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 30, 2016 By Eddie Arnavoudian I. Mkrtich Armen - the artist in the age of revolution Melkiset Melkonian's `Mkrtich Armen' (1906-1972 ; 192p, 1981, Yerevan) is an undiluted pleasure, an honest and intelligent evaluation of an author who produced nothing else as accomplished as his early short novel `Heghnar's Fountain' published in 1935. It is a great pity, for Armen possessed outstanding literary ability, a knack for grasping the issues of the day as well as the skill to summon with vitality the mood and atmosphere of the times he chose to focus. Melkonian's commentary affords in addition insight into some of the circumstances that contributed to artistically derailing not just Armen but many other literary talents in the early Soviet Armenian era. Armen's first stories capture something of the enthusiasm of the young generation for the early Soviet experience that promised relief for a people shattered by war and genocide. Through a lengthy literary career punctuated by exile and labour camps during the Stalin era, a prolific Armen surveyed life beyond that of the young. `Heghnar's Fountain' is set in pre-Soviet Gyumri, the author's birthplace. `Yassva' tells of the harshness of the Second World War years. The `Golden Reaper' touches on troubles of rural life. Life in Stalin's labour camps finds reflection in a collection of short stories `They Asked Me to Pass This to You', while the challenges of readjustment to post-camp `normality' feature in `Jerry Klenz'. Among Armen's writings for younger readers `Scout 89' and `Red and Blue Ties' stand out. The best of Armen's early work captures youth, many Genocide survivors from western Armenia, as militant cadre for Soviet economic, social and cultural development that inspired in them a confidence and hope of recovery for a people ravaged and ruined. Armen reveals something of the optimism of the age in stories that reflect on social transformation, the contesting of old religious superstition, the battles to right the role of women, the educational and propaganda campaigns and much else. Here Armen appears as the novelist of an urbanising Armenia, though centred in Yerevan not in his native Gyumri. But alas he was not to become the Axel Bakunts of an emergent urban Armenia! The bulk Armen's work, and that of many of his literary contemporaries, failed to artistically reproduce in its protagonists the turbulent and contradictory spirit of the age. Repeated depictions of economic development and industrialisation are often mechanical and dull, lacking in life. Fine prose is frequently schematic, scattered with declamatory authorial opinion. Characters are often one-sided - voices of ideology, albeit honest but lacking in depth and genuine personality. But then, only a genius could surmount hurdles to artistic creativity born of any revolutionary epoch. Armen and his contemporaries were not just artistic, literary observers. They took sides and made it their business to propound the advantages of their chosen side. Many worked with a missionary dedication to convince others, through art and literature, of the benefit and the promise of the new social order in Armenia. Even before the era of deadly Party dictates on the direction of artistic endeavour, Armen's generation was already inclined to flaw. With committed writing the order of the day, without exceptional execution, attempts to depict the contradictory turmoil of human experience in a revolutionary period carried an almost inescapable risk of wooden one-sidedness, of crude bending of sticks, of exaggeration, of disregard for the unfavourable. Armen, in contrast to Charents and Bakunts for example, lacked a necessary critical thrust to surmount artistic hurdles. Craftsmanship was always in evidence. But critical, realistic engagement with human troubles of the day, with its all its clashing political and social realities born of an undeveloped and conservative Armenian reality was wanting. Constrained perhaps by his own loyalty to the Soviet enterprise, his characters appear in Melkonian's words `bloodless', `one-sided', `impossible to believe' and `unconvincing'. It is worthy of note here that Stepan Zoryan also suffered similar troubles with the short stories he wrote and set in the revolutionary era. Though Armen's fiction for the younger, teenage reader is similarly tarnished, here moments of artistic success are registered more frequently. `Scout 89' and `Red and Blue Ties' picture the lives of orphans whose future had been blocked by war and genocide and who in the early Soviet era remained incarcerated in American-ARF run orphanages. Such orphanages became centres of struggle for the new and as Armen recounts these, he creates not just a historical document but art too. At least so says Melkiset Melkonian. Mkrtich Armen's one unquestionable success is his `Heghnar's Fountain' (see The fascinating art of medieval Armenian manuscript scribes, The Critical Corner, Groong, 24 August 2000), a story of passion with a rich and moving presentation of the lives of women in the pre-Soviet age, of then prevailing inter-ethnic relations, the family and conservative tradition, all in the context of honourable labour, skilled fountain-building in this instance. Acclaimed among others by Zabel Yessayan, Khoren Sarksyan and Avetik Issahakyan, Melkonian rightly offers this as master-work. Its portrayal of the diverse nationalities that inhabited 19th and early 20th century Gyumri remains a valuable reminder of what Armenia once was. 'In its almost total excellence `Heghnar's Fountain' was never to be matched. But with `They Asked Me to Let You Know', short stories from life in Stalin's labour camps, Armen secured some renewed critical acclaim. Here Melkonian, with honest critical reservation, underlines an overall success in evoking the terrible suffering of the victims of these camps through repeated counter-positions of brutal reality and individual fantasies of freedom and release. Mkrtich Armen was a prominent figure of his time, a comrade of Charents and his group, an intellectual and artist who participated wisely in the literary debates of the day. It is tragic that he appears to have been side-lined on his return from Stalinist labour camps. Even more tragic is the failure to realise that remarkable potential that Charents saw in the young Armen (p182). Mkrtich Armen in his life, his novels and short stories, his critical writings and his role as social activist stands as a typical case and invites study of the challenge faced by the committed artist in an age of revolution. For all his qualifications and reservations about Armen's legacy, Melkonian's enthusiasm and acumen encourage the reader to return to Armen's opus in order to judge for her/himself. II. Krikor Narekatzi's impact on the evolution of Armenian literature Mkrtich Mkryan, one of the most perceptive and acute Soviet era literary critics devotes an erudite and meticulous forty-five page essay to the influence the great medieval poet Krikor of Narek (950-1003) has had on the subsequent development of Armenian poetry. Mkryan's comprehensive knowledge of Armenian literature enables him to highlight not just radical departures from the past but to demonstrate how new authors opted for styles created by a great predecessor. First underlines Narekatsi's own revolutionary contribution. Narekatsi was the first to use poetic meters of certain types, the first to use extensive accumulation of metaphors, the first with the talent for prolific alliteration and an unprecedented capacity for compound word formation and then too for injecting a compelling musical rhythm into poetry. All these features Mkryan shows are used by many outstanding Armenian poets that followed. Krikor of Narekatsi's influence was deeper still asserts Mkryan. For the first time in the history of Christian-era Armenian verse, Narekatsi writes poetry for use outside official Church-anointed ceremonies. He writes to serve individual need. Escaping the bounds of the official Church Narekatsi's poetry begins a decided march to secularisation, expressed in a focus on the relationship between man/woman and nature, in detailed colourful descriptions of the world of man/woman and of the world of secular society with stunning images of the harshness of social reality. Here too Krikor of Narek inspired. Immediately after his death, scores sought to emulate Narekatsi. Armenian manuscripts contain dozens of pages of poetry, some outstanding and even wrongly attributed to Narek. Thereafter Armenian authors from Frik to Constantin Yerzengatzi and Nerses Shnorhali in the 12-14th century, right up to Ghevond Alishan, Missak Medzarents, Siamanto and Vahan Derian in the 19th and 20th centuries were overwhelmed by Narekatsi's poetry. Krikor Narekatsi's status in Armenian literature indeed was unrivalled. It challenged even the Bible, with Narekatsi's `Lamentations' copied in tens of thousands of times. It was also one the first Armenian books to appear in print. In his rooting of Armenian poetic, artistic and cultural development in history Mkryan's essay is a valuable addition to the polemic against any falsification of Armenian history. Albeit indirect Mkryan's essay is a rebuttal of those who would deny that Armenian history has any long-term, coherent, organic, inner continuity and development. It is also a contestation of those who would claim that modern Armenian literature is but a pale copy, a valueless aping of foreign influence. Mkryan's essay opens up for view native Armenian roots of many artistic forms that could easily be deemed foreign, roots that furthermore go back earlier and deep than similar forms Armenians have supposedly copied. More than just worth a read! -- 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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