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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 February 13, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian 1. AKSEL BAKOONTZ'S `INHERITANCE' Aksel Bakoontz (1899-1937), the most accomplished of the Soviet era Armenian short story writers, made a huge impression on his contemporaries. Some of the reasons can be gleaned from Tavit Kasparian's introduction to 'Inheritance', a collection of Bakoontz's unpublished political writings. Despite some questionable evaluations Kasparian illuminates significant aspects of Bakoontz's life and work and stimulates thought about the nature of the literary and aesthetic conflicts of the early Soviet Armenian era. Bakoontz was an archetypal representative of the late l9th and early 20th century Armenian national revival - a committed intellectual born of the people and dedicated to the welfare of the people. From an extremely poor family, the population of his home village Koris raised the money to school him. In return, by 16, he commenced teaching and writing as a conscious contribution to the project of national enlightenment. Like many of his generation he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation at a very young age and also enlisted as a volunteer soldier. Following the establishment of Bolshevik power in Armenia, Bakoontz's transition from an ARF member to a social and literary activist in Soviet Armenia was seamless and without major ideological turmoil. He wasn't an ideologue and was not primarily concerned with the realisation of any grand theoretical enterprise. For him the ARF was fundamentally an organisational means for securing progressive change in Armenia. Once it ceased to be effective Bakoontz saw no moral reason to retain membership or to leave the country after the ARF's prohibition. Many of the writings collected here reflect on the movement away from the ARF by Bakoontz and thousands of rank and file ARF activists. Bakoontz explicitly rejects suggestions of a forced conversion. The tone and style of his commentaries confirm explicit assertions that his action was conscious and voluntary. He is also at pains to mark himself off from ARF members who fled the country. He would remain to serve the people in the new conditions that, from the material here reproduced, he considered to be positive. So during the first years of Soviet power Bakoontz headed the Armenian Relief society, worked energetically as economist and agriculturist in remote mountainous Armenian villages educating and enlightening, arbitrating in land disputes and translating huge amounts of educational literature. But Bakoontz's main ambition was to become a writer. So in 1924 he moved to Yerevan where two years later he joined the Bolshevik Party. Putting to use his immense knowledge of rural Armenia he secured rapid literary recognition. But he was also immediately embroiled in the bitter intellectual war that marked the revival of Armenian life in the first years of Soviet power. From 1923 to the great purges of 1937 that silenced more than a decade of creative upsurge two literary trends had crystallised in Armenian cultural life. Bakoontz was part of the grouping initially named 'November' that included Yeghishe Charents, Mkrtich Armen, and Gourgen Mahari. Nairi Zarian (not to be confused with Gostan Zarian) headed the opposition. Nairi Zarian's grouping endured, but not primarily on account of its literary talent. Sponsored by an increasingly powerful, centralist and anti-democratic faction of the Soviet political elite, Nairi Zarian's allies were mobilised to counter literary expressions of an emergent Armenian centrifugal, independent socialist political formation. Within the terms of a progressive socialist outlook the November writers attempted to focus their internationalist concerns through a reflection of the national history and the contemporary culture, traditions and mores of the society in which they lived. They argued that genuine, progressive art could be produced only through grasping and grappling with life as it expressed itself in Armenia. As a part of the enterprise Bakoontz urged Armenian, and non-Armenian writers in the Soviet Union as a whole, to 're-evaluate their huge (national) cultural inheritance' and 'use it to map out new highways'. The result is a body of outstanding work - Mkrtich Armen's 'Heghnar's Fountain', Gourgen Mahari's 'My Life', Charent's vast poetic output and of course Bakoontz's masterly short stories. Against this vital artistic ambition, the party apparatus demanded the impossible: a literature that presented as authentic life the lifeless ideological mirage constructed by central party hacks to legitimise their usurpation of power. Creative and talented artists could not of course undertake the task without surrendering their integrity. So the lesser writers or those happy to exchange talent for status grouped themselves round Zarian. Setting about the persecution of Bakoontz and his allies they displayed ruthlessness, an absence of any moral decency and a total lack of aesthetic judgement. Nairi Zarian commented that Bakoontz's stories 'contain neither living characters nor a sparkle of genuine life'. He went on to denounce Bakoontz's work as 'poisonous nationalist and Trotskyist meddling in Soviet literary life'. Equally gross was Vagharshag Norentz's claim that Bakoontz was 'the most provincial and limited author in our literature'. The killing, imprisonment and exile of Charents and his allies was not of course a direct result of such vicious and fraudulent polemic. But for whatever reason, in becoming instruments of a party elite many writers contributed to the isolation and to the tragic fate of talented colleagues. The destiny of the lesser writers was also not free of its own burdens. Many, however loyal to the party, fell victim to its constant twists and turn and ended up on the gallows or in camps. Others, talented or just honest aspirants must have felt the terrible shame and humiliation of betraying artistic integrity for status. Nairi Zarian himself is a case in point. Any reading of his novels and plays reveals a talent disastrously vitiated by adherence to the worst aspects of the artistically fatal theory of 'socialist realism' - in effect a call to tailor art to the demands of a bureaucratic and privileged party elite. As Soviet political life underwent its innumerable zigzags many of these writers managed to release themselves from total subservience to an ossified ideology and went on to play a more positive role. Norentz for example made what was surely an immense contribution in editing and publishing volumes of Western Armenian poets and novelists. Kasparian's introduction ends with a stimulating discussion of Bakoontz's artistic achievement. He notes the close bond between human beings and nature that marks Bakoontz's brilliant short stories. Human life here in the backward Armenian provinces appears as an almost elemental component of the world of nature. It is as if human beings here lived by instinct in a world unchanged for centuries, albeit marked by periods of harmony and a brutal conflict with nature. Yet at its vibrant core Bakoontz's stories reveal a sharp contrast between men and women's harsh social and natural lives and their dreams, expectations and hopes for a more generous and gentle existence. 2. HOVNATAN MARCH - THE ENGER PANCHOONIE OF THE DIASPORA There is a category of literary work that has particular cultural- national significance. To be appreciated, they require an audience sharing a common cultural/historical tradition. Translate them into another language and they run the risk of falling as flat as the proverbial medieval earth. But read in the context of their historical and traditional roots they can be evocative and illuminating. Aksel Bakoontz's 'Hovnatan March' is this order of work. Written in 1927 this is definitely a book with a relevance for the Armenian Diaspora today. A satirical work, it destroys with a powerful comic punch and a sharp sarcastic jab the glittering reputations enjoyed by millionaire Diaspora benefactors and their agents. By donning the cloak of a generous patriotic benefactor a millionaire's ego is flattered. But more importantly it enables him to secure business advantage in the homeland. It also enables him to recruit starry-eyed patriots who believing they are carrying out a hallowed national duty but then unwittingly do the millionaire's bidding. These common and well known types are dissected by Bakoontz with a perceptive intelligence combined with the sharpest of literary talents. Behind glowing facades Bakoontz reveals people driven either by greed for profit or by a ridiculously empty and parochial nationalism. In their actions such people are indifferent to or fail to see the real trials and tribulations of the homeland and its population. Hovnatan March is an agent for Buenos Aires based millionaire Antreas Balikian whose only genuine interest is the price of carpet and the state of commercial markets. To grease the wheels of his business ambitions he willingly lends his name, but not his money, to an adventure planned by March. March is a leading light in a bizarre venture to secure a plot of land in Armenia on which he hopes to build a 'New Ethiopia' township incorporating all the most advanced features of American industry and life. March is your quintessential Diaspora activist: conceited, vain, bombastic, presumptuous and a bit of a buffoon. He is also ridiculously unreal. His conceptions of Armenia, of Armenians and of patriotic duty are fashioned by a manufactured and mythical history of an ancient Armenia marked by an exaggerated military heroism, cultural achievement and national glory. Armed with a grandiose fantasy of the past and a grandiose fantasy for the future, March manages to overlook the actual, immediate needs of the mass of the people, needs which take into account actual poverty, backwardness and misery. Besides March, Bakoontz parades and ridicules a host of other characters - cultural philistines, empty headed priests, discredited soldiers and their likes. Those lampooned by him fall victim to a remarkably inventive wit and sarcasm. Bakoontz has a talent for conjuring a place, a mood, a character, a situation with a few strokes of the pen. The dirty insect ridden hotel, the stinking heat blasted streets, the dilapidated and abandoned ancient churches, the dry, arid and stony country, the philistine literary circle, the backward rural villages - each is etched in language so precise, fresh and vivid that he essentially constructs it around you as you read him. The result is an excellent contrast between the real and the bizarre, between necessity and fantasy. If Yervant Odian's Enger Panchooni is the Don Quichote of the Armenian political world, then Hovnatan March is the Panchooni of the Armenian Diaspora: possessed of amazingly grand plans which are expounded with much zeal and bombast but which actually amount to 'much ado about nothing'. Yet it is worth noting that while Panchooni has no redeeming features, March does. He is not essentially evil, and unlike the millionaire is not self seeking. Like hundreds if not thousands of individuals in the Diaspora he feels his rootlessness and is searching for some anchor and foundation for his life. The great merit of Bakoontz's work is to demonstrate that this search cannot be accomplished by adopting a false, romanticised patriotism so widespread in the Diaspora. Real patriotism which actually helps people requires rather more humble and modest ventures and does not of course guarantee shiny reputations and national fame. In this context one is reminded of those who funded the construction of the massive and un-needed multi-million dollar Cathedral in the centre of Yerevan while the population as a whole lacks schools, medical care and other services and - while rural churches, often of some cultural value are left to rack and ruin. Bakoontz's short stories have international significance and are a valuable addition to world literature (a taste in English has been offered by Rouben Rostamian's excellent translations). Hovnatan March on the contrary has, I suspect, a more national, Armenian, significance. But this does not detract from its value. It is a skilled accomplishment and will be read, with profit and pleasure both in its original or in translation. -- 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.