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The Critical Corner - 06/14/2010

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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.

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