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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 July 11, 2000 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. 'The Last Dawn' by Berj Zeitountzian Berj Zeitountzian's 'The Last Dawn' (Vertchin Arevakal@) is a memorable historical novel focusing on the role of the Armenian intelligentsia in Constantinople between 1880s and the 1915 Genocide. Avoiding inane romanticism and the worst of narrow-minded nationalism so common to Armenian historical fiction this novel offers an authentic and moving glimpse into a critical period of modern Armenian history. The axis around which the well-told tale unfolds is Krikor Zohrab, the foremost Armenian intellectual, lawyer and short story writer of the time. Alongside him feature other prominent contemporaries such as Arpiar Arpiarian, Aram Andonian, Dikran Gamsaragan, Vartkes and many others, as well as Turkish characters among them the nefarious Talaat Pasha. Unlike most characters in Armenian historical fiction, Zeitountzian's protagonists are convincingly human. Zohrab emerges as the typical, albeit most outstanding of the intelligentsia of the time, embodying both its strengths and its fatal flaws. He, and by extension the intelligentsia, is not spared some harsh judgements. Zohrab's misogyny, his misplaced trust in Talaat, his hopeless illusions in the West, his expectations that they will do something to help avert the genocide are described with candour. The novel, even whilst flagging at certain points, sustains a tremendous pace and dramatic tension as it reconstructs the experience of intellectuals animated by work in aid of the Armenian national revival. Much of their time is spent challenging the corruption and hypocrisy of wealthy Armenian merchants, Armenian officials in the service of the Ottoman empire and the high clergy, all of whom remained totally indifferent to the plight of the humble Armenian. But, despite their dedication to the people, the novel directly and indirectly underlines the extent to which the Europeanised Constantinople Armenian intellectual was removed from the life of the Armenian peasant in the provinces. Whilst the Constantinople Armenian poor appear as no more than wretched objects of charity those in historical Armenia appear not at all. Working with an inspired enthusiasm to uproot the decaying Ottoman ancien regime the intelligentsia was tragically unaware of the spectre of total annihilation that would soon overwhelm them and the entire nation. The marvellous fictional re-enaction of clashes between Zohrab and Talaat reveals a great deal about the growing conflict between emerging Armenian and Turkish national elites. Hoping to inherit the Ottoman empire, the Turkish elite was determined to stem any further disintegration. Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Macedonia had been lost. A successful Armenian revival promised to terminate imperial sovereignty in the eastern, Armenian provinces. Thus truncated, room for Turksih national development would be even more curtailed. Thus the visceral Turkish nationalist chauvinism against anything foreign or particularly Armenian. This phenomenon combined with the 'war for land' waged in the Armenian provinces provided fertile ground for the Young Turk's genocide. When treating the genocide the novel contains shockingly realistic scenes of life continuing in a normal, almost mundane, way despite the mass arrests of the intelligentsia. After all this was not the first time. But slowly the truth begins to dawn. The intellectual class is powerless and impotent. They are incapable of saving themselves, let alone the people. Some of the scenes depicting the light of these intellectuals, Varouzhan and Sevag among them, are haunting. Zeitountzian deserves an accolade for reconstructing the tragedy of honourable men and women possessed of great hopes, ambitions, and dreams when real life left no room for these. At points descriptions of such lives lived on the edge of death are searing and rise to the level of enduring art. Reading the novel one becomes conscious of a terrible truth. From the outset the Armenian national enterprise was terribly fragile. Indeed, the emergent Armenian nation had little organic unity. The Armenian 'bourgeois' class, based outside historical Armenia, was well integrated into the Ottoman economy and was essentially a conduit for European finance and industry. It had little in common with the substantial artisan class that spread across the empire or the nationalist intelligentsia concentrated in Constantinople. As for the mass of impoverished peasantry in historical Armenia, they were largely cut off from all other sectors of Armenian society. Even had it wished to, any Armenian political leadership would find it virtually impossible to organise this geographically and socially fragmented population into a force strong enough to overcome a Turkish nationalism reinforced by its control of state power. This is a valuable book that inspires thought. It is not however without flaws. Some of the characters remain opaque unless one has prior knowledge of their historic or literary role. Too little attention is paid to conditions in the Armenian provinces, the real site for the fatal conflict between Armenian and Turk. In its second and third portions the narrative and plot meanders purposelessly. Nevertheless it is an accomplishment that can be read with pleasure and with artistic and historical satisfaction. * * * 2 The Armenian Enlightenment 'Portraits' (Timasdverner) by Hrant Asadour (220pp, 1984, Doniguian Press, Beirut) is a slim volume which was first published in 1921. It can be read with benefit alongside Berj Zeitounztian's novel above. It is a fascinating account of Asadour's meetings with and memories of some of the most prominent Western Armenian intellectuals in the decades from 1850 to 1915. This gallery of outstanding men, and one woman, that Asadour opens for our appreciation encompasses all the progressive hopes of the age. Here we see recorded, albeit in outline form only, the philosophic, literary, social, linguistic and educational views of those whose central concern was the enlightenment and advancement of the Armenian people. This was the era of the Western Armenian 'Enlightenment' fired by people such as Matteos Mamourian, Nahabed Roussinian, Stepan Oskan, Nigoghos Zorayan and others. Whatever their limitations, they dedicated themselves to this project with immense energy and love. Their mission was to wrench the Armenian people out of centuries of backwardness and ignorance and develop them to the level of the most advanced nations of the day. In this noble enterprise they inevitably came to clash with the forces of the Armenian establishment. Protected by and serving the Ottoman state, the Armenian Church in alliance with the wealthy 'amira' class ruled and exploited the Armenian community with a tyrannical absolutism little different from that of the feudal Middle Ages. Against this obscurantist and self-serving alliance, these intellectuals, animated by the best of contemporary thought raised the battle cry of secularism and democracy. Influenced by the ideas of the European revolutions of 1789-1848, they called for the 'disestablishment' of the Church and the introduction of more democratic principles of community governance. A decisive weapon in this battle was the issue of language. The progressive intellectuals were passionate sponsors of an emerging written Armenian based upon the language spoken by the people. They believed that language was significant only if it facilitated communication and the expansion of knowledge among the mass of the people. Against them was the clergy defending an old classical Armenian, totally incomprehensible to the ordinary man and woman, as the only legitimate means of educated communication. Naturally this clergy grasped that its influence among the people rested on the ignorance of the people. An enlightened population would not for one minute countenance the corruption and tyranny by which the privileged Armenian clergy lived. Through his sketches of individual personalities, Asadour gives an exciting account of this battle over language and of the efforts to cleanse and refine modern Armenian. Read even from the vantage point of the world of the 1990s, the generation of the 1850s retains its relevance. Reading of Krikor Chilingirian's acerbic comments on the decadent attitudes of the late 19th century one could construct a cogent condemnation of the amoral world of today. Even in his day Chilingirian noted that concepts such as 'progress, social interest, truth, virtue and morality' are regarded as 'a form of ugliness' and 'weigh like a plague' on men whose only loyalty is to money. Post-Modernism's 'novel' ideas evidently are no novelty. Chilingirian additionally derided that love, of all things foreign, that has so tarnished the Armenian mentality. These absurd devotions to the inane fashions of the European 'culture' were the butt of Baronian's brilliant satire. Baronian was also sharply critical of Samuel Smiley's Victorian treatise on 'self-help' which 'only offered arguments for the wealthy to withdraw charity to the poor'. Such 'self-help' has revisited our own time through Thatcher and Reagan and their followers in the form of Blair and Clinton. On another level Srpouhi Dussap's quite brilliant championing of equal rights for women is as fiercely fresh and as pertinent as when first penned. But they suffered from a fatal flaw. At the centre of their outlook, at the core of their activity there was a huge gap. They had no political programme with which to underpin their ambitious project of Armenian revival. They naively assumed that the Ottoman political establishment would harmoniously adjust to the emergence of an enlightened and fortified Armenian community demanding its place under the sun. Too caught up in the fervour of their enlightening mission they failed to see that the emergence of a powerful Armenian economic, educational and social revival would present a major threat to what remained of the Ottoman empire. They failed to note that in the dying days of the Ottoman empire the national question was the axis upon which all others would turn. In the face of a rising chauvinist Turkish nationalism only a direct political challenge could secure the future of any national group's social or economic existence. To a large extent this blindness was the result of social circumstance. Most of these intellectuals were based in Istanbul and Izmir. They lived a relatively privileged life, compared to the violent oppression reigning in historical Armenia. As individuals many were integrated into the structures of Ottoman empire. They lived in a world remote from the reality of land robbery, massacre and emigration which were endangering the very foundation of Armenian nationhood and additionally they had little comprehension of the gravity of developments in historical Armenia. In an Istanbul and Izmir so removed from this reality they could live their hopes of progress and enlightenment unaware of the essential fragility of their project. How 1915 was to tragically expose this is partially recorded in Berj Zeitountzian's novel 'The Last Dawn'. Yet the legacy of this generation can serve us today. It only requires of us an effort to appropriate the grand nobility of their ideas and vision. * * * 3 Khatchadoor Abovian - a genuine case for national pride Now here is human being! He lived for just 40 years. Yet became a giant of a man. His humanistic vision, the breadth and depth of his intellectual pursuits, the range of his interests, his profound care and concern for the plight of colonised peoples worldwide and his artistic sensibilities mark him out as one of the truly great intellectuals of the 19th century. The greatness of Appovian can be discovered through 'Khatchadoor Abovian' a biographical/literary analysis by Hrair Muratian published in Armenia in 1963. Despite the stilted nature of the work (written however in an almost unblemished Armenian - only infrequently do redundant borrowed words disturb the flow of argument) the extensive quotations from Appovian alone afford a sparkling picture of an intellectual and artist totally dedicated to the enlightenment and progress of his people. Appovian was hugely talented and could have reached the pinnacles of academic glory had he chosen to. He sacrificed all in his effort to advance the cause of the ordinary Armenian back home. He fought the church and the entire establishment of his time. He suffered terribly for doing so. His battle to develop and use the local Armenian vernacular was driven by a determination to make knowledge available to the ordinary people. How very different from the Church of his own time and the world of academia today where knowledge is almost consciously complicated as if to transform it into a means for advancing or protecting one's ill gotten gain. Appovian's fiery condemnation of the enslavement of the African people, his rage against the genocide of the American Indians, his concern with the plight not just of Armenians but all others oppressed by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Persian regimes signals a worthy national ideal. His vision of the Armenian people's national revival has nothing exclusive, nothing chauvinist or racist about it. He demanded respect and freedom for all peoples and recognised beneath existing national differences a common humanity. In one of his short stories an Armenian hero pondering over the grave of a Turkish neighbour affirms this common humanity in an impassioned outburst that reminds one of Shylock's speech protesting against the persecution of Jews. (As an aside, would it be reasonable to conjecture that in Shirvanzade's 'The Jew's Ear', Shmul Mozer's speech may have been inspired or even borrowed in substance if not in form from Shakespeare?) Apovian, this giant of a man, like Nalpantian after him, was hounded, persecuted, abused and driven to an early death. One day in 1848 he just vanished as if into thing air, so early in his life. What a tragedy. His collected words totalling 8 volumes must truly be more precious than gold dust. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.