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The Critical Corner - 06/30/2003

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Why we should read...

'The Fool' by Raffi
Sovetakan Grogh, Collected Works volume 4
Yerevan, Armenia, 1984

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 30, 2003

By Eddie Arnavoudian


This effort does not pretend to substitute for Donald Abcarian's
excellent overview of both 'The Fool' and Raffi's work in general.
These are available in the preface to his English translation of 'The
Fool' (Komitas Institute, 2000) and on Groong's 'The Critical Corner'
(See "Raffi -- An Overview" (June 24, 2002) and "Raffi -- A Biography"
(December 9, 2002) By Donald Abcarian.  My purpose, by means of
enthusiastic reiteration, is to encourage both Armenian and English
readers to engage with and discuss this work.  'The Fool' is so much
more than just a rip-roaring patriotic adventure in the style of R L
Stevenson or Walter Scott. It is an immensely readable political
treatise containing a thoroughgoing diagnosis and prescription for the
Armenian national movement in the late 19th century.

Raffi's intellectual depth and vision, his facility with language and
his enormous talent as a raconteur made 'The Fool' one of the most
widely read Armenian novels of all time. Understandably so. Few
historical documents can equal its excellent socio-economic and
political picture of Ottoman ruled Armenia during the decade of the
1870 Russo-Turkish War. Knitting together adventure and analysis 'The
Fool' illuminates some of the main structures of Ottoman oppression.
It also pinpoints a critical turn in Ottoman state strategy as the
government begins cultivating Kurdish clans as allies against
potential Armenian rebellion.

Equally illuminating is Raffi's portrayal of Armenian and Kurdish
life, their economic organisation, their mores, as well as their
national and local customs and traditions. Within a broad
socio-political framework, the narrative with its vivid protagonists -
members of the well-to-do Khatcho clan, the young Armenian patriots
Vartan 'The Fool' and Dudukjian, Thomas Effendi, a merchant and many
others - describes a nation which, though brought to the edge of
destruction, is also in the process of transition, beginning to take
up a struggle for survival and independence.

In evaluating 'The Fool' one must abandon narrowly defined
preconceptions of the nature of artistic excellence. Barouyr Sevak was
right when he noted that had Raffi been born in 18th or 19th century
France he could have produced work of the order of Balzac's. But Raffi
was an Armenian whose work reflected and expressed the nascent
national strivings of a people whose whole being was marked by
centuries of destructive oppression. He was talented and brilliant
nevertheless. So much so that his genius compels a less dogmatic
affirmation of what is good literature. Raffi's protagonists in 'The
Fool' may be less emotionally and psychologically complex than those
we find in Balzac or Dostoyevsky, but they are no less real and
convincing.

The main characters in 'The Fool' are defined by precise social and
moral traits and together reproduce authentic types that inhabited
Armenian communities at the time. Khatcho, a family head, concentrates
some of the typical features of the well-to-do Armenian peasant
village elder and leader. The same goes for the merchant Thomas
Effendi, the predator and collaborator with Ottoman repression. Vartan
'The Fool' and Dudukjian reflect well the emergence of a new
generation of nationalists and patriots. The authenticity of Raffi's
characters is also assured by their being placed in a well-constructed
and detailed social and political framework. With life breathed into
them by a wonderful imagination and a talent for story telling,
neither plot nor character collapse into fantasy or caricature. So
they become effective mediums for the author's message urging national
education, political organisation and armed self-defence as critical
components of national survival and revival.

In 'The Fool' Raffi appears as a fierce critic of the Armenian
religious and secular order. Thomas Effendi, one of its best-conceived
characters, synthesizes Raffi's hatred of the Armenian merchant who
acted as a direct agent of Ottoman rule in return for the privilege of
further fleecing an already impoverished peasantry. This is all
brought out well in Thomas Effendi's role in the persecution and
arrest of Dudukjian. For Raffi, the 'brave and large-hearted' Kurdish
bandit is noble compared to the 'low-life, deceitful exploiter' that
is the Armenian merchant. The Church comes off no better. Condemnation
of its backward traditions forms one pillar of the novel. The Church's
endorsement of fatalism, passivity and primitive prejudice is depicted
movingly in the death of Khatcho's first daughter. Raffi is equally
sharp in condemning the Church's refusal to support an enlightened
educational system to replace one that merely reproduced obscurantism.
The powers of the time must surely have been stung by criticism which
was as unyielding as it was systematic and persuasive.

In opposition to Church and elite are the likes of The Fool, his
energetic organiser friend Dudukjian and the younger members of the
Khatcho family all of whom hold up the banner of national liberation
and the cause of armed self-defence. They represent a new breed of
Armenian, more conscious, with ambitions for freedom and a readiness
to struggle. The origins and evolution of the younger generation are
traced with accuracy and skill.  Neither their personality nor their
honourable characteristics are romantic or glorified attributions.
They parallel the real historical experience of men and women educated
in Europe, travelled through the empire and in touch with modern
notions of national liberation.

Through many of their dialogues, exchanges and monologues Raffi covers
virtually every aspect of the Armenian question and shows a profound
theoretical understanding of the real power of ideas, ineffective when
held by a few, but awesome when held by many. Vartan's speech in the
latter part of the novel for example is remarkable for its grasp of
the internal obstacles to Armenian progress and national revival. The
description of the dream that concludes 'The Fool' is a veritable
manifesto of peasant emancipation and projects a vision of national
revival that inspired not just 'The Fool' but Raffi's whole work.

Throughout 'The Fool' Raffi never ceases to amaze the reader. His
views on of the role of women in the struggle for Armenian national
revival are exemplary. He grants them pride of place, urging their
education and emancipation from domestic drudgery, ignorance and
isolation. Reminding one of Franz Fanon's writings on women in the
Algerian revolution he notes that men, drawn into the social and
public life of the conquering power, are more easily assimilated.
Women, in contrast, by virtue of their social isolation play a crucial
role in preserving the ancient national cultural traditions, heritage,
including the language. Releasing women from their isolation and
educating them is therefore a vital component of the national revival.

 'The Fool' reveals Raffi as an outstanding thinker of national
revival who also recalls another great revolutionary, the Cuban
Antonio Maceo, when he insists on the impossibility of freedom without
struggle.  Raffi's assessment of the Istanbul/Bolis intellectuals
trapped within a romantic nationalism divorced from the realities of
life in historic Armenia is brilliantly perceptive.  Carried away by
fantasy they were unable to prepare the ground for the hard and
inescapable business of organisation and resistance in the historic
homelands.  The result was a young intellectual class wasting its
energy while historic Armenia slowly faded under the burden of
oppression.

'The Fool' does have its lapses. One in particular - the treatment of
the Kurdish question and Armeno-Kurdish relations - is significant for
reflecting a central weakness of Armenian political thought at the
time. An artistic blemish is the forced nature of Thomas Effendi's
sudden transformation into a decent being that is inspired by his
romantic love for Khatcho's daughter Stepanik.

'The Fool' nevertheless remains to this day a text that retains
significance for Armenians and for all oppressed peoples. It also
retains its capacity to inspire. Its essential value is expressed best
in a contemporary appreciation by an African-American jazz trumpeter
who writes:

    'Wow!! What a book. I absolutely love it and I feel it. I'd heard
    a little bit about the Armenian people and I was glad to delve
    deeply into this book. I used to wonder how Franz Fanon, a black
    psychiatrist from the little Island of Martinique, could become so
    involved in the Algerian Revolution. Damn he wasn't even
    Algerian. But I'll tell you, as I have been reading this book, if
    I lived during those times I'd be for the Armenian people. Raffi
    ... was the Malcolm X of the 1800's. What incredible foresight and
    beautiful poetic analogies.'

Clearly 'The Fool', in its Armenian and English editions, deserves the
widest possible circulation for which reason its English translator
must be given a cheer!


--
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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