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 October 22, 2012 by Eddie Arnavoudian I. VRTANNESS PAPAZIAN - A VIRTUOSO OF THE ARMENIAN SHORT STORY Vrtanness Papazian (1866-1920) is another accomplished short story writer whose reputation has been undone by reckless critics. A fine narrator, at once humorous and cutting, he has an artist's feel for 19th century Armenian rural life whose class divisions, class exploitation and national oppression he describes in grippingly dramatic developments. Grasping human relations in natural and authentic flow Papazian adequately compensates for sometimes flat and inauthentic characterization that can turn protagonists into incomprehensible caricatures. The Ottoman state, its courts and tax collectors with rights to a portion of the peasants' product appear in all their brutality, some plundering hand-in-hand with Armenian usurers. `The Armenian usurer indeed was more terrifying than any Kurdish bandit. Armed with debtor's notes more deadly than Kurdish swords they seize and plunder and then laugh at the beggars they leave behind. Their brazenness reaches disgusting heights when, in lieu of interest, they demand beautiful women or village brides for a few days.' A visible thread in many a story is contempt for the Church and its priests preaching passivity when confronting such violence or asserting Divine ordination of family homes burnt out, men murdered, women raped and children abducted. `Fair Judgment', with its depictions of gruesome, ghastly grime, with the mud, the urine and excrement, the dankness and the darkness of Ottoman jail cells, with descriptions of worn threadbare courthouse curtains behind which preside `yawning judges ready to fall asleep', features as metaphor for the nightmare that passed for Ottoman justice. Here Papazian reminds one of Aranstar but with a difference. Arantsar also sketches the corruption of the Ottoman judicial apparatus. He does so convincingly, but through the prism of Armenian experience alone. Papazian gives these same truths enhanced authority focusing them through wider lenses that take in besides Christians also Muslims, besides Armenians also Albanians, Arabs, Jews, Kurds and Greeks all also trapped in the fatal claws of Ottoman `justice'. `Monastic Yergo, with passages that remind one of another Armenian writer Hrant, author of `Letters on the Lives of Emigrants', offers a telling analysis of the processes that drove tens of thousands of Armenians from their homelands in Van, Mush, Erzerum and elsewhere. Flooding into Istanbul's ghettos they nourished hopes that money earned would repay voracious usurers threatening their families' back home. Hopes alas are dashed with pittance earnings driving impoverished emigrants to despair and drink while families back home suffer eventual expropriation at the hands of thieving creditors enjoying the solidarity of Ottoman `law'. Papazian's artistic worth and the pleasure he affords is evident even in flawed stories. `Santo - from the Lives of Armenian Gypsies', is a gripping tale and an invaluable record of a forgotten phenomenon of Armenian society, of those `tens of thousands' of Armenian gypsies who traveled `through every (Armenian) village and every town selling goods prepared during the winter' and who, like gypsies the world over, were labeled `shameless thieves difficult to do business with' (p563). Set during the 1895-96 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire when Armenian gypsy communities where also drawn into the nightmare of genocidal repression we meet the fiery Margo, whose traveling caravan is confronted by Turkish officials and she is raped. Seething, she is humiliated further by a husband who having failed to defend her then turns traitor. In the figure of Margo who eventually avenges herself and her community, `Santo' highlights the independence, the force and decisiveness of women and their central and sometimes dominant role in family and community life and in relations with outsiders. It was women `who organized meetings' and `forced men to attend and to think' about how to respond to critical situations. `It would be mainly women who did the trading, as well as the fortune telling and the begging, shocking one with their brazenness but also causing wonder at their moral rectitude, at the ease with which they dispersed and got rid of those who dared approach them with ill intent. (p556) Moments of jarring, scratching prose are easily exonerated in what remains a dramatic human tale of a woman who passes into legend for her struggle against marauding Ottoman officials and soldiers. The story is also a veritable sociological mine on the life of Armenian gypsies, their internal democratic life, their role in wider Armenian community, how they earned their living, their marriage rituals and much else. The value of these stories is not historical alone. In them features something of the human condition, whether overwhelmed by repression, living in fear of the powerful or standing firm in their human dignity. In one of his apparently more generous moods, retreating from his normally caustic dismissal of Armenian prose writers, Oshagan in the same breath speaks of Vrtanness Papazian and of Maupassan, the unquestionably superb exponent of the short story. Whatever the value or validity of such comparisons, being offered by the wantonly and often sneeringly ultra-critical Oshagan, they speak to the quality of Papazian as writer and artist. II. FROM THE LIBRARY OF DANIEL VAROUJEAN CRITICISM Kevork Matoyan's `Daniel Varoujean' (252pp, Sovetakan Grogh, Yerevan, 1976) lacks the intellectual flight of other Varoujean critics. It does however assemble often forgotten or unknown but still valuable details about the poet's life. Born in 1884 in village of Prknik not far from Sepastia, we are reminded that Varoujean's early years were representative of a wider harshness of childhood in Armenian society under the Ottoman rule. Varoujean experienced the break up of his family when his father, impoverished by incessant plunder, was forced to Istanbul in search of work. His early education in the grip of the local Armenian Church was another stage of endurance, victim to a mind-numbing learning by rote `locked all day in a dilapidated freezing building' that passed for school. Losing trace of his father Varoujean's mother, in an extraordinary move for a rural woman of the time, packed bags and with Daniel set out in search. This was to open up a new future. Once settled in Istanbul, despite grinding poverty Varoujean excelled at school and secured a much prized scholarship to what was considered the elite Mekhitarist run Murat Rafaelian College in Venice. There besides studying Armenian history and culture he immersed himself in the magnificence of Italian painting, sculpture, art and literature that was to so enrich his creativity. Conflict with the narrow-minded clericalism of the Mekhitarists was not long in coming. They censored Varoujean's poetry that was inspired by the progressive thought of the era and tried to stifle his spirit with mean and petty financial calculation. When he studied at the University of Ghent, in dread of his intellectual challenge they refused Varoujean summer accommodation in Venice where he wished to complete his theses on the philosophical and cultural ambit of classical Armenian literature. So dispiriting was Mekhitarist tyranny that Varoujean contemplated abandoning poetry for a career as a businessman. But, like many educated youth of his generation Varoujean was possessed of a sense of mission, a determination to serve his people, to contribute to their emancipation. From this he could not be derailed by Mekhitarist constraints. Neither was his dedication displaced by the egotistical individualism and the anti-social prejudices that were then spreading among European writers and artists who had such standing among the western Armenian intelligentsia. Matoyan underlines Varoujean's precocious genius. When but 18 he already possessed startling artistic and intellectual maturity, immense powers of observation and an ability to use language with the precision of a sculptor. By 22 he speaks with the poise, the authority, weight and calculated wisdom of passionate maturity. With brilliant capacity for appropriate metaphor and imagery and an insistence on precision and intellectual clarity he was soon to be ready to `become the poetic articulator of the people from the abyss.' When 25 Varoujean returned to his home village where as a teacher in Sepastia's main school he acquired a magnetic reputation with hundreds attending meetings he organised. Here too, in the wake of his Mekhitarist ordeals, he was to experience assault by the local clergy. They were particularly incensed by Varouzhan's rejection of arranged marriages and his insistence on choosing as partner and bride a woman from a Christian denomination not his own! But a stubborn free spirit Varoujean would allow no vice to clip the wings of his personal and literary ambition. Matoyan unfortunately, as was the want of lesser Soviet-era literary commentary, furnishes Varoujean with more radical attributes than he possessed. A speech on taxation shows Varoujean clearly possessing a grasp of socio-economic matters with judgments that start from policy's impact on the common people. But this made of Varoujean neither socialist radical nor an opponent of the Young Turks. Like many Armenian intellectuals of the era, even at the point of arrest Varoujean retained misguided faith in the Young Turks and in the inevitability of a beneficent foreign intervention on behalf of the Armenian people. Matoyan's aesthetic appreciation of Varoujean also has rewarding moments noting the intense seriousness with which the poet approached creative work, his determination to breach the barriers of tradition for new artistic forms capable of yielding the truth of his own times, his attempts to salvage the best of classical Armenian through compound words capable of conveying a richer appearance and true essence. For such insights and reminders this volume, pedestrian and at points even dull, is a worthy addition to the library of Varoujean studies. -- 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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