Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 03/19/2012


Why we should read...

    `Parasites' by Berj Broshian
    (Collected Works, Volume 2, pp9-212, 1953, Yerevan, Armenia)

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 19, 2012

by Eddie Arnavoudian


In its own ramshackle but nevertheless impressive fashion, Berj
Broshian's `Parasites' is a remarkably modern study of the
relationship between money and social power in 19th century rural
Armenia, manifest concretely as an account of the tyranny of early
Armenian financiers and bankers, then known by their proper names of
usurers and parasites. With his web extending far and wide Palasan,
the novel's protagonist and `chief of all parasites', amasses huge
fortunes. He boasts arrogantly that `there is not a village' across
the region `that is not indebted to me' adding that `even the banks
are in my debt!' As for those in his thrall, `the lot of them are my
serfs' he proclaims (p69).

Shadowing our own times, Broshian shows us a society in which those
producing nothing accumulate enormous wealth and with it power, all
obtained from the sweat, suffering and toil of others. He tells of
a society in which `the pocket that sounded the loudest jingle...
wielded the bludgeon' (p18). An ominous figure, Palasan is an early
sketch, a first draft of our own parasites and usurers euphemistically
labelled bankers or financiers. That he exists today is testified to
by the unseen but hated figure assassinated at the opening of Narine
Groyan's novel `Dog Star', awarded the 2011 Armenian Orange Book
Prize.

`Parasites', it is well to acknowledge at the outset, is shockingly
unstable. It lacks any overriding plot, axis or coherent narrative
that would give unity and collective punch to what are lively but
relatively independent chapters. Though they are all placed upon a
common social terrain and share the same protagonists, much of the
relationship between them is a function not of the flow or inner
development of plot or character but of a string of unexplained,
forced turns that verging on the absurd stretch credulity and so make
unusual demands on patience and imagination. Let no one claim however
that these troubles drain the volume's artistic or intellectual
substance. They do not.

 
				  I.

Broshian's story is set in a typical rural Armenian village of `O'
with nothing about it romantic or idyllic, a fact captured in a
telling description of class structure on one `cold and misty evening'
when both the `rich and the poor have already taken refuge in their
homes':

    `The poor have long ago gathered their half-naked children beneath
    some ragged and worn cloths, whilst the man and woman of the
    house, lying to the left and the right of their innocent young,
    warm them with their own body heat and breath until sleep takes
    over. The rich on the other hand having dined upon what god has
    given them, gathered around their warm fire to rest in their thick
    and soft bedding (p158).'

Broshian does not however open his novel with issues of class, social
justice or with any sketch of the vermin that will feed off the
village. We are presented rather with inviting pictures of the
community and its members that shall be afflicted, among them two
young lovers, Sampson and Sona, the charismatic local mayor Ardem and
the well to do, jocular farmer Melik Patal.

Constructing his lovingly detailed context Broshian writes with wit,
humour and a perception of social and psychological truths. Male
conceit across the ages is caught splendidly. Despite ruling the
social and the domestic roost, Ardem and Melik Patal bemoan of men's
lives allegedly bent to wives' wishes and judgements and complain that
men, `but simpleminded brothers of god', are in actual fact `cleaning
cloths in women's hands (p32)'. More powerful still are passages that
tell of Sampson and Sona's love that they must keep concealed because
in village society love is not to exist independent of marriage and
marriage itself is to be arranged by parents with priorities other
than their children's desires or wishes.

The young's wishes are on occasion taken into account, but more often
other, economic and social, calculations prevail. Sampson and Sona do
not yet know if they are among the exceptions, and so we see them
suffer those universal insecurities, fears and anxieties of love that
in their particular circumstances must steal its way through the
restrictive entanglements of rural economic calculation, village
mores, religious prejudice and tradition. Particularly moving is the
depiction of the guilt felt by Sona as she defies village moral
imperatives (p46-47) so deeply imbedded in her own consciousness that
for shame she dreads even the idea of telling her own mother of her
love.  However in Sona's and Sampson's case it is not backward
tradition or custom but Palasan that represents the most dangerous
threat to their love and to village life too.
 

				 II.

Palasan, a brutish, thuggish, manipulative and violent man exercises
power with an executioner's finality. He is truly a Darwinian jungle
beast, the personification of financial capital's utter disregard for
other human lives. `As if the crows will wear black if ten nobodies
are annihilated' he retorts when challenged about his savage
indifference to the plight of his victims. `If he falls into your
hand, if he is weaker than you then smite him, trash him but make sure
of your profit.' This is his philosophy of life and business. Morality
and Christian notions of `sin and punishment' are dismissed as
`priests' grandchildren' that the clergy employ `to net their fish and
so obtain their dinner (p74)'.

Palasan is not attired in the latest Gucci fashions, nor does he drive
a 4x4 BMW. But even dressed in rough 19th century costume and riding
horse and cart, he is immediately recognisable. Like our own bankers
he has gathered into his ambit all who have influence and authority,
the village clergy, members of the judiciary, local and even the
regional government officials, all of whom do his bidding. With no
fear of retribution he ignores custom, mores and traditions, dispensing
titles, fixing elections and bribing judges and priests to accumulate
yet more and to conceal misdeeds from scrutiny.

The corrupt local priest Der Soukias expresses the scale and extent of
money's almost omnipotent force.

    `Let me try, in a friendly way, to make you understand this. A
    single worthless command from Palasan Agha is worth all of those
    from the whole village put together. Were he to demand that I swap
    my Christian robes for Muslim ones I would do so and will without
    protest pray in the name of Allah.' (p109)

Through the novel we see Palasan doggedly at work subverting due, but
of course limited democratic process as he plots to replace Ardem the
mayor with his own man. Ardem is not suitable to moneyed power for he
rejects the view that public officials should be `machines without
will, moving only at the command of the influential.'(p128)
Simultaneously Palasan with Kntouni, a fraudster and forger recently
arrived from Van, connives to rewrite debtor's notes in his possession
and so squeeze his victims further. To reward his chief lieutenant
Khuto's loyalty, he conspires in addition to frame Sampson for murder
and so leave Khuto's son Garabed free to marry Sona. Thereafter he
engineers an arson attack on Sampson's family barn. To ensure adequate
time for the plot to mature, he instructs the local priest to deny
Sona and Samposon the necessary Church sanction for their engagement.

Broshian completes Palasan's portrait by etching into it a feature
common to all Armenian moneyed elites. A native of the village O,
after an interlude abroad, Palasan returns home and stands in
opposition to his community. Now he is riddled with shame for being
Armenian, everything about which he feels to be ugly or uncivilised.
Equating sophistication with anything foreign, he monkeys Russian ways
and adopts Russian variants of his own Armenian name so as to better
mark himself off from the rough and ignorant natives. (We should note
of course that whilst the elites adopted Russian ways to distance
themselves from their peasant compatriots, the habit was also common
among many of the well to do who deemed the affectation of things
Russian as signs of culture and progress. The genial Ardem was one
among these!)

 
				 III.

The almost serf-like conditions to which the village community is
reduced as a result of Palasan's grip over local government, judiciary
and Church finds expression in an interesting, though not always
entirely convincing literary device. In answer to questions from
Smbat, a young investigative journalist just arrived in the village,
it is none other than Palasan himself posturing as an ardent defender
of the people, who holds forth in support of the `lower classes of our
community'. The people, he announces:

    `...are ceaselessly oppressed, exploited, squeezed by the usurers'
    claws, insecure in their jobs, consumed by external and internal
    parasites, plundered and buried in ignorance. Your eyes bleed on
    beholding this...You must agree with me and with the local mayor
    that it is urgent that we consistently lash out against these
    national parasites, these ambitious opportunists and irresponsible
    officials, theses bloodsucking usurers and traitors who for
    personal gain strangle every positive striving among the people
    (130-131)

As he speaks Palasan indirectly but accurately sketches the
ideological standpoint of the national movement of the day that saw
the key to reform and social progress in education.

Broshian holds back no punches as he shows priests and lawyers to be
of the same criminal brotherhood as Palasan. Der Soukias is tarred
with the same brush as one Migidan Sako, the most notorious of
Broshian's usurers and protagonist in his most famous novel `The
problem of Bread'. Clearly already Migidan Sako's social twin, near
the end of the novel Der Soukias turns out to be his biological one
too!  Broshian in addition captures well popular contempt for the
legal profession in the service of power, a universal contempt we are
reminded of repeatedly in world literature. `Curse your cheating
grandfather' exclaims Melik Patal.

`You'll relieve even a dead donkey of its horse shoes'. Blocking
lawyers and priests together he concludes:

    `You...are all, of the same ilk. You first take from the living
    and then take from the dead.' (p151)

Palasan does not exploit and abuse without challenge and discovers a
formidable opponent in Sissak who returning home carries with him a
bag full of ideological prescriptions for social and national ills. In
accord with the outlook of the times Sissak dedicates himself to the
business of education and enlightenment believing this to be the best
antidote to Palasan and his gang. Palasan however has dealt with such
troublesome types before, silencing one through bribery and by
encouraging and financing addiction to drugs - nicotine in this
instance! In Sissak's case however Palasan fails. Sissak is too
stubborn and dedicated and slowly wins adherents among some of the
community's notables. (p99)

`Parasites' alas ends disappointingly with most of its last fifty
pages, in a novel of only 200, burdened with sentimental allocations
of happy endings for the virtuous and just rewards for the evil. Yet
even here, as an apt reminder of the novel's modern resonance, we come
across a striking metaphor for the corruption of politics and
democracy by financial power. Recalling better days better when
members of the Church acted as genuine representatives of the
community, an elderly priests remarks that `today politeness and
hospitality' have been swept aside by a flood of individualism and
private greed:

    `It is painful to admit, but I know that today people become
    representative delegates to open wider not their doors but their
    wallets. They treat the Church as a source of income to fill their
    pockets. They (modern representatives) reserve the coldest
    treatment not just for their workers or for priests from beyond
    the parish but for the poor and needy too....To top it all in
    order to cover up their plunder they are wise enough to add a few
    decorations and silverware (to the Church), to do a few repairs
    and refurbishments that will then enable them to continue
    thieving.' (p185)

Replace the words `Church' and `representative delegates' with
`Parliament' and `MPs', `Congress' and `representative', or with the
proper name of any contemporary `democratic' state institutions and we
would have an honest depiction of 21st century `democratic politics'.

 
				 IV.

To properly appreciate `Parasites' and all of Broshian's novels, it
repays pondering the weight and impact of its irregular structure and
plot noted here by two examples alone. Kntouni's unexpected appearance,
though not warranted by the plot is not entirely incredible. Fraudsters
from western Armenia regularly preyed upon villages in the relatively
more prosperous east and so his presence serves to enhance the image
of the times. But one cannot but be taken aback by the sudden
announcement of his unexplained meteoric rise. Just a few pages from
his first entrance we are five years on and told, with no account,
that Kntouni now heads his own usurer's enterprise. That his advance
was made upon Palasan's own home territory seems to cause no
complications. Further, despite his now independent means Kntouni
continues to behave as little more than a forging scribe for
Palasan. This is not at all credible. Neither is the fact that at the
end of these same five silent years in rural Armenia of all places,
Sona and Sampson, now without the bloom of early youth are still to be
married! Why? We are not given the slightest hint!

Nevertheless, for all these and many other drawbacks, `Parasites'
remains eminently readable. The reason is best explained by
Shirvanzade in a rigorous review of the novel when it was first
published. For all his sharp criticism Shirvanzade underlines
Broshian's talent for creating authentic characters.

    `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.'
 
The nail has truly been hit on the head. Deficiencies of plot and
logical structure do limit the growth and refinement of characters, of
their emotion, psychology, sensibility and so their depth and
completeness. They also deny any fluent grasp of the novel as an
effective totality. But even amidst the rubble of the plot Palasan
survives as a genuine figure striding behemoth style through village
life, bullying and buying allies and accomplices.

He is convincingly human in his manipulative essence turning taps of
brutishness and charm on and off as calculation and interest see
fit. Indeed the entire gang of menacing rascals grouped around him,
Kntouni, Khuto, their son and nephew Vassak and Garabed, the priest
Der-Soukias, the lawyer and the provincial governor are all real
presences united as a power unto themselves against whom the community
has little avenue of appeal.

Sona, Sona's mother, Sampson and his father, Ardem and Melik Patal are
all also authentic men and women with whose condition, hopes and
disappointments we can identify. Broshian's passion for salvaging the
culture and folklore of his characters in addition, serve to enhance
their concrete and universal humanity. These characters, even if oft
out of focus, tell shocking truths of exploitation, corruption and
violence born of the operations of banking and finance capital. In
their very personalities they expose the structure of injustice and
inhumanity that in rural Armenia sheltered behind traditions, mores,
values, prejudices, customs and superstitions deemed to be Divine
canon and therefore immutable. It is perhaps this ability of Broshian
to so effectively bare social truths that are hidden behind public
moral billboards that explains why he was so highly regarded by men
such as Nalpantian and Issahakyan, Toumanian and Shirvanzade among
others.

Today, we too can engage with the lives of Broshian's characters and
as we read we too can happily embark upon a creative process, that by
laying aside or imaginatively correcting and editing the rather too
clumsy plot, acquire at its end an appreciation of the novel as a
compelling, imaginative totality reflecting tellingly upon our own
times.


--
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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