Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Book Review: “We Of The Mountains - Armenian Short Stories”

I inherited this short story collection from my Dad. Nineteen stories in all, published by, who else? Progress Publishers, some of them just three pages long and some, over two dozen. I read this collection for the first time when I was thirteen or so and I reckon I must have read it at least half a dozen times so far. Recently I re-read this collection or rather, skimmed through it. Some of the stories are written prior to the Communist takeover of Armenia and the rest are set in Soviet Armenia. Many deal with the transition to Soviet rule, a couple are set during the Second World War and a few tell the story of youth, love and ennui in Soviet Armenia.

Many of the authors are men who have never lived outside Armenia. A few have, like Derenik Demirchian (1877-1956) the son of a poor shopkeeper who trained as a teacher in Switzerland or like Gegam Sevan who was born in Istanbul where he studied law and lived in Libya, serving the Communist Party of Libya, before moving to Armenia. One of the authors, Abig Avakian, was born in Teheran, educated at the American college there and served in the Iranian Air Force. He migrated to Armenia in 1946. Some were involved in the fight to make Armenia communist and underwent punishment and suffering under the Tsar. For example, Avetik Isaakian was arrested for activity against the Tsarist regime and imprisoned at Tiflis. A few fought for the Soviet Union in the Second World War.

Almost all of the stories describe the beauty of Armenia, especially the mountainous parts. In “The Alpine Violet”, Aksel Bakunts tells us that “The top of Mt. Kagavaberda is draped in clouds the year round. White drifts hide the jagged walls of the castle, with tall black towers emerging here and there. From afar it seems that sentries are patrolling the ramparts, that the great iron doors of the castle are locked and that at any moment a guard might a stranger scaling the mountain.

But when the wind scatters the clouds and the white shreds dissolve, first the leaning top of a tower appears and then the overgrown walls, half-buried in the earth. There are no iron gates, there are no sentries.

Silence reigns over the ruins of Kagavaberda. The only sound is that of the turbulent Basut in the canyon below as it rushes along, polishing the blue quartz of the narrow bedrock. It seems that a thousand wolfhounds are howling beneath the churning waters, gnawing away at their iron chains.”

However, the description of nature’s beauty is interspersed with descriptions of human behaviour which is not always particularly beautiful. In the village from where beautiful Kagavaberda can be seen, a peasant has come home from a hard day’s labour, only to find that his wife has had some visitors in his absence. ‘Jealousy, like a bolt of lightning, rent the peasant’s seething soul. He opened his eyes wide. He turned pale. The woman looked at her son and flushed; her husband noticed the colour rising to her cheeks. The next moment he was on his feet. His hairy hands grabbed the heavy staff and brought it down across the woman’s back.’

Avetik Isaakian’s “Saadi’s Last Spring” is similar to “The Alpine Violet”. Nature is described in words that are equally beautiful and human emotions do not play second fiddle.

In “The Flowering Of A Book”, Derenik Demirchian takes us to the world of Zvart, a youngster with a very wild imagination and a philosophical and poetic outlook. Zvart has been consigned to an abbey by his parents who were convinced that he is mad. The Abbot is a good man and he treats Zvart kindly, allowing his genius to flourish, though the other monks, with the exception of Gunkianos, hate him. After the Abbot’s death, Zvart is imprisoned by the jealous monks, but before Zvart dies with a smile on his lips, his thoughts are converted into a book, with paintings by the talented Tade. The book now has to be kept safe.

“Night had fallen. Winter had set in over the mountains of Armenia. It was piercingly cold. The sky was as a frozen pane of glass. Gunkianos made his way down the slope. There was a bundle over his shoulder, and he carried a book wrapped in a silk handkerchief. His fingers were numb with cold, but he would not have let go of the book even if his hand had withered.

Gunkianos had run away from the monastery. His one aim was to save the book at any cost. If only he succeeded.... He did not know where he was going. A terrible storm raged over the mountains. The valleys swarmed with soldiers. Cities, villages, monasteries and libraries were all put to the torch.

By morning the storm had thrown a white blanket over the mountains the gorges. An old monk coming out of an ancient monastery discovered a half-frozen man with a sack over his shoulder by the gates. Beside him was an open book, the blue sky smiling up from its pages.

The old monk picked it up reverently.”

The stories written prior to the communist takeover give an idea of the sort of life Armenians led, one interrupted by war and Turkish invasions. Travellers always got a hearty welcome and a bed for the night.

In Rafael Aramian’s story “She Took A Pitcher And Went For Water” an Abbot spending the night with strangers introduces himself thus:

“I’m Armenian,” he said stirring the soup.

“I can see that.”

“I’m from Kutaii, the son of Gevork and Takui Sogomonyan. I’m an abbot. My name is Komitas.”

I wonder if Armenians still introduce themselves by giving the names of their parents? Most probably not! Komitas the abbot is forced to make a second trip to the same village and stay at the same house, this time to inform his host that her son died in a faraway land and would not return. “May the earth over his grave in a foreign land be light,” the dead man’s mother tells Komitas with tears in her eyes.

In a similar vein, with lots of old world charm and a heavy rustic touch, Abig Avakian’s “The Last Line” tells the story of Gegam, a man who hails from the Van region of Turkey. Driven away from Van by marauding Turks who killed his father and sisters, Gegam went to Persia where he ran a mill. One rainy night, there was a knock on the mill door. Outside, he found Tuti a gypsy girl. Turks in blue pantaloons stood on the opposite bank. One of them shouted, “Hey miller! Chase the girl out before we wreck your place!”

Gegam wanted to shout back, “Just you try! I know you dogs! I’m from Van. I saw you wreck our home, shoot Kha-chatur-airik and drag my sisters into the cellar!”

But could he say all that?

Swinging his axe instead, he shouted, “Just you try to wreck my house! I’ll make such a mess of you, your ancestors will turn in their graves!”

The men on the far bank held a whispered conference and then one of them shouted, “We’ll remember that miller.

Gegam wanted to marry Tuti, but Father Hovannes refused to marry them since Tuti was not a Christian. Nevertheless Gegam took Tuti as his common-law wife and she bore him three strapping sons before she died. Turks in blue pantaloons destroyed Gegam’s mill and so, as noted in Gegam’s diary “In July 1946, we set out for the heavenly land that is called Mother Armenia.”

Interestingly, as mentioned above, Abig Avakian, the author of this story was born in Teheran and he migrated to Armenia in 1946.

Houvannes Toumanian (1869-1923), one of the most reputed among Armenian writers, is considered the Armenian equivalent of Pushkin. His story “My Friend Neso” is a brilliant portrayal of the inequities of society - before the Revolution of course. Neso is a popular lad, like by all and admired for his story-telling. However, when the village had a school, Neso’s father couldn’t afford to send him to school.

Toumanian tells us that I can still hear Neso’s wail as he rolled in the dust and cried: “I want to go to school, too!”

And I can still hear his father’s voice shouting: “For God’s sake, can’t you understand! I don’t have the money! If I had three rubles, I’d buy grain with it, so’s you wouldn’t all be hungry. I don’t have the money!”

Many years later, the narrator finds Neso tied up in the village square, about to be flogged for thievery. The narrator intervenes and saves him, but ‘cannot forget little Neso sitting on the logs on moonlit nights, telling us stories. Neso, so pure and sweet. Neso my childhood friend.

Stefan Zorian is one of the Founders of Soviet Armenian Literature and his story “The Girl From The Library” is a classic tale of the Revolution. Victoria Danelian is an educated girl working in a library whilst her mother is a household help who pays regular obeisance to her masters and the priests. The story is narrated by Victoria’s mother who is slowly educated in the ways of the revolution.

“What sort of holiday is May Day?” Victoria’s mother asks Victoria. Mind you, this is just before the Revolution.

“May Day is the working people’s holiday. Workers all over the world are celebrating today. Right now, this very minute, workers in all the cities of Europe and America are gathering together.

On May Day, Victoria makes a speech in front of a crowd of workers. “Comrades! Everything that’s been said here is a pack of lies because these gentlemen’s words have nothing to do with their deeds. They say that all working people must unite, but they don’t want to unite with the Russian workers who are fighting for the happiness of all working people."

Victoria’s speech gets her into trouble and soon she is arrested. Her mother is ridiculed by the Landlord and his family for Victoria’s Party activities. ‘How could you have given birth to a traitor?’ she is asked by Landlord Mikhak’s wife. Victoria’s mother turns to different quarters for help, but if rebuffed everywhere. Finally she goes to the priest, Father Barseg, who also tells her that Victoria is a traitor. She walks away thinking, ‘That’s a priest for you. He always said that we must help the poor, but here I am, in trouble, and he’s turned his back on me. That’s a holy man for you.’ This is slightly melodramatic stuff, but is still very well written.

Victoria’s mother often visits Victoria in prison until Victoria is transferred to a larger prison in Yerevan. Can Victoria’s mother make it to Yerevan? Of course she can, with help from two kind men who are actually secret Party workers. In Yerevan she stays with Artush, another kind stranger, who is also a Party worker. Then one day the Bolsheviks manage to take over the Government and there is much rejoicing among workers. Artush and Victoria’s mother set out for the jail. ‘There was a crowd carrying banners outside the prison. One of the men had climbed a box and was addressing the prisoners leaving the jail. “Comrades you have been through much suffering and deprivation......"

Just as “The Girl From The Library” is the story of the civil movement that assisted the Bolshevik takeover, “On the Mountain” is the story of the war between the Dashnak army which controlled the short-lived Democratic Republic of Armenia (1917-1920) and the Soviet Bolsheviks that led to the communist conquest of Armenia. The Dashnaks are the villains in the story, making a last stand on the cliffs of Agara Gorge against Soviet forces who have reached the left bank of the Agara. In the Dashnak headquarters, a peasant who refused to fight the Soviets is being whipped. Captain Enoch Agamian is shouting into the phone: “Is this the switchboard? Get me Khanatsakh. That you Barkhudar? Have you sent off the transport? What?!” Enoch grabbed his gun and waved it at the phone, as if he were threatening the man. “Are you mad? What do you mean ‘it’s impossible’? Are you just sitting there, waiting for the Bolsheviks? Listen to me, you’re asking for trouble. The Bolsheviks won’t shoot you, I will! D’you hear me? I’ll take care of you myself. Send ten wagons of provisions 'out to us before dawn. And another thing: shoot the poor peasants. The rich ones will be glad to bring us all they have. That’s all!” As in most Soviet era literature, there are no grey zones. The Bolsheviks are all that’s good and saintly and the Dashnaks, who were actually half-decent nationalists, are shown to be purely evil.

Stepan is another peasant, the hero of the story, who is on top of Eagle Mountain (which is why the story is called “On the Mountain”) watching the Dashnaks who hold the cliffs of Agara Gorge keep the brave Soviet forces at bay. The Dashnaks don’t have heavy artillery, but their machine guns keep the Soviet troops down in their trenches. ‘The Communists fired their big gun at the peaks; the canyons shuddered and echoed like the big empty pitcher in his room; everything was enveloped in clouds of rust-coloured dust. When the dust settled the untouched positions of the Dashnaks came into view again, and once again the machine-gun began coughing viciously, keeping the men down..........He placed his sheepskin hat under his rifle and took careful aim. Then he held his breath, waiting for the cannon to roar so that the Dashnaks would not hear the sound of his shot. The cannon roared and Stepan fired. The Dashnak in the grey sheepskin hat fell heavily on the machine-gun........Stepan pressed his chin into his interlaced fingers and watched the Red Army men jumping out of the trenches and rushing towards the gorge. A machine-gun rattled in the distance, and the one that had been silenced began coughing fire again...........This time Stepan did not wait for the cannon to roar. He fired and the machine gun choked and was silent.....................’

Stepan hesitated for a moment and then fired again, this time at the Dashnak commander. He cursed softly for having missed. The Dashnaks spotted him and opened fire from all sides. A thud in his shoulder sent a sharp pain through his body.

The canyon resounded with the battle cry of the men in green army shirts who had broken through to the mountain valley and were running with a red banner, the colour of the sun rising over the mountain, billowing above them. ' I wonder if Bolshevik forces anywhere have charged at an enemy carrying a red banner, but then “Enemy At The Gates” does have a scene showing Soviet troops carry a red banner as they charge at the troops of the Third Reich, so maybe they did do so.

Movses Arazi’s “Comrade Mukuch” is the story is a poor watchman whose life changes after Soviet rule is introduced. At the beginning of the story, Mukuch is dressed in rags and shoes that are held together by bits of string, nails or wire. One day a piece of leather goes missing in the factory and Mukuch is accused of theft by the new factory manager. A nervous Mukuch attends an enquiry, prepared for the worst. ‘Mukuch’s eyes came to rest on a large portrait of Lenin on the wall. They say he’s a good man. If only he was here now and could help me, I wouldn’t be in such a mess.’

A bell tinkled, bringing the meeting to order. People were getting up to speak, but Mukuch did not follow their words. He came to with a start, when a worker named Saak began to speak. Saak had a loud voice and his words were easy to understand. How angry he was today. It seemed that he was breathing fire. Naturally he was angry at Mukuch. How strange though: Saak had just said, “Comrade Mukuch”? If he was angry with him, why did he call him “Comrade Mukuch”? That was a term of respect. Moreover, the (new) manager was on pins and needles all during Saak’s speech. He kept jumping to his feet, raising his hand to reply and finally stalked out, red in the face, muttering to himself.................Now again, someone else had referred to him as “Comrade Mukuch”. Yes, they were praising him. Despite the hunger and cold, Mukuch is always on the job, like a soldier at his post............... No, there could be no doubt about it. They were all helping him, they were all defending him! The chains that bound his heart burst. He had been frozen when he entered the building, but now he felt warm all over.'

The narrator next meets Mukuch three years later at a workers’ meeting. He is now clean shaven and his old clothes and shoes have been sent to a museum. Comrade Mukuch makes a speech in support of the revolution that is greeted with applause.

Rachia Kochar’s “Thirst” is set during the Second World War when ‘the earth trembled from gun volleys’. “Thirst” reminded me of Mikhail Sholokhov’s writings set in the Second World War. Mikael, the hero of “Thirst” is forever in danger, always surviving by the skin of his teeth. The Red Army is in retreat until the long-awaited hour strikes and the Soviet army begins a massive counter-offensive that would not be stopped by any force on earth.’ Does Mikael survive? Do please read this story and find out.

Vigenn Khechumian’s “The Bridge” tells the story of Chief mason Navasard who waits for his son to return from the War. Navasard’s family has built stone bridges for generations and the Chief mason cannot wait for his son Armenak to return so that he can hand over the bridge building to him. Armenak does return, but brings with him a Russian wife and son. To add to Navasard’s irritation, his son praises steel bridges, which are supposedly lighter and stronger than stone bridges. This moving tale is the story of how Navarsard adjusts to his daughter-in-law and modernity and accepts his grandson.

Sero Khanzadian’s “The White Lamb” is a heart-rending tale of a gardener named Navarsard (named just as in Vigenn Khechumian’s “The Bridge” where the Chief mason is also called Navarsard), whose son is a big shot in Moscow and hasn’t come home for ten years. One day, Navarsard hears from a fellow villager that Arshak has returned to the village. As the father rushes home to greet his son, various villagers tell the father that they have seen Arshak, that he is driving a blue sedan, that he is with the village Chairman etc. The father gathers various things, such as a honey comb and fresh figs, which his son used to love and prepares to slaughter a lamb. However, Arshak drives away from the village without meeting his father.

Mkrtich Sarkisian’s “How You’ve Changed Girls” could have been set in any modern society when the young are generally allowed to fall in love and marry the person of their choice, but where social status and parental expectations do play a role in pairings. That it is set in a collective farm in Soviet Armenia and that the pretty girl is the only child of the Chairman and the young man the son of ordinary workers only make this story more interesting.

Mkrtich Armen’s story “The Girl Who Looked For Me” reminds me of “D”, a story I recently read in Deepti Naval’s collection of short stories - The Mad Tibetan – Stories From Then And Now. Ruben is walking aimlessly along a street when a pretty girl walks up and demands to know why Ruben hasn’t kept in touch. Do remember, this story was written before the advent of emails and mobile phones. “The Girl Who Looked For Me” has an ending that is very different from “D”. When the girl walks away from Ruben after extracting a promise to keep in touch, Ruben still hasn’t managed to remember her.

Gegam Sevan’s “The Swallows Were Flying Low” is the story of Levon, a man who enjoys life. Narrated by Levon’s nephew, we hear Levon tell him, ‘Eat. I told you. Never hesitate to take the joys life offers. Grab them and don’t waste time on thinking about it for God’s sake. If you’ve found something, take it. And never refuse anything. Now fresh-fried fish with vodka and onions, that is, if you eat with your hands, hear, only with your hands, is also one of life’s joys.’ Levon takes his nephew fishing in the sea and they are caught in a storm. They survive of course and despite that ordeal, the narrator is left with happy memories of the sea, sun and life.

Vardkes Petrosian’s “Good Morning, Jack” is the story of Arsen, the wastrel son of a hard working father, who has a brief affair with a girl named Mary. Arsen loafs around, lies to Mary that he has a job on the night shift, gives his name as Jack and has fun for a while, till he realises that he has fallen in love. Arsen then backs out and walks away. We don’t get to know what exactly Arsen’s father does, save that he works at a plant and has a driver. The dialogues could have come from young people anywhere in the world in the 1970s and this story gives one a feel of middle-class Soviet Armenian society.

Khazak Giulnazarian’s “The Sixth Commandment” is yet another love story. Unlike “Good Morning, Jack”, here the girl rejects the soon-to-be-famous poet and doesn’t seem to be any worse for it.

In all, this is a splendid read for anyone who enjoys Soviet–era literature or wants to get a feel of Armenia before the collapse of communism.

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