direction of the common people, recreating their lives in a language that was comprehensible to them and with their own concerns and hopes at its core. His work became the finest collective mirror indicating that which needed to be discarded and that which should be preserved in the process of modern Armenian democratic nation formation. Here Toumanian's 19th century legacy recalls the endeavour of 20th century African nation formation reflected in the work of Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiongo or that of Nigerian Chinua Achebe. Outstanding in his art Toumanian was also extraordinary as a public figure, imbued with an unwavering democratic, national and internationalist vision. The qualities of honour, loyalty, friendship, valour, gallantry, individual and collective solidarity and social and national freedom that define his art is manifest in his own public life. In the often fraught and troubled inter-national conflicts in the Caucuses Toumanian was in Yeghishe Charent's view `a tower' facilitating `interethnic unity'. His life and work epitomized an Armenian cultural and political tradition that was defined by a sturdy patriotism, an uncompromising opposition to national and social oppression but also by a deep consciousness of the common, shared, spheres of life that united Armenians with the common folk of their neighbouring Turkish, Georgian, Kurdish and Azeri villages. Considering Toumanian's poetry in English presents more than the normal difficulties of quote and extract that are inevitably altered by translation. Even in their original, quotes and extracts never substitute satisfactorily for an appreciation of the whole. This is particularly so for Toumanian's epics, the truth of which emerges always in the telling of the entire story. Yet even though translated and isolated quotations may miss the deeper human truth available they do enable us to touch on those essentials in Toumanian's work that speak with force to 21st century lives. II. Hovannes Toumanian's most popular epic `Anoush' is a universal tale of the tragedy of Anoush and Saro whose quest for love and life is destroyed by a complex of those perennially recurring human passions, of pride, humiliation, revenge and murder. Essentially a novel in verse form `Anoush' is characteristically dense with revealing event and action. Integral to a swiftly moving plot are some of Toumanian's abiding social and moral preoccupations including those of personal responsibility, collective solidarity and the danger of irrational or bigoted individual and mob behaviour that appear here exacerbated by a web of unjust social relations and bigoted moral laws. Outstandingly conceived in the display of intricate and nuanced emotion and thought, the protagonist Anoush, without conscious thought, though perhaps with plentiful rational calculation, circumvents parental authority and social custom to fulfil her dream of love and life with local village shepherd Saro. As an individual she is not uncomplicated appearing with her heart one moment `tearful and darkly melancholic' and another ready to `take wing and to fly'. When she does take wing it is to the hills to be with her handsome Saro. In just a few words of motherly admonishment Toumanian describes Anoush's human-defining independence of spirit that rural law and morality felt obliged to temper and to cage. `Enough Anoush, come on in from the shepherd's shack Being out like that, coming and going as you please... People will start to talk - `what sort of girl is this?' they'll ask `She stops and chats to scores of men.' Following one of her daughter's evidently regular disappearances `a doubt began to echo' in her Mother's heart'. When was it that she `went out to fetch water?' The `fearless girl' `has yet to return'. When Anoush does, she `emerges from beneath the clouds' in an image of triumphant joy and fulfilment: Her hair dishevelled and loose about her waist, Strands across her reddened cheeks She returns like an escaping deer Her water jug empty and she without The scarf that she had taken out When manifest in women and girls individuality, vitality and adventure are judged to verge on the immoral. `Such ways are not for a girl.' `Behave! It's a shame girl, a shame'. Instead of roaming open fields and mountain valleys that mirror her own being Anoush must be scooped back into her home to `pay attention to her work.' But like the force of a plant that cuts a path to the light through the driest rock Anoush must herself reach out. It is an almost instinctive urge for freedom and life that drives her to evade family and social impediments. With enviable poetic magic Toumanian's portrayals of physical beauty, emotional yearnings and passionate desires summon Saro's and Anoush's delight in each other, their hopes, their longings when apart, their fulfilment when together but also the ever present anxieties and fears that love may be derailed. Toumanian was however no romantic and his work is frequently a register of how human flight is all too frequently brought low by repressive social relations and by the all too frequent overwhelming of human action by the uglier components of the individual and collective constitution. Anoush's tragedy is one instance. But hers is not an inevitable, unavoidable consequence of the all too powerful, unchallenged operation out of backward or bigoted rural relations and customs. Making her drama that much more poignant is the fact that it is precipitated by an act of overweening pride on the part of her lover the tragedy of which is underlined by the fact that the act of irrational, egotistical pride was driven by love. III. The adventure that promises to mould together Saro's and Anoush's lives begins to unravel one winter evening when `boisterous crowds' are gathered in the village green to celebrate a marriage. Among them are `local shepherds who have come down from the mountains' `to watch the girls, to dance and to wrestle'. In one contest Anoush's lover Saro is pitted against his close friend and Anoush's brother Mossi. Both are local champions and so `massed around them like a fortress wall' the whole village `divides into two armies'. The contest is not a competitive battle. It is more an exhibition of skill and technique for the pleasure of the participants and the admiration of the audience. It is sport and play, an expression of collective unity, harmony and mutual respect that was formalised in custom and tradition. `There was in these dark and deep gorges a long established tradition And always obedient to this ancient custom The brave in his days would never Before the village crowd floor his comrade.' In a moment of individual weakness Saro breaches this code of honour so expressive of mutual respect and social harmony. As he wrestles his opponent he suddenly catches sight of Anoush. His `heart begins to beat faster', `all becomes foggy' and so `forgetting comrade, custom and the world' he hurls a playful and unsuspecting Mossi to the ground and pins him there triumphantly. Here in a single, passing moment of egotistical pride, in a trance-like moment when absorbed totally by his self and his love Saro loses sense of his relationship to and his dependence upon his community and friends. For Mossi to be felled before the entire village community is a humiliating blow. He experiences Saro's act as enmity, betrayal and treachery. `Never has your back hit the ground like this In the view of the whole village standing and watching ... How will you now appear before women! You will become an object of derision Better to die and be buried, better to Leave home and live in the mountains' Saro's ego may for an instant have been satisfied. But his thoughtless lapse, his disregard for another individual and for his community tradition fixes a descent to bloody tragedy. Had the injury been no more than a momentary individual erring reconciliation would perhaps have been possible. Resting on tradition onlookers could demand, as Mossi does, that the contest be resumed. But Saro's lapse of reason and judgement is then compounded by mob disorder. Hours into their festivities the `boisterous crowd' has now become a `drunken crowd' that is itself out of control and overflowing with a debased and irrational instinct for which Toumanian here and elsewhere expresses unforgiving disapproval. Instead of taking measures to heal the wound the `drunken crowd' aggravates and accentuates Mossi's humiliation. It derides and ridicules him, heaping upon him vengeful `poisonous sarcasm'. `And so from the boisterous noisiness of the wedding hall Mossi emerged deeply wounded Blood dripping from his darkened heart' A single egotistical, self-centred, action that is then sealed by irresponsible collective endorsement closes all avenues to reconciliation and so produces the whirlwind of rage and violence that ends with death and despair. To wipe away his humiliation Mossi feels he has no other resort but the annihilation of his now deadly enemy. A fatal duel commences in which his former best friend is hunted and isolated like a wild animal. Saro spends his time on the run: Wandering through the mountains Like a fleeing deer Destiny ahead of him, bullets behind The fields a hell and those once comrades now enemies Eventually Saro is trapped and killed and Anoush is left to deal with the wreckage of her own life alone. The pain of a love that is lost, its unfathomable loneliness, the hopeless yearning for that which one knows is forever gone, the unbearable emptiness and the unending darkness of its horizon, all of this is palpable in Toumanian's narrative. IV. Untangling a fundamentally flawed reading of `Anoush' by literary critic Arsene Derderian can serve to reveal the central social dimension of Anoush's tragedy. Derderian erroneously suggests that Anoush is a victim of the rural enslavement of women, of rural tradition and mores. He writes that she `...is punished because she defied `tradition' - defied her father's, her mother's and her brother's will....' There is however not an iota of evidence for such an assertion. In Toumanian's very precise narrative there is nothing prior to Saro's thoughtless egotistical excess that suggests any insuperable personal, family, class or economic opposition or to Anoush's and Saro's love and eventual marriage. In `Anoush' backward rural relations and prejudices, in particular those of women's servitude and the tradition of revenge killing, certainly feature and centrally so. But they do not play a direct causal role. They come into play only in the wake of Saro's and Mossi's wrestling contest and serve to cut the lovers' wound more widely, deeply and fatally. In an act of family solidarity Anoush's family turn firmly against the humiliated Mossi. But Anoush still possessed hope for her love. Challenging parental opposition she colludes with Saro as he abducts her and flees to the mountains. Toumanian here captures brilliantly the often contradictory forms of even the most backward of traditions. Initial village reaction is praise for what is judged an act of daring love. In communities suffering extensive arranged marriages the act of abduction so resonant of male power surfaces as a form of liberation, as love's declaration of independence. But acclaim lasted only if the union becomes an enduring fact and leaves community and Church no choice but to sanction and bless it. But on the run Saro does not have the means to keep Anoush and so she is forced to return home there to be punished by misogynistic village prejudice. Having eloped with a man out of wedlock and then been abandoned she is deemed guilty of an illicit lust that is beyond atonement. That Saro could be culpable does not even feature. As she returns she feels acutely the ostracism that awaits her: Anoush was in tears looking to the ground Around her stood the women who were neighbours The village women appear engaged in some inner struggle to unchain their better human selves from repressive morality, but even: (...) they could find no words for the discredited, The abducted and then returned, unfortunate girl. Anoush's family too cannot overcome the vindictive dictates of rural law. Her father with venom perhaps borne of the suppression of parental love turns on her. `Spitting and frothing at the mouth' his words are a pitiless concentration of the most toxic misogyny. `Out, get lost you heartless immoral May your crown and your future be dark and mourning Get lost and never appear before me again You saw that Mossi hated him Your mother and father did not want him. How many heads do you have on your shoulders That you decided to elope with him. Mossi too vents his rage upon his sister. As a woman she must bend also to the authority of her brother. So she must suppress her own essence and her love: `I am the soil beneath your feet, Moss my dear Mossi ... I'll not love him anymore if that is what you want.' But Mossi is a victim too. The foundering of collective solidarity and cruel behaviour of the mob transforms him utterly. Ruthless mockery by the `drunken crowd' feeds in him a terrible blood lust. With `blood dripping from his heart' he is riddled with hate beyond unravelling. He: ...wanted to kill even his young sister To cut from her heart with the point of his dagger Saro's name and that secret love The subsequent killing of his one-time friend offers Mossi no relief or redemption. It does not cleanse his spirit neither does it ease the heart. It distorts and disfigures his humanity even more. `This killer of a man emerged from the gorge His face confused, his walk unsure Fear was dripping from his bloodshot eyes His appearance totally changed.' As Toumanian brings his story to its end he tells movingly also of the grief of Saro's mother. Mkrtich Mgryan, perhaps better known for his fine studies of ancient Armenian literature and of Narek's Lamentations in particular, is to the point when he writes that `every time that Toumanian introduces...a new protagonist, never mind how short the episode may be, he succeeds in offering major generalisations and creates artistically perfect types.' In the depiction of Saro's mother Mgryan rightly notes the `characterisation of the eternal mother'. (p114) Cursing her fate she bends over her son's corpse `pleading with him to speak, at least once, to at least one last time open his eyes' `Why do you not speak, why do you not look at me My day and my sun, my life and my soul Why have you snatched my very own grave? You hostile treacherous son With Saro dead, with family and community sensibility paralysed by irrational moral law there is no one left to soothe Anoush's pain. And so at the close of the story we see the fading and vanishing of the very will to live in one who possessed this in all its beauty. V. Toumanian turns again and forcefully to issues of irrational and bigoted crowd behaviour in `Akhtamar' a shorter masterpiece. Justified this time by a narrow-minded ascetic morality and by provincial prejudice, mob hysteria again leads to the murder of love and life. A tremendous amount is packed in sixteen short verses of a brilliant reworking of an ancient popular legend - the daring, courage, impatience and the innocence of young love as well as the ugly face of mob prejudice that sees this innocence as sin punishable by death. Within this tragic tale albeit indirectly one is witness to the passivity and humbleness, the obedience and the bending that was demanded of women. Secretly, to escape social condemnation, a boy defies the dark stormy sea of Van: `Cleaving the waves with sturdy arm, Needing no raft or boat He swims, disdaining risk and harm Towards the island remote His aim is to be with his love Tamar who is also a co-conspirator. She is his only guide in treacherous waters lighting a lantern that will lead him to the shore and to her. Each night she waits for him `her whole body aflame with love'. But this love will not be tolerated, perhaps because this was love out of wedlock or because the boy is not a local boy. The local mob feels slighted: `Who is this bold young man drunk with love? Disdaining all fear he crosses the sea To steal a girl from our hands What does he take us for?' So on what was to be the boy's last voyage of love, as he dives into Van's choppy waters the mob wreaks its barbarous revenge, it extinguishes the lantern that Tamar has lit and so puts out his life. In a hapless struggle for the shore all that can be heard is his cry `Ah Tamar'. That cry is fixed to his lips when his corpse is next morning thrown onto the shore. Though this love and life is felled by brutal human act it remains an impulse, a dream and a desire immortalised in the name of the island Akhtamar in the sea of Van. VI. Whilst Anoush does not deal directly with the plight of women punished for defiance of servitude `Maro' does. This `old story' `whose sad memory allows my heart no peace' also goes beyond brilliant social criticism. In the space of a mere six pages Toumanian depicts a profound and universal human experience again in its uniquely Armenian national form. Toumanian's greatness indeed rests in his ability to capture the universal repeatedly and consistently in lives in the remotest Armenian village. Like Anoush, 'Maro' is also an individual and a collective tragedy presented in the starkest and simplest terms. It is the drama simultaneously of girlhood, womanhood and humanity. `Maro' recounts the story of a young girl `only nine and full of vitality' and who is forced into an arranged marriage with the `huge shepherd Garo'. The devastation this represents for her is portrayed with remarkable depth and feeling. There is in Armenian literature little else as powerful that registers the price of the abuse of womanhood and of life as a result of such practices. This is not a story of romantic love stifled by an arranged marriage. Maro is only nine. She has not yet reached puberty. She is not yet a sexual being. She still loves her cakes and sweets. Yet she is given without her consent, like a chattel, to Garo. Garo is not an evil man. He cares for Maro. But he is an adult sexual being. What happens after their marriage, when Maro is taken to her new home, the terror of it all can be fully imagined. Fleeing her newly wed home Maro returns to her mother. In her cry 'Mum, I don't want to be a woman' we hear, in all its clarity and intensity, the cry of abused womanhood across centuries and across nations. In this single utterance we can hear a comprehensive account of her torture. But we hear more than this. We also hear the cry to be free. Toumanian movingly contrasts Maro's experience of enslaved 'womanhood' with that of the free spirit of childhood that she had hitherto enjoyed. Maro wants to remain a child, for as a child she was allowed to be herself, to live freely, to imagine and to realise herself. But as a married woman, she knows that she has become no more than an object for someone else. Her flight from her forced marriage is her demand that she be treated as an end in herself. However, Maro pays the price for trying to be free of the shackles of repressive social arrangements. Savagely beating Maro her father throws her out with he same heartless ruthlessness displayed by Anoush's father: `Out of my house you shameless hussy don't dare cast your glance back never again set foot in our home you who have brought disohonour to my name.' Ostracised by her family and driven to endure life at the mercy of charitable strangers or in the wilderness of the mountains, she eventually dies. When Maro is found dead, her family's grief has no measure. Maro's fate is not just an individual's tragedy. It is also a terrible social drama involving a community of human beings who all appear to be governed by forces beyond their control. Here despite the fact that: `We never eat during lent We always pray with devotion Yet endlessly pain is piled upon pain As is disaster and loss.' It is as if alien forces compel them to act against their own loving and humane nature. Maro's family loves her. They have brought her up with all the care and tenderness they could muster. Yet in her hour of need they too turn their backs on her. But they are not heartless. They are trapped. They lack the freedom to override social regulation and take their evidently distressed daughter back into the home. Instead they cast her out into the wilderness. Despite the love of her parents and despite their grief, as Christian punishment for her apparent suicide: `Unfortunate Maro's body Was not laid down by the side of her granddad Far from the village Beneath a lonely oak tree They dug a hole and threw her in.' Nevertheless beneath the crust of social convention that dictates such inhuman behaviour, a genuine humanity remains. Toumanian's evocation of the pain of the family experience and his description of the mother's impotent and hopeless pleas urging Maro to return are heartrending and inspiring. * * * * That so intense feelings, so profound experiences are evoked in the pages of his generally short epics are testimony to Toumanian's great art that lies not just in the simplicity of the language but in the simplicity of the conception and structure. His poems treat only of essentials and bring these to the fore by means of the flow of action defined by rhythm, colour, crispness of image and realistic description. By these means his work captures dimensions of human experience that transcend the Armenian village to incorporate that of humanity. In the remote Armenian village far removed from the pomp, chivalry and romantic adventures and tragic ends of princes and princess in royal courts, it is Toumanian's genius to show that grandeur, nobility, the independence of spirit, love and passion is part of all life wherever life is and however much it may be alienated and brutalised by social relations that, having been constructed by men and women, can also be deconstructed. -- 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.