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Worth a read

    Neither masterpiece nor particularly outstanding, yet
    none will bore the lover of literature.
    Reading them, one will always find something of value...


Armenian News Network / Groong
January 27, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


1.

Nar Tos (Mikael Der-Hovannisian, 1867- 1933) is a literary figure
of some merit despite the fact that he is frequently overlooked in
favour of the less accomplished Shirvanzade. Nar Tos's abilities are
evident in an early short novel the 'Gentle Chords'. Characters are
consistently well developed and through the unfolding plot they come
to embody some of those perennial conflicts between the demands of
social and family morality on the one hand and the 'free spirit' of
love and lust that rest deep in the individual being on the other.

A life beset by such conflicts is that of Stepanos Harounian. He is a
well off, upright and decent family man, with a young daughter and a
beloved. He lives an honourable but rather dull life. That is, until
the arrival of Sophie, whose tantalising and sensual beauty immediately
captivates him. On her part, Sophie, haughty, domineering and selfish,
for the first time experiences those warmer and gentler emotions borne
of genuine love. In a silently budding love, Stepanos is torn between
his profound desire for Sophie and his sense of loyalty to his wife
Nune and his child. He tries but fails to bury his love. In a peculiar
twist, so different to the normal expectation from an evidently
romantic story, Stepanos's family life is saved not by his but by
Sophie's generous actions.

Through her experience of love Sophie begins to comprehend other
people's feelings, hopes, joys and pains. Thus she senses the pain
that would be caused to Stepanos's wife by pursuing the affair with
him. So she abandons her love and leaves Tbilisi. The particular
resolution of the conflict is not entirely satisfactory, however. It
is accomplished through individual will and strength alone. Incredibly
the protagonists are not in the least influenced by what was a
powerful and socially conservative religious morality that prevailed
in 19th Armenian life in Tbilisi where the novel is set.

Nevertheless 'Gentle Chords' touches on some truths about life. The
family is saved. But none are happy, not Stepanos not Sophie and not
Nune who gets wind of the affair. Nar Tos vividly and freshly conveys
the reality that there apparently can be no happy resolution to the
conflict between a stifling form of family life and the promise of
happiness and love beyond the family.

			      * * * * *

2. To this day 'The Golden Bracelet' by Arpiar Arpiarian (1852 - 1908)
remains a pleasure to read.  Ghougas, a proud Armenian typesetter in
Bolis (Constantinople/Istanbul) sets off to marry his beloved
step-daughter Armig.  However every penny of his earnings is accounted
for by the needs of everyday life. To ensure a successful wedding he
must incur more debts and his wife Rose and Armig will have to take in
more washing. Just as he willingly prepares to endure greater
privation, for the happiness of his beloved Armig, Ghougas loses his
job. He is deemed to be too old and too slow - no competition for the
younger, faster setters.

Confident nevertheless of finding another job Ghougas pawns Armig's
prized dowry - twelve shares in the Bolis railway company - to cover
the costs of preparing the wedding. But Armig's fiancee discovers
that these shares are missing from the family chest. He breaks off the
engagement. After all he had agreed to the marriage only for the sake
of the dowry. Selling the shares would have enabled him to open a shop
in one of the more desirable districts of Bolis.
 
Around this story Arpiarian reconstructs the harsh and hard lives led
by Armenian artisans in Bolis, who are treated as less than human by
their employers. They are scorned and look down on by the wealthy and
by the powers that be. Even the educated intelligentsia are
indifferent to their plight.  In a powerful scene Ghougas accosts the
famous writer Yeghia Demirjibashian.  He asks why no Armenian writers
ever writes or speaks in praise of the humble Armenian artisan. Do
they not contribute, he asks, to the Armenian nation's advance? How
would the Armenian teacher teach, how would the Armenian writer
publish without the labour of the Armenian typesetter? Demirjibashian
appears to listen attentively and sympathetically. But Ghougas is
bitterly disappointed to discover that despite his apparent agreement,
Demirjibashian in his future writings totally ignores his pleas for
recognition.

Written in Armenian the book suffers from the overuse of Turkish words
as Arpiarian thought to realistically convey local colour and dialect.
Nevertheless he writes with verve and wit. He is observant and can
depict the essence of a social situation by describing just one or two
relevant details.  The fiance's grasping, greedy, selfish
character is superb; much superior to the more central Ghougas, Rose
or Armig who are rather slender creations.  This is however
compensated for by the accurate and illuminating rendering of social
environment, social relations and social psychology.
    
			      * * * * *

3.  'The Rich Amuse Themselves' by Mooratzan (Kevork Der-Hovannessian,
1854 - 1908, not related to Nar Tos) is a revealing short story
despite lacking depth and scope. In the account of the fate of Elena,
a simple country girl abused and seduced by the wealthy and young
Samuel, Mooratzan deciphers the indifference, the selfishness and the
brutish hedonism of the Armenian moneyed class in pre-1914
Tbilisi. Written with passion, the pain of life corrupted and
destroyed by selfishness and hypocrisy is rendered well and
evocatively. The perennial human resistance to personal tragedy is
caught well when in Mooratzan's depiction of one of the last scenes
where Elena defiantly hurls a burning lantern at Samuel.

			      * * * * *

4. 'The National Benefactor' by Yervant Odian (1869 - 1926) is a
satirical delight. With his fluent and simple Armenian (easy to read -
for those trying to learn our wonderful language) Odian shows how the
wealthy never give of their own wealth when it comes to building
schools, community centres, hospitals etc. They merely organise others
to give their money. The wealthy only, and oh so unwillingly, fill any
gaps that may remain. They nevertheless acquire the treasured public
standing of a 'national benefactor' and are fawned on by the press and
host of expectant parasites. As Odian remarks these benefactors remain
'honest people': they are merely applying market principles when they
seek to acquire the title of national benefactor as cheaply as they
possibly can.


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Mr. Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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