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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 March 5, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1 Antranik Dzaroukian was best known as the energetic editor of the Beirut based and very highly regarded 'Nairi' periodical. But he was also a poet and novelist. His best work is, I think, 'People Who Skipped Childhood', an autobiographical story of his experiences in the deserts and orphanages of Syria. Dzaroukian carves out episodes of childhood life in which want, hostility, bitterness, hatred and the thirst for revenge predominates in place of those more tender and joyful emotions we normally associate with our early years. The orphanages with their harsh regimes and minimal Amenities buried all innocence and joy. Aged between 6 and 8, the boys who inhabit them have already learnt to live as adults, as primitive adults. At 6 they are cold and hard, self-seeking, greedy and selfish. They have no choice. As a condition of survival in their world of scarcity, of want and of misery, they have to suppress all altruism, all softness and tenderness. Thus the vicious fighting over a tiny morsel of bread, the thieving and the bullying. It is Dzaroukian's virtue that he does not assert the plight of these young boys with clichid and meaningless sentimental phrases so frequently evident in our literature. Instead the drama of their souls unfolds through descriptions of events of daily life. Despite the bitterness of their lives, through each description, of even the most sordidly Darwinian scene, there lurks among theese boys a hidden yearning for tenderness, love, human companionship and human solidarity. But alas these lurk only in the background, like buds denied water. They do not flourish. But neither do they do they perish - even at the height of the selfish struggle for survival. In these perfectly conveyed stubborn flickerings of human dignity, in the images of human nobility in the darkness of the orphanages, we sense the enormous tragedy of those who survived the genocide. Here dwells the pain of life without a childhood. But here, too, is the dream that endures even in the worst hell. * * * * * 2 Kourken Mahari (1903 - 1969) was a poet, novelist and playwright who suffered enormously. A refugee and orphan from Van, he ended his days in Yerevan but only after lengthy and debilitating sojourns in Russia's Siberian prison camps. Nevertheless he wrote prolifically, though much with questionable value. Yet his 'On the Threshold of Youth' is another valuable autobiographical memoir of childhood and youth, a gentle, well-written evocation of life in Van and Yerevan which gives us a vivid sense of what it meant to survive the holocaust as a young orphan. Mahari's account frequently throws sharp, but always sideways glances at the social and political issues of the day. Neither these nor the religious, cultural or national issues of the time feature centrally in the volume, but as a record of a vanished history of an epoch of blood and pain, it is moving and in places beautiful. Mahari draws portraits for the readers charming snapshots of 'ordinary', but really extraordinary, figures who struggled against impossible odds to survive and live. For these remnants of the genocide, orphanages were the homebases from which they sprouted in search of a new life. There are those among them who became great poets and writers. Yet the ones we remember most are the teary orphans with their hopes, their hunger and their tattered clothes, their little loves and, most importantly, their large dreams. * * * * * 3 The first and the last of Vartkes Bedrossian's 'Four Novelettes' are genuine, truthful and realistic renderings of aspects of the lives of ordinary, 'non-party' men and women in Soviet Armenia. Bedrossian was a talented writer who managed to circumvent the art-destroying parameters of the 'Soviet Socialist Realism'. As a result we have some fine and sensitive accounts of the alienated existence of Armenian youth in the latter stages of the Soviet era. In 'Lived and Unlived Years' a dispirited journalist is asked to investigate the suicide of two young lovers who have been denounced and expelled by the youth wing of the Communist Party. Rebelling against the Party's pre-determined 'line' on the issue, his search reveals the stifling nature of the prevailing 'socialist morality'. In reality it is no more than Armenian religious prejudice and old peasant morality modified and re-dressed in socialist clothing. The couple apparently betrayed both family and Party honour by making love in the village field, so they were hounded by family and party and driven to despair. The last story 'The Last Teacher' is of the same quality as the first. Here the scandal of a striptease by some students leads us to a gripping tour through the corrupt hierarchy of the educational system. Learning by rote replaces creative thought and the students' interests count for naught as teachers are concerned only with maintaining discipline and seeing the day through without undue mishap. Into this deadened, spiritless, anaemic world walks a figure of genuine honesty and integrity. Mamian's efforts for the children, his humane responses to events and his relations with local parents bring forth a vivid portrait of modern Armenian life prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Peppered with sharp observations about life, the individual psyche and the human condition, these stories cast a reflection on human life beyond the boundaries of the Soviet society within which they were written. * * * * * 4 Medieval Armenian Popular Songs, a volume first published in 1956, is a truly splendid anthology of some 140 well-annotated Armenian folk songs from the Tenth to the Seventeenth centuries. The editor, Assadour Mnatzaganian, opens it with a brilliant introductory essay delving into the now remote world of the Armenian peasantry during these long, harsh and brutal centuries. Written in clear Armenian and pleasantly free of tiresome dogmatism, Mnatzaganian reveals the human world behind allegorical tales of battles between heaven and earth, the clashes between the seasons and behind the stories of peacocks, birds and sheep. All the pain and the suffering, the anguish and the despair, but also the hope and the optimism of the ordinary people echo in these songs. Mnatzaganian quotes Maxim Gorky to the effect that folklore often runs parallel with official history, filling out the latter's gaps, especially in relation to the lives of the 'lower orders'. This book reinforces Gorky's observation. Almost all aspects of life - labour, love, the wonder of the seasons, issues of religion, war, conquest and emigration and the slave's eternal struggle for freedom - feature in these songs, some of which attain the finest artistic form. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.