Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 11/03/2015


Abcai: circles of dying': a novel about the enemy within

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 3, 2015

By EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN


There is in Armenia today something of an exciting literary
revival. Its quality and its future are, however, far from secure,
with much depending on whether the nation can be salvaged from the
hyenas mercilessly devouring it. Nevertheless, and perhaps ironically,
one manifestation of this revival is Mesrop Harutyunian's wonderful
short novel - `Abcai: circles of dying' that illuminates the sordid
and tragic truths of the late 1980s transition from the Soviet
Armenian to the `independent' Third Republic. A book for our times its
truths have, additionally, an international resonance!

				  I.

First published in 2007 (with a digital edition available since 2014 -
See Note 1), `Abcai' is a gripping story of the origins, the essence
and the real character of the class now dominating and destroying the
post-Soviet Armenian state and social order. In the very same breath
it is a deeply moving remark on the tragedy of the Armenian-Azeri
conflict. But this is no turgid political tract of a novel.

An enchanting mix of realism, 'magical realism', surrealism, fable and
philosophy, shifting between past and present `Abcai' frames its
themes in a swirling tale of magical birth, love, sex, prostitution,
Armenian-Azeri friendships, war, plunder, destitution, murder,
assassination, police brutality and a great deal of philosophical
contemplation too. And throwing light on it all is the protagonist
Abcai whose name is a whole philosophical story, as the reader will
discover. Possessed of magical qualities, a compound of `noble savage'
and a saintly mystic, deeply suspicious of urban life, always eager to
return to his mountainous village on the Armenian-Azeri border, Abcai
is a counterpoint to the forces shown to be seizing command of the
newly emerging state.

In what is also a socio-political thriller, we first meet our hero in
1999 when he is on the run fleeing from security forces ordered to
eliminate or neutralise him. To consolidate its power and secure
ill-gotten gains, a parasite class, emerging to replace the collapsed
Soviet hierarchy is ruthlessly wiping out opposition. They have
already assassinated the Commander-in-Chief and are now gunning for
his loyal lieutenant Abcai. Having usurped the mass patriotic Movement
to plunder the nation's wealth this class is simultaneously
prosecuting the Armenian-Azeri war ethnically cleansing Azeri
communities from Armenia to carve additional spheres for looting now
from deserted Azeri villages. For this class that remains in situ to
this day:

    `Land, people, state are just words, beneath which they conceal
    their real design - enjoy a long reign and if possible pass power
    on to their own likes.'


				 II.

A reluctant recruit to the mass Movement Abcai's faith founders almost
immediately as he witnesses hucksters and adventurers exploiting the
vast collective patriotic enthusiasm of the 1980s for their individual
private profit. It is on the very frontline of the Armenian-Azeri war
that he `comes face to face with the brutal reality' of greed for
personal profit drowning nobler patriotism. Such was the reality that
defined the dominant forces of the movement and shaped the emergent
elite and state. It is on the frontline that Apcai first meets men who
will be among those who rise to power, men raucously `drinking to money
and to riches', one bellowing `I, lads, am only `I' with money.' These
are soldiers who:

    `...would strut around brandishing their weapons when in the market
    place, but never so in the mountains, never at their posts. There
    at the first moment (of danger) they would search for a suitable
    rock'.

Even as bullets fly, such impostors braying patriotic and nationalist
slogans build fortunes at everyone else's expense. Abcai sees `convoys
of trucks' passing through his village loaded with the country's
factory equipment being driven out of Armenia to be sold as scrap
metal! These nation destroyers are also `enriching themselves' `at the
expense of refugees' and cynically diverting supplies of bread from
the front line and selling it at high prices in local markets. Never
risking their own lives, they `began to demand, and received both
office and wealth.'

Managing to `come out of the water dry' fortune hunters, bandits and
thieves `acquired office' and `organised new plunder' now leeching off
the misery of the people. A striking moment is evoked in dramatic
strokes of surreal colour following the Commander-in-Chief's funeral
when Abcai ends up in a hotel with two women driven into prostitution.
One turns out to be the daughter of Anik a young love whom he had not
been allowed to marry as her parents judged him of too lowly a social
rank, and here another story to delve into! The daughter recognises
Abcai and mortified tells her story, one of thousands upon thousands
ground down by the new order. Concluding she exclaims `I am no
prostitute but I have...children to feed and no one to help...'

In the passion of Haroutyunyan's narrative one can hear echoes of
Barouyr Sevak. Writing against the Soviet era hierarchy, Sevak also
writes about the leaders of the Movement of the 1980s and about the
governing elites since! Truly the greedy cliques, then and now all:

    Speak in the name of the sea of society
    But flow towards their private lake.

They are `burdens upon the back of the world' who `never risk or
sacrifice', and have `never once experienced sleep on a damp
floor'. Cruel and greedy they:

    `would wreck another's home
    for the sake of a single beam
    they want for themselves'.

In the event of righteous opposition, as Abcai discovers, they have
their gangsters, their prisons and police to beat, to brutalise and
eliminate as necessary. And so the drama of the novel: a failed
assassination attempt, Abcai's arrest and vicious beating, judicial
fraud and the ghastly cynicism of the new elite.

Through bitter experience does the truth dawn! Abcai comes to realise
that `his war and their war were different things', that `his war had
come to an end' while for them a new `war had begun.' His conception
of motherland and theirs are irreconcilable opposites. For those now
in power `motherland' never was and never will be the people of the
land and their well-being. For them it is only `what they could
squeeze from this land' and its people. This class continues its
career into 2015, selling off what remains of the national heritage,
most recently the national sports complex.

It is disappointing that Abcai never ponders why and how the parasites
seized command of the mass Movement with such ease. Only silences hint
at absence of an alternative social vision, at the lack of organised
popular democratic input into the leadership of the Movement. It was a
lack that allowed the fraudulent `patriots' an easy ride, to dismiss
the desires of the people for an improved life, to capture the state
and use it to empty the nation's coffers and line their own filthy
pockets.


				 III.

A high point of the novel is a focus on Armenian-Azeri relations as
these emerge from the relationship between Abcai and the novel's
second protagonist, the Azeri Hassan. Before the conflict Abcai was an
honoured guest in Hassan's Azeri Village N that is located in Armenia.
>From a passionate affair with Hassan's sister (Abcai is a man of great
sexual energy) is born an Armenian-Azeri boy who is to grow up an
Azeri and here again another whole story to relish in this novel of
numerous sub-plots! A complicated but nevertheless genuine friendship
grows, one that is torn apart by war.

For all his honesty and integrity Abcai in Armenian Azeri relations is
a man of his times, trapped in a template of overriding anti-democratic
nationalism. He takes an active part in cleansing Azeri villages
including Hassan's believing this necessary for reasons of state
security. Though seeking to do so peacefully and without plunder he
shows no empathy for those he drives out. He is blind to the
connection between the domestic criminality of the new order and its
anti-Azeri ethnic cleansing. He never questions the fact that it is
the very same forces who `squeeze the motherland' and its people and
who at the very same time engage in ethnic cleansing to draw state
borders within which they will be free to do as they so greedily wish.

It takes Hassan, now thrown out of a land that he considers his
motherland to question the character of the dominant `patriotism' of
both sides. Near the novel's end in mountains overlooking the now
Armenian populated Village N, Abcai and Hassan meet in a last
encounter. Their exchange offers a heart-warming redefinition of
motherland and patriotism, that freed from political borders cut by
greedy elites is rooted in the recognition of people's labour and love
of the land upon which they build their lives and communities,
irrespective of national or ethnic origin or state borders.

In Azerbaijan Hassan's experience mirrors that of Abcai's. As Hassan
begins to `resist injustices', Azeri authorities look at him `with
sideway glances'. There `was not a charge that was not levelled
against' him. He was accused of collaborating with Abcai and being a
spy. Arrested repeatedly he manages to escape. Fearing for his family
he moves them to Russia. As for himself explaining his return to his
childhood hills in Armenia he says: `For me it makes no difference
whether I am to be judged here or there... Anyway, I could not
resist. I was longing for our mountains, even though you say that
these are not ours. But look, I too was born and grew up here. I too
have wandered through these mountains and have hunted there. This is
motherland for me.'

His people may be migrants `from who knows when'. But still `My
grandfather and my father too were born here. Me too! Our dead are
buried in our villages here! How is this not my motherland?'

Hassan affirms the very same for Armenians of Azerbaijan. Having
crossed into Armenia with invincible longing to revisit his family
home he plucks up the courage and knocks on his old door that is
opened by an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan, now living there. They
spend the entire night talking and Hassan tells Abcai:

    `And so I understood that between him and me there was absolutely
    no difference...Longing was killing us both...'

The historical and social validity of this deeply personal truth finds
remarkable support in the history of the even more savage 1905-1906
Armenian-Azeri clashes. In its wake as reconciliation spread between
bloodied communities an Armenian newspaper reports an Azeri peasant's
view:

    `Yes, it was the government that set fire to our land. We Azeris
    and you Armenians have lived in a common motherland for centuries,
    we are the children of the same land, our interests are common and
    thus we have no cause to spill each other's blood...' (`On the Paths
    of National Liberation Volume 2' by Hrachig Simonian p9)

As they part, Hassan in a gesture of common humanity speaks of Abcai's
son `as my son and yours'. But reflecting the temporary reality of
unresolved national animosities they go their own way. Still,
Harutyunyan's novel, recalling short stories in the same vein by
western Armenian Hagop Mntsouri (1886-1978) and eastern Armenian
Stepan Zorian (1889-1967), in experience born of real lives, offers
the means to radically rethink and to reformulate conceptions of
nationhood and statehood for the benefit of all that inhabit a land.


				* * *

The jury remains out for a comprehensive evaluation, especially of
philosophic and existential beams in the novel. Abcai is a big reader
his cave packed with books including the Bible, St Exubery and
Nietzche. These contribute to his outlook, his judgements and his
sense of future possibility. There emerges here a marked ambiguity,
one that suggests the inevitability and permanence of the triumph of
the parasites, unavoidable due to an assumed deep-seated human egoism
compounded by an essential corruptibility of any urban civil society
in the face of which there appears little recourse.

Oblique references to Abcai being something of a Little Mher could
point to an element of hope for the future. A lesser known hero of the
Armenian epic `The Daredevils of Sassoon', Little Mher in the face of
the abominations of the world retreats to a cave to await confidently
it must be said, better days. But Abcai contests any comparison. He
rejects this traditional reading and sees in Little Mher only
fatalistic resignation and passivity that has put an ugly imprint on
the people of his times. Yet Abcai himself appears unable to challenge
this. In flight throughout most of the novel at its end he too
vanishes.

It is of course not the business of the novelist to offer a programme
of action for the future. But then again it is not unwarranted for the
reader to discuss what can be read as a questionable resignation to a
grim reality. The impasse of which Abcai, and Hassan, is a
personification may be an accurate reflection of the grimness of many
a modern and more particularly post-Soviet state. But as they say hope
burns eternal and indeed it is this hope that fires collective and
individual effort to overcome the most daunting odds. The form this
hope takes depends! One is the Electric Yerevan protest that swept the
land in June and July, just as the parasites were selling off our
sports complex.

Nevertheless, one conclusion is beyond challenge. `Abcai: circles of
dying' is an exciting, colourful novel of prime importance and
deserves wide circulation, discussion and debate. With artistic
panache and creative daring Harutyunyan has unearthed the terms of the
triumph of the parasites that from their first appearance in the
Movement and to this day relentlessly crush the nation, the state and
its people. In this and in its contesting of received conceptions of
patriotism and nationalism this novel has also a decided universal
aspect, relevant to peoples and nations across the globe suffering the
pretences of freedom often fashioned by elite nationalist diatribes
that rip up all people's lives.

Note 1: The digital edition is made available by Yavruhrat
(http://yavrumyan.blogspot.co.uk/p/ebook.html) that makes available a
great digital library of Armenian literature in epub, kindle, google
and I-pad formats.

--
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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