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The Critical Corner - 11/08/2004

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Worth a read...

    Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding.
    Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature.
    Reading them one will always find something of value.

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 8, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian


I. `IN THE FURNACE OF LIFE' - THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN ARMENIAN NOVELIST

The first volume of Shirvanzade's autobiography `In the Furnace of
Life' (Shirvanzade, Selected Works, Volume 5, pp6-223, Yerevan, 1988)
is studded with wise and witty observation that evokes something of
the conditions of the time and brings to life some of the men and
women who contributed to Armenian politics and culture in late 19th
century eastern Armenia and the Caucasus.

>From his earliest youth Shirvanzade was shocked by the poverty and
social exploitation that he witnessed on moving to Baku in 1875. There
he hoped to earn money to support his family back home in nearby
Shamakh, once a provincial capital that never recovered from the 1872
earthquake that devastated it and impoverished many locals, including
his father. Shirvanzade's early articles expose wealth's contempt for
and ruthless indifference to the plight of the poor. Describing the
horrific daily life of labourers in the then burgeoning oil fields of
Baku these articles have the detail, concreteness and passion that
remind one of Engels's `The Condition of the Working Class in England'
that even in these post-socialist days remains on the reading list of
British students of English social history. This encounter with
extreme poverty and suffering left on Shirvanzade their indelible mark
and inspired a literary career that produced a fine dissection of
urban life in the Caucasus and a critique of the new philistine
bourgeoisie.

Though poverty forced him to abandon school early Shirvanzade
developed an undying love for books. When still in his early twenties
he took the initiative in establishing one of the first, and
subsequently the most well stocked and famous, Armenian libraries in
Baku. It was here that he began writing for the Armenian and the
Russian press. In 1884 he moved to Tbilisi, then the hub of Armenian
intellectual life in the Caucasus.

In Tbilisi Shirvanzade met and formed friendships with, it seems, the
whole phalanx of Armenian literary personalities of the day - men like
journalist and editor Krikor Ardzrouni, novelist Raffi, poet and
educationalist Ghazaros Aghayan, dramatist Gabriel Sountoughian,
nationalist poet Kamar Katiba, famous actor Bedros Atamian, novelist
Berj Broshian and many others. Significantly Hovanness Toumanian is
absent from this gallery of characters that are depicted through some
defining personal trait, an intellectual bent or just an amusing
anecdote.

Throughout the volume Shirvanzade also scatters his comments and views
on the nature and the purpose of art. These call into question the
traditional evaluation that he wrote novels to serve social or
political ends. Shirvanzade was certainly a socially and politically
conscious man, indeed a man of the left, always sympathetic to the
plight of the poor and oppressed. But though passionate about politics
he was even more passionate about art that he never regarded as an
instrument of politics. His novels certainly do expose social ills.
But he did not set out to write them with this in mind.

Shirvanzade repeatedly states that he turned to art intent only on
reproducing and dissecting the life that he witnessed around him. That
he depicted urban ugliness, the dark side of bourgeois wealth, the
harsh reality of women's oppression, the violence of the lives of the
poor is the result not of political ambition, but a function of his
realism, his deep humanism and the times about which he wrote.

By his own account Shirvanzade was but an accidental and casual
political activist, indeed a fellow traveller.  But even his passing
political involvement sometimes cost him his freedom as he was
imprisoned for a time and also forced into exile. Brushes with the
newly founded ARF leadership produced a hostility to what he regards
as its extreme, even unbalanced nationalism. Insisting on his
preference for literary work, Shirvanzade repeatedly turned down ARF
founder Kristapor Mikaelian's invitation to contribute to the ARF
press. Following his encounters with the ARF Shirvanzade joined up
with the socialist Hnchaks, again as a fellow traveller but again
never putting his artist's pen to the service of the party. He joined
up only because of the spirit of the times and because he says he
needed a break from literary activity. On returning to writing he
produced a dozen plays that came to be regarded as on a par with the
best.

So relentless is Shirvanzade's hostility to the ARF that the reader
wonders whether he was echoing official soviet state policy. After all
he wrote `In the Furnace of Life' in 1928 in Armenia and Georgia then
characterised by an official hostility to the ARF. Yet his committed
and personal opposition to what he judged as extreme nationalism is
confirmed much earlier in his account of his involvement in efforts to
secure reconciliation between Armenians and Azeris after the deadly
1905 clashes in Baku and the Caucasus. The first volume ends soon
after as Shirvanzade prepares for a lengthy trip to Europe, the tale
of which is told in the second volume.


II. `ARAMPI' - A NOVEL OF DEFEATED LOVE

In `Arampi', (Selected Works in 5 Volumes, Vol. 2, pp178-213, Yerevan,
1986) his second novel, first published in 1887, Shirvanzade again
offers us scenes from everyday life that have an enduring quality
assured by the author's consistent capacity for deft characterisation,
an eye for defining detail as well as an ability to bring out in
narrative and dialogue something significant about the emotional or
psychological condition of his protagonists.

`Arampi' treats of a similar issue to that of Shirvanzade's first
novel Namus, both highlighting the subordinate position of women and
the manner in which this is legitimised and fortified by prejudice,
backward social morality and religious dogma.  But Shirvanzade does
not tailor his art to suit any social or political axe he may have to
grind. In `Arampi' the social hostility to women's rights to divorce
and separation arise naturally through the telling of a tale that
takes us far from the rural backwater of `Namus's' Shamakh to the
relatively urban and cosmopolitan Russian occupied Georgian capital
Tbilisi.

`Arampi' unfolds around a group of tenants lodging with landlady
Natalia Petrova.  Stepan Rostomian, a shy and lonely young man is
sprung out of the stupor of his meaningless job on meeting 26-year old
Varvara who has, together with her merchant father, just rented an
apartment with Natalia. Stepan and Varvara, two people touched by
sorrow and loneliness cross each other's path on a promise love and
happiness. But social prejudice will not permit their love to
flourish. From the outset there are premonitions of tragedy. Unaware
of Varvara's past Natalia schemes to marry her off to Stepan. But
Varvara turns out to be already a married woman who has fled a
debauched husband. Despite being the innocent party society condemns
her as immoral and prohibits her having new relations with other men.

Hrant Tamrazian noted correctly that `Arampi' lacks the dramatic plot
of `Namus'. But he was wrong to consider this a flaw. In Arampi the
plot is not the point. With consistently acute psychological
observation, Shirvanzade has created characters that command the
reader's attention to the end of the tale. His talent for describing
the protagonists' sensibilities, their emotions and their
psychological agony affords an appreciation of the damaging effect of
prejudice which, like a persistent drizzle, penetrates every corner of
society and even the very core of its victims.

An exchange between Natalia's daughter Catty and her husband, full of
sneer and contempt, is telling of the violent edge to social gossip
that follows the discovery of Varvara's plight. Landlady Natalia's
agony highlights the individual's internalisation of clashes between
humane sensibility and social prejudice. Natalia knows that Varvara is
innocent and feels deeply that she should be allowed a new opportunity
for happiness. But at the same time she feels powerless before social
convention and hopes that for the sake of `this harsh law that still
must be obeyed, Varvara and Stepan will resist consummating their
love. The prejudice infects even the two lovers, generating guilt and
fear of social ostracism. It clouds their judgements, influences their
decisions and eventually destroys their love.

As with `Namus' `Arampi' suffers from Shirvanzade's naturalist realism
that fails to suggest anything of the origin and function of the
social hostility to women's rights to divorce or separation. But in
the character of Varvara's father Minas Grillitch he does offer a hint
of the reasons. Grillitch forces his daughter into marriage, against
her own wish, only in order to enhance his own social standing and
financial position. Despite Varvara's subsequent experience, intent on
escaping further public opprobrium, he harasses her to return to her
husband.  He loves his daughter, her feels her unhappiness. But fear
of social ostracism and his desire for social approval prove stronger.

In connection with the contradictory inner world of both Varvara's
father and Natalia, it is perhaps worth remarking on the rather
unimaginative dismissal of `Arampi' by famous historian and literary
critic Leo. Unable to grasp the living reality of individuals torn by
opposing emotions such as those of Varvara's father, he cites this,
among other things, as evidence of Shirvanzade's failure to develop
coherent characters. Yet in both cases it is the inner clash between
the inherent decency of both characters and the pressures upon them of
a backward society that makes of them rounded, living and real beings
and marks them out as artistic successes.

In telling his story Shirvanzade catches moods, feelings and
sensations of love in fine, shaded and tender manifestations. He
describes movingly the condition of love threatened by dark forces and
depicts well the psychology of a frightened love that is deemed
illicit by society and religion. Enriching the story, he hedges it
with observation and comment on life, on hypocrisy and prejudice, on
loneliness, melancholy and ambition. The story flows well to what is
however a rather weak, over-dramatised ending about which Leo does not
fail to be scornful. But despite its conclusion, `Arampi' offers a
fresh and moving glimpse into the emotional and psychological world of
people whose lives are diminished by backward social constraints.


--
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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