Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 09/10/2018

THE ARMENIAN SHORT STORY 1 - HAMASDEGH (1895-1966)

By Eddie Arnavoudian



US-based Armenian writer Hamasdegh (1895-1966), like US-based short story
writer Vahe Haig and Istanbul-based Hagop Mntsouri, was inspired not
primarily by the world in which he lived but by recollections of the world
he had been forced to abandon in early youth as a result of the 1915
Armenian Genocide. So, here a volume of short stories (The Village, 262pp,
1995, Cilicia Publications, Aleppo) of remembrance, reconstruction and
recovery of men and women from the pre-Genocide Armenian village.
 
Hamasdegh is not artistically flawless. But this does not matter. His
resurrection of the pre-1915 Armenian rural community cannot match
Mntsouri's vividness and vitality. But this too does not matter. For
Hamasdegh at his best, and indeed even at less than his best, encourages an
enhancing engagement with life, with universal men and women that live in
his stories. He depicts the Armenian village but more importantly he
introduces us to some of those essential and universal human dramas lived
out in an often harsh and brutal environment, essential and universal dramas
that we live in our own times and circumstances.
 
So, for all the flatness and inauthenticity that comes with this volume,
there also come huge chunks of life, moments of human experience that touch
the reader and refine sensibility and appreciation. At the volume's end,
despite the sometimes difficult march, one emerges, wiser, fortified,
gripped with a sense of solidarity and feeling for our fellow human beings
however remote they may be from our own lives. What better could one ask
from literature?
 
Take one of the lesser stories. `Dabban Markar' is about an individual's
total, almost absolute absorption, even obsession with his farm labour, his
care and concern for his oxen and his land at the expense of all else,
including his wife. Indeed a tragic aspect of this well written and fluent
depiction is Dabban Markar's long suffering wife who feels and is unloved by
her husband, who yearns for an expression of love but never receives one,
even as Dabban lies on his death-bed. His wife would forgive a loveless life
if only in his last gasp Dabban would say `I love you'. He does not. Instead
he speaks of his oxen and then dies.
 
There is cruelty, inhumanity and tragedy here. Why do Dabban's oxen matter
more than his wife? Is he an obsessive-neurotic, is he escaping perhaps an
arranged marriage - not uncommon even for male members of some Armenian
communities. Is his life in its social and family relations so miserable
that he takes refuge in his daily labours? Is he an egotist who prefers his
oxen because they cannot argue back? One will never know. But one sees here
a tragic, wasted life, a life that is or appears joyless - Dabban in Dabban
Markar describes a automaton - lifeless and robotic.
 
The story may be of trapped and joyless lives, but it is one in which the
man had the means to sublimate and alienate his own joylessness, but not the
woman. Still the man becomes a lifeless scarecrow. Dabban Markar as a
character does not always come alive. He appears more as a recollection,
even as an idea. But the idea is recollected with some effect and this the
tragic tale of his domestic life becomes striking.

--
 
Unlike Dabban Markar, `Mitcho' leaves an indelible impression. Haunting are
the images of his frozen body found with outstretched, beseeching arms.
Mitcho is a young local good-for-nothing, a wayward boy who could have found
himself, found stability through love. But this is denied him, not by any
malice but by chance and circumstance.
 
Petty thieving, unruly and disobedient, unable to do a proper day's work,
never really content or fitting into the community, as if indifferent to
social life Mitcho begins to bud and grow with glimmers of joy when in
proximity to Soukig. Were love to flourish it would help him restore or
acquire for the first time the harmony, the calm, the stability and ease he
needs in his life. But this will not be.
 
Hamasdegh here has gone beyond an idea, beyond an artistic recollection to
create a living person whose awful loneliness is depicted painfully,
especially in accounts of sleepless nights in a beggars' hut when Mitcho
begs an old man for tales to be told that will help ease his pain.
Desperate, he attempts a pilgrimage to plead at St Sarkis's shrine in the
high mountains. On his way, in midnight snowy storms he freezes.
 
Mitcho's mother is a tragic figure too. Unable to cope with her son's
unruliness she effectively disowns him for all the terrible misdemeanours he
is responsible for. But on his death maternal love bursts not just with pain
but for her inability, for her failure to have secured him foundations for
life, pain and guilt for her own impotence. Here Hamasdegh is impressive!
 
Hamasdegh is a story writer of frequently good and powerful endings but with
often poorer, inartistic openings and middles. But sometimes these dramatic
endings can illuminate something about the beginning and middle to raise the
whole to a higher level. Such is the case with `Oh Those Were the Days'.
Mkshi's wife dies leaving this middle-aged man lonely and sexually
frustrated too. Advances to his widowed neighbor Manush, proves to be
disastrous. She will not countenance the idea. He persists. She refuses. And
so between the two previously peaceful neighbours there develops a bitter
feud of three years and more ended only by the tragedy of the 1915
deportations and genocide.
 
In just a page and a half Hamasdegh captures the catastrophe of families
torn apart as deportees are divided up - men from women, the old and the
young pushed in different directions. Separated from his family members and
from Manush, a chance convergence of their caravans leads to an emotional
embrace of two previously bitter antagonists.
 
All the tragedy, the misery, anguish, loneliness and loss of families and
communities shattered in remote deserts is captured in that tearful embrace
as the feuding pair recalls their personally bitter past as a cherished
memory of better days. Against the reality of 1915 even the harshest of
relations in the village appear human, they have life, not death in sight
and so hope and so a future, a future that the deadly caravans left behind
as their men, women and children were forced into the deserts.
 
Significantly, in this story a priest plays an interesting role, reflective
perhaps of the wider clergy during the genocide. It is not entirely
honourable or noble. He is the one who soothes, who calms anxieties and woes
and with outrageous assurances that deportees are headed for Armenia proper,
to a land of milk and honey, persuades them to move on - lambs to the
slaughter.
 
One cannot pass over an inauthenticity that casts a cloud over this story of
Mkshi's and Manush's early rivalry. He is shown in his `full' person, a
being possessed of sexual instinct and need. She on the other hand appears
only as `half' a person, apparently and inexplicably possessing no
sexuality. This prudishness is no more than a mythical attribution of
official church ideology. Hamasdegh here moves not from reality but from
this official ideology. Bad for literature but still a powerful, painful,
moving story! Life of millions of refugees wracked by US, British and
European bomber planes.
 
Hamasdegh slowly grows on the reader - in large measure due to his often
tragic characters that he creates so well - Mitcho, Manush, Mkshi, Tchalo
the Dog, Gar Amu and others. Though Hamasdegh's characters are often
startling individuals his depiction of village life is not always rounded or
rich. One gets a sense of the material, physical, geographic terrain of the
village, its agriculture and economy and its housing, but not infrequently
community relations of solidarity or antagonism or with the external urban
world are absent. This does not disqualify Hamasdegh's stories but it does
indicate a narrowing of focus, an absence of breadth and depth that is in
Hagop Mnstouri's stories.
 
Nowhere in Hamasdegh is there any romanticising of the Armenian village. The
picture is of a harsh, cruel, impoverished society marked often by a deadly
loneliness. Laughter seems to be a reserve for children alone. `Brother
Pilig' in the story of the same name describes the brutality of village life
at its worst. Pilig, a hapless helpless impoverished labourer grows old
working for others, always for a pittance. Later on in life just one
misdemeanor and we see him ostracized and left to starve. Too old he is
discarded like the aged horse that he befriends. There are none who care for
Pilig. All the work and labour he has done for others counts for
nothing. Useless to profit anyone he ceases to be regarded as in anyway
human.
 
Though uneven as a collection, where Hamasdegh's stories are of superior
touch they often reach remarkable, universal depths. `The Victim Was Gar
Amu' is one such instance. For reasons unknown Gar Amu migrates to the USA
to work in a horrendous metal prison, a US factory, a workplace far removed
from the vital, vivid, vibrant green of his remembered home, village, fields
and hills.
 
More than just a story of longing for a vanished homeland Gar Amu cannot
adjust to alienation and harshness of the factory. Here the story tragically
contrasts the alienated urban to the natural rural world. Gar Amu cannot
stop dreaming of his green hills and village. Even in the midst of fast
moving deadly factory machinery. Then in a moment's loss of concentration he
is cut to ribbons. Gar Amu is the victim - factory USA failed to fulfill all
those hopes of rebuilding good and better life. Millions of Gar Amus across
the world in our times!
 
We will all gain from reading Hamasdegh. Of course it would matter not at
all if one never encountered him. But if opportunity permits and one makes
the effort to get to know him the result is enriching. It is good fortune
that in Armenia today Hamasdegh is coming back into circulation. Recently
his two volume `The White Horseman' has been republished. One hopes that his
short stories, of indubitably higher quality, will also come onto bookstore
shelfs there to stand in some respects not just as valuable recollection of
pre-Genocide Armenian life but as indictments of society without collective
social solidarity.

 

-
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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