Zoryan: chronicles of the early 20th century Armenian News Network / Groong March 2, 2015 By Eddie Arnavoudian >From the early 1910s to the early 1930s, short story writer Stepan Zoryan (1889-1967) produced some of the finest portraits of life as it was actually lived by the people of eastern Armenia during what were turbulent decades of unprecedented political upheaval and radical historic transformation; from just before World War One and Genocide to the early Soviet era; from centuries of statelessness and a hundred years of Tsarist colonial domination of what was little more than a Caucasian provincial backwater, to the First and then the Soviet Armenian Republics. Zoryan who described himself as a 'chronicler of my times' observed these decades with critical, dispassionate precision, free from distorting preconceptions, free from the all too familiar propagandistic patriotism of well-intentioned but didactic authors, but always generous with that 'dough of life', as Hagop Oshagan put it, that gives literature an enduring value. It is a measure of his accomplishment that a century and more after their creation, Zoryan's protagonists are instantly recognisable despite, or precisely because, fixed brilliantly in the reality of early 20th century eastern Armenia, they are sculpted seamlessly in their national particularity and their inherent universality. Teeming with unique, full-blooded yet socially typical characters, the authenticity, vitality and freshness of Zoryan's fictional world recalls Hovanness Toumanian and Aksel Bakunts. Tales, taut with dramas of the most ordinary of men and women, tell of how they actually related to and coped with events that in their totality reshaped global and Armenian life. Zorian charts those bloodless brutalities of 'normal', everyday unequal social and individual relations, the silent brutalities that even today reduce millions, render them passive, their existence atomised and alienated. He registers the impact of war and revolution and also movingly tells of relations between eastern Armenian communities and invading Turkish soldiers as well as grasping profoundly the damage done by the dehumanisation of women, and of men, in war time and in peace. Throughout there surfaces an inspirational humanism, not as abstract, external imposition, but manifest in wonderfully conceived characters and their relations, a humanism that notes and acknowledges the stubbornly enduring humanity of his protagonists at their most dehumanised - of women particularly, but also of the demonised `Turk' of Armenian chauvinism. Suffused with empathy and pathos Zoryan's work shows men and women to be broader, and nobler, than the forms into which they are pressed and narrowed by social or national distortions, by superstitions and obscurantisms. It allows him from the crevices of impossible conditions and events to map possibilities for transformation and transition from abject passivity and isolation to optimistic collective action, from national hatred to human solidarities. I. Bloodless brutality Nighol Aghbalian was right to give the young Zoryan a warm welcome on the 1918 publication of 'Sad People', his first volume of short stories. It shows immediately an instinctive knack for summoning character and personality with just one detail or two. Many a piece shows in addition finesse in the evocation of emotion and mood with telling poetic metaphor or turn of phrase. Entered into narrative that is itself simplicity and clarity, these focus relationships revealing of the 'sadness' of the title. Prompting much debate in its day it is a title suggestive of an existential 'sadness', of helplessness, isolation and abuse, the `sadness' of miserable egoism and selfishness, of impotence before the powerful, a 'sadness' all the more tragic for being cemented by assumptions of the unalterable permanence of what is. The brutality of silently tolerated, 'most ordinary' humiliating and demeaning relationships are cut into every page on which Zoryan's nimble, firm and fluent narrative sketches master and servant, husband and wife, teacher and head teacher, as well as local shopkeepers, lovelorn maids, servants, migrant workers, radical students, ex-prisoners, beggars, clerical workers, priests, imposters, egotists and others. All real individuals, none are warped by artificial or imposed patriotic, national or other attributes, men and women from the backwaters of any age and any land, but here they speak Armenian and depicted in their national provincial small towns and villages under Tsarist occupation. Ordinary, 'average' men and women, blighted by the meanness, petty cruelty and arrogance of the everyday, are unable to shape their own lives and powerless to challenge life-defining misfortune, they exist passive and fatalistic. For them life offers nothing notable. Trapped in a social marsh, sunk into grooves by forces unbeknownst, there is no flood of passion, no vision or drive of ambition that would fertilise enthusiasm and announce release. Yet, within the limits of even such existence, still suffered by millions today, Zoryan draws out the truly tragic in that which has been wasted, that which has been lost, squandered, stolen, abused and disdainfully discarded, all etched with searing empathy. 'The Trustee' personifies the arrogance and vulgarity, the petty tyranny and pretension visited upon the common people by petty provincial elites, in fact, nothing but minor disposable cogs. Here our trustee who tries to pass himself off as a notable national benefactor is just a philistine shopkeeper lording it over those beneath and weaker, ensuring, always, that his own pockets are lined at everyone else's expense. 'Father Simon', a man of the Church, another pillar of the community, is of the same cut. Self-centered, scheming, he always has an eye open for the business opportunity, readily abusing customs of hospitality with no regard for exhausted hosts expected to treat and feed him. Though mean and going about his business with a sack-full of medieval superstition, Father Simon is nevertheless also a sad figure, suffering the grief of three sons lost to fatal illness. 'Dinner' is a masterly summing of the exercise of whimsical power by these elites, their humiliation of subordinates, and in particularly Armenian elite form, their contempt for the lower classes of their own nationality. Servitude, akin to serfdom is shocking. The master introduced ordering dinner, holds the servant's savings, savings accumulated to allow his wife to buy a cow. So he dare not protest or complain, nor can he leave. He has to put up with any whim of a lord thus untouchable. Short, but full of movement stories mark out lives fallen beyond networks of solidarity and support. A hapless young migrant labourer from Lori, just released from prison, wanders the streets of Tbilisi in search of help from a relative, a shopkeeper whose success is due to the youngster's father. But to the shopkeeper his relative now represents only a sum in profit and loss accounts. In Tbilisi's world of commerce, rural bonds of community and solidarity count for nothing. The young man is packed off after being pressed into buying a 'Sugar Bowl' for which he has absolutely no need. Elsewhere two street beggars battle 'On the Pavement' for territory and favour from passers-by. A pathetic older man, part crippled, cannot measure up to a younger woman in this war of survival of the fittest. Extremes of isolation produce a callous indifference to misfortunes even of those sharing the same pitiable fate. Even a flawed end does not detract from the depiction of a life wasted, fallen victim to emotional and mental illness, here in 'Bropos' suffering hypochondria and an unreasoned terror of calamity and fire. Men and women existing without prospect endure silent and passive. Zoryan has penned with force this noiseless submission, unconscious even of its own alienation. Removed from any circle of solidarity, his stories show such existence as an affront to humanity, as a subtraction from and a rejection of what people are, of what they had hoped to or could have been. More than a comforting reminder of `there but for the grace of good fortune go I' `Sad People' evokes indignant questioning of any order that so abandons millions. II. Into the mainstream - war and humanism On the margins of the Tsarist Empire, as far as any margin could be, eastern Armenia, as with every other colonial outpost, was nevertheless, never too far for the state's tax collector or its military conscription officer. And so at the outbreak of World War One thousands of young men from the remotest of villages, were called up to fight and die in the mud of distant trenches, in battles neither of their making nor in their communities' or nation's interest. It was grand historical irony then that it was to be this war and the revolutions that followed that drew the men and women of provincial eastern Armenia into the mainstream of global developments. To essential moments of this process Zoryan was a witness-chronicler of the highest order. Regarded often as Zoryan's best collection, judged to match those of highly acclaimed European masters, `The War' (1925) rarely turns to the battle front, treating primarily of its impact upon those who remain at home and those who return maimed. Laced with laconic, sardonic humour the volume is a stern judgement against those who orchestrate war, against those who, - always away from any dangerous battlefield, - transform the sons of the common people into killing machines. Though Tsarist or European elites rarely appear, but at every stage their absolute power is evident. It is they, not the people who make all decisions, who bring about death and destruction, who put out the lights. A breath-taking grasp of the minutia of rural life portrays the powerlessness of the common man and woman in the face of elites that mobilising for war disrupt the rhythms of community life and of rural labour with no concern for human consequence. As striking is the damning of predators who posture, exploit and profit from war at everyone else's expense. Yet as glows of hope amid the tangled veins of blood and hate are singular experiences that draw together those pitted against each other by their masters. The volume opens with a matchless backdrop of location and time. With sons and relatives at war, eager for news, illiterate craftsmen, rural labourers and village folk gather round 'The Reader', shopkeeper Minas, who, with evident difficulty, reads newspaper reports from battles in faraway places they have little inkling of. Moving is a mother's naïve hope that the press will carry a report of her son's whereabouts or well-being. Cut with endearing humour, a pompous Minas is shown desperately defending his 'educated' status from the questioning of a wise albeit illiterate blacksmith. Minas however enjoys an almost priestly status for he can at least read. Zoryan doesn't lose the opportunity to poke fun at pretentious journalists of his time (and ours!) who make Minas's task that much more difficult by their mass deployment of incomprehensible and redundant foreign words. Thereafter a constellation of stories describe terrains ranging from the Russo-German trenches ('Besides the Well') to Russo-Turkish and Armenian-Turkish fronts nearer home. Stories of families awaiting letters from silent sons in distant lands ('War'), stories of the tragedies of post- traumatic stress, for victim and family (Vahan's Pain'). Others put to shame the loud-mouthed cowardice of privileged youth donning patriotic airs ('The Patriot), expose cynical traders taking advantage of women widowed in war ('At the Market'), describe war changing even the most stubborn of habits ('Good Fortune') and how it often compounds women's oppression ('Zakar's Daughter in Law'), how it treats them as domestic cattle to be bought or sold. They touch also on the humanising, qualities of music ('The Song'), on the experience of prisoners-of-war, the loss of all sense of worth by the maimed unable to further serve their families. Some of these dramas weave an oft neglected truth: much of war's suffering, pain and death is caused not by the enemy but by one's own people, by cruelties, prejudices, backward tradition and custom, especially against women already trapped in webs of subordination and misogyny. The fatal antagonists of 'Zakar's Daughter in Law' are not invading Turkish soldiers but her own community and family. Esther is taken away by Turkish soldiers who capture her village. But she is not killed, nor is she raped. Yes, she possibly could have been. But she managed to escape. No one however will believe her account of escape or that her `honour remains intact'. Even as this may reflect expectations of Turkish soldiers, the brutish fact is that a woman's word has no weight. Shunned and disbelieved Esther is driven to suicide, murdered by a 'code of honour' so vicious that had she indeed been raped she would have been ostracised anway. The mother in 'In the Market' is also victim to an Armenian not a Turk! Set in Yerevan amidst panic selling as Armenian inhabitants prepare to flee enemy advance, an impoverished war widow also selling wares to feed two children is trapped and abused by a misogynist sexual predator (Note 1). Blood cannot however drown all that which is shared by human beings; a common humanity is never permanently cancelled by war. In 'The Song' we witness moments that rise above warring hatreds. The looming figure and haunting melody of 'The Song', sung by a Turkish singer urging a halt to hostilities mesmerises both sides who for a period down their guns. As if in silent prayer Armenian and Turk appear as one as they listen and feel deeper affinities of nobler selves. 'The Song' is one of those pieces that affirm those objective human, cultural and social affinities and that stand as a promise for better futures. Whilst some stories are flawed by a romanticism that is pale, here it is sustained by poetic flight in description and depiction. Heart rending and heart-warming come together in 'Ohan's Death' that revealing of deeply felt hatreds and prejudices tells in the face of these an inalienable truth. Armenian and Turk despite nationality are of the same human family. Executed by his own side for allegedly supplying intelligence to the enemy, Ohan was only helping a sick young Turkish solider to join his retreating battalion. Prior to this, driven by murderous hate for Turks whose soldiers had killed his own son, Ohan had planned to murder the Turkish boy to death as he lay helplessly ill at his mercy. But murder of another human, whatever their nationality, is never easy. And with Ohan it proved impossible. When in a moment of recovery the Turkish boy opens his eyes, in them and in his features, Ohan sees his own son. Vengeance and hatred dissipate to bloom a human generosity that drives him to aid the boy's return to his own. If only in microcosm, solidarities free of nationalist and state animosities surface in most unusual conditions. Trapped in a trench on a baking hot day, desperately parched trooper Barseghian risks venturing to fetch water for himself and his comrades from a 'Nearby Water Well', positioned in the middle of no-man's land that separates German and Tsarist troops. He succeeds. Conscious of an essential human need for water, conscious of the humanity of their opponents, Tsarist troops allow them too to relish the pleasure of a drink. As if recognising that 'we are all water', there follows a joyful fraternising among both sides. It is a humanising joy not shared by higher echelons and the officer who turned a blind eye to it is executed. But so begins a questioning and a challenging. III. The triumph of the 'sad people' As the tides of the 1917 Russian revolution washed across eastern Armenia, Stepan Zoryan was there again, in the last stage of his chronicling career, noting with unquestionably sympathy what he sensed to be an empowerment of 'sad people'. However in 'Early Days' (1930) and elsewhere this sympathy is no dogmatic 'socialist realist' cosmetic surgery, no doctrinaire eulogy to 'the Party' or to an abstract ideology of 'proletarian class struggle'. Never a loudspeaker for apparatchiks or bureaucrats, behind slogans and banners of the revolution, Zoryan looked for the ordinary human. Scrutinising some of the difficult issues of the early revolutionary process - the splitting of families, the choices this left to those allied to opposing political trends, the challenging of religious certitudes among older generations, the ARF-Bolshevik clash, the campaigns to eradicate illiteracy, the fortunes of a hitherto privileged but now deposed clergy - Zoryan shows how in times of any upheaval the weakening and breaking of old law and custom facilitates the release of people from fetters and so enables a bloom of energy and ambition. `Early Days' capture such moments when 'sad people', especially women, were able to stand and insist that they too have something to contribute, potentials to realise, dreams to bring to life. 'The Librarian' is exciting with the energy and spirit of young Victoria emerging as a communist militant and leader and marks well the space the revolutionary process created for women to flourish. It charms with scenes of Victoria's mum coming to terms with her daughter's defiance of tradition, her participation in the public sphere previously reserved for men, with the challenges that this represented to her view of women's role, as well to her preconceptions of religion. 'The Teacher' warms hearts as it unfolds a woman's experience in the early Soviet Armenian campaign to eradicate illiteracy. Showing Margo attaining independence and collective respect as she strives to realise ambition, it describes the transformation of egotistic, self-seeking ambition into fulfilment through acts of social solidarity. A short novel, 'The White City' captures something of social ambition released in the early Soviet years with its account of the laying of city foundations according to assumed 'socialist principles'. It registers something also of the contradictory character of small-town life, bringing alive relations between men and women, between party and non-party people and the clash between party functionaries trying to build the town inspired by socialist ideals and the semi-peasant town population with its pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia. As we meet Dikran, his wife Anna and her affair with the town architect - Minas - a bourgeois to the bone, 'The While City' reveals well the subjugated condition of the married Armenian woman depicting at the same time possibilities of liberation afforded by the early revolutionary period. Her demand, as a condition of preserving her marriage, that she be allowed to go out to work is historically authentic. Whirling around 'The Chairman of the Revolutionary Committee' are the miseries of families split by struggles between the ARF heading the First Armenian Republic and Bolshevik revolutionaries seeking its overthrow. A mother is fretful for her two ARF sons arrested by the Bolsheviks. All the more dreadful a fret as her daughter is married to the chairman of the revolutionary committee responsible for the arrest! The anguish, the regrets and the strife are telling. 'The Last Priest' about a clergy still tolerated in these early days is an impressive picture of opportunist careerism with priests ready to enter service, not for the saving of souls from Bolshevik atheists, but for income in unstable times and that only after having compared and calculated against other sources! At his best when describing society and people at their most passive and troubled Zoryan's stories of revolution are rather diminished, marked by a retreat from critical engagement, by an anaemic quality often cloaked with unconvincing romanticism. Victoria of the superior 'The Librarian', is but one example. She is just too virtuous, an almost spotless, sinless angel of revolution! Where are the darker sides of individuals and circumstance of which there had to be more than a few? Perhaps the writer's sympathy for men and women now standing upright blurred critical vision! Though never a communist, Zoryan was perhaps carried away by the potential for emancipation held out by the revolutionary process. The best of these stories he composed before the final triumph of Stalinism. Yet even so early, Zoryan as a supporter of popular emancipation perhaps bent to those who, having seized power in the name of the people, expected the left intelligentsia's accolades as a counterweight to those who denounced the revolution as a Satanic triumph. 'Early Days' remains nevertheless a significant literary reconstruction critically grasping the truth that the common people's sympathies for revolution were always functions not of doctrinaire ideology, of 'Bolshevik manipulation' or 'deceit' but of the most ordinary bread and butter issues that 'sad people' in Armenia and beyond had dreamt of and even fought for, long before any contact with revolutionary ideology and politics or with the Bolshevik Party. If not warts and all, in Zoryan's revolutionary stories we still measure real and authentic men and women of the times, men and women not yet ossified in that compound of a corrupted 'socialist realism' to be then transformed into lifeless wooden heroes a triumphant Stalinism. IV. A man of stature and principle Most of Stepan Zoryan's creative career was to be in what became Soviet Armenia. He attained there deserved national standing and played an active role in literary life. Throughout however and despite Stalinist purges and bureaucratic tyranny, he made no concessions of substance, especially to the vulgar proponents of socialist realism. He would rather stop writing altogether. Insisting that the artist must portray everything he rejected notions that Soviet society had no warts. But truths of Soviet Armenia in the late 1930s, 1940s and '50s were not to flow from his pen. When pressure to idolise and so falsify Soviet life became too great Zoryan returned to historical fiction, a genre he had attempted earlier (Note 2). But as a full stop to his chronicling career, prior to a turn to 5th century Armenia, Zoryan published 'The Story of a Life', a drumming, dancing, marching fictional account of childhood and youth in north-eastern Armenia at the turn of the 20th century. More than an engrossing account of life amid poverty, foreign oppression and backward social customs, here is an illumination of the story of life itself, a thrilling read with charming recreation of the fantasy of childhood blending its mix of chaotic emotions, confusions, strivings and appetites, innocent ambitions, pleasures and pains. On virtually every page we encounter the magic and the tragic of early life. Central to Souren's life is resistance to foreign occupation at a time when all Armenian schools were closed by the Tsarist authorities as part of their strategy to undermine the emerging Armenian national movement. Souren's subsequent transition to adulthood is captured movingly in the accounts of his unrequited love for Anahid. It may be bold and debatable, but it is reasonable to assert that `The Story of a Life' compares well with Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. Both convey with wit and humour the wonder, the adventure, the mystery and the magic of childhood. They both recover the frequently forgotten reality of a child's universe that is marked by broad, profound, enormously diverse emotional and intellectual experiences touched by an unfathomable innocence that makes childhood so enchanting. Always a master of his craft, Zoryan's historical trilogy - 'The Armenian Fortress', 'King Pap' and the lesser `Varazdat' - is at many points a thrilling read. But it does not elevate the Armenian historical novel above its entrenched mediocrity. Intelligent speculation and imaginative flight supplement paucity of historical fact serving to recreate historical circumstance with some credibility. As he weaves his plot Zoryan's novels address many of the social and political realities of the time - relationships between serf and nobility, the role of the Church, the clash between monarch and his lords, the conflicts between Armenia and Byzantium. Yet the impression remains of a historical textbook in fiction, first class as such, but short of quality, inadequateaabfvly fixed in historical time. Beyond his fiction Zoryan was prolific in other spheres, refashioning Armenian folk tales, fables and legends, writing children's stories, sketches, film scripts and much more. Memoirs of literary and cultural figures of his time, as well as perceptive and sharp critical reviews of books and theatre, including a fine series on his beloved Toumanian, stand out. As a marker of independent and bold intellect is a fine appreciation and dashing defence of poet Vahan Derian before his Soviet era idolisation when Derian had been subject to denigration for his membership of the Bolshevik Party. Always forthright and forceful, when he was wrong, Zoryan was terribly wrong; his brutal axing of Gourgen Mahari's `The Burning Orchards' being a regrettable case. A regrettable failure of literary judgement maybe, but one that remains honourable for having nothing in common with the poisonous `patriotic' denunciations and book burnings that erupted on the first publication of `The Burning Orchards'. * * * * Renowned `sixties novelist Hrant Matevosian judged Stepan Zoryan 'a mighty exponent of classic prose' adding: 'If Armenian prose has any anything that raises it to international standards, it is almost solely a result of Zoryan's short stories.' Zoryan's was talent, even genius, disastrously squandered, a squandering about which he felt bleeding bitterness to the end of his life. Bitter for being denied the opportunity to create to his full abilities instead of a professional writer being forced into the business of translation! He was bitter too, and with justification, for dismissal and disrespect he suffered at the hands of the zealous young vanguard of Soviet Armenian literature, Bakounts and Charents among them. It all bursts out in an 'Autobiographical Note' that remained in his lifetime unpublished: 'I judge myself as one who could perhaps have become a writer of some quality, that is if conditions had permitted...Alas I have never been a professional author, having devoted myself seriously to literature only for five years, from 1915-1920...Thereafter concerns for earning a wage, and other circumstances too, blocked me doing that which I loved most...And if I have produced anything original, it has been in between translating, editing and other peripheral work....I had a great deal of substantial material ready for production. But I avoided any return so as not to suffer spiritual and physical tortures. Quoting more extensively gauges the depth of disillusion: 'The business of translation can cut one up, especially one who having his own work to produce is forced to abandon it....After completing a translation, I at any rate was so exhausted that I could not even look at paper, let alone take up any unfinished piece...My pain can be understood only by mothers, who driven by the need earn money, instead of suckling their own baby offer themselves to feed another's. For a mother such as this, it would be a thousand times more welcome not to have children so as not to suffer.' Yet a twelve volume Collected Works (1977-1990) and three additional post-Soviet collections secure Zoryan an honourable position in the trajectory of Armenian prose, alongside Abovian before and Bakoonts after, registering, as they both did, an authentic national experience unfurled with an all-embracing humanism. Of these volumes five or six at least offer a veritable literary, philosophical, social and cultural education in life. If not that of which Stepan Zoryan was capable, his stock of quality prose bequeaths nevertheless rich rites of passage through historical time and existential human experience. NOTE 1. With its almost passing allusion to the multi-ethnic city Yerevan then still was, `In the Market' features a truth about the Armenian capital that rarely appears in fiction. In this regard, Soviet (and indeed much of pre-Soviet) Armenian (and Georgian, Azeri) writers were not, with only fragments of exception, fully national writers. They are more accurately authors whose work accurately reflected the life of only a single community in an ethnically mixed society. They all shared an economic, political or municipal space, as well as elements of culture living in cities such as Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan. Even as they lived largely discrete lives, a national literature cannot be truly authentic without focus on these and how they come together. A mature national literature in particular could not bypass that dramatic, substantial, defining and tragic historical process that was the Soviet era ethnic transformation of the Caucasian states. Ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and the obstruction of free national development in the three Caucasian Soviet states represent a darker side of life that found no significant expression in the Armenian literature of that era. Like many other darker sides it was air brushed out by vulgar 'socialist realism' that served the Soviet apparatus by an essentially one sided depicting a non-existent social paradise. Of note, even in humanist Zoryan's stories of the revolution, non-Armenians are absent. So, where we do have literary reminders of the multi-ethnic realities of the region (from Abovian, Broshian, Shirvanzade, Aghayan and others, these should be cherished like gems in our era of re-ignited national animosities, wars and savageries. They are priceless reminders of the possibilities, the hope and potentials for harmonious co-existence. NOTE 2 Thank heavens then for Anahit Sahinian who later, from the 1950s was to produce her outstanding trilogy of novels encompassing some essential truths of those decades. -- 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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