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THE NEW VOICE: GOHAR MARKOSIAN-KASPER Armenian News Network / Groong December 22, 2003 by Shushan Avagyan "Penelope was waking to the warm golden-greenish sunrays, which reminded her of a delicious pumpkin hill, usually unloaded onto the hot August asphalt of the heavily trodden Yerevan streets. Carefully, she touched the ray with her finger," begins Gohar Markosian-Kasper in her autobiographical novel, where the banal is marvelously transformed into intricately stitched patterns forming a quilt of her own. Originally from Yerevan, author of three novels Markosian-Kasper writes about the ordinary life in Armenia during its early independence days of the nineties in a most unordinary style. Those who are familiar with the expatriate novelist, currently living in Tallinn, will agree that her narrative has been ineluctably influenced by the hybrid lifestyle of physician and writer, who found herself inadvertently caught up in Perestroika and the disintegration of USSR. In many ways similar to Erika de Vasconcelos's "Between the Stillness and the Grove" (Knopf Canada; 2000) Markosian-Kasper writes about her firsthand encounters of the historic events and their consequences that affected an entire nation's livelihood. "I had started taking notes on the Karabakh events, the freedom movement along with all the socio-economic reforms in 1988, never anticipating that I would use it as material for my first novel, Penelope." Written in 1994-96 in Russian, Penelope (ACT Moscow; 2001) is an account from a young twenty-something woman's day, told through digressive ramblings that resemble a nonlinear monologue. One morning, as the narrator embarks on her "odyssey" to shower that turns out to be impossible due to the notorious shutting down of water and electricity, Penelope takes us through her friends' and relatives' living rooms, where conversations about their homeland's present, past, and future never cease. But unlike other novelists writing in this genre, who are at times suffocating in their truisms, Markosian-Kasper captures, with her ironic playful style, allusions and associations about fake patriotism, relationships between men and women, Armenian fundamentalism, literature, history, and even feminism. Her sentences, sometimes a paragraph long, are structured into compound webs that tend to entangle, demanding extreme caution to find the way out of these labyrinths of linguistic interplay. As Penelope walks from one friend's house to the others', hoping to 'catch' a hot shower, her silent contemplation keeps her on the go: "She glanced absent-mindedly at the clock on the wall -- isn't it about time? The scheduled electricity hour this week was set at eleven in the morning, so they should have it around twelvish, according to Armenian time. The clock showed eleven-thirty: it had a terrible communistic habit of running ahead of usual time, even though they just wound it a couple days ago, hoping that this time it wouldn't run too far ahead. Penelope turned on the switch for the lights - not to miss the heavenly moment when electricity arrives: imagine missing it! If the windows are completely shut and you can't hear the buzzing sound of the working generator -- the chances of missing the electricity is very high. The fifteen-year-old sub-station standing in the middle of their narrow yard hummed with its repaired and re-repaired transformers, like an entire factory shop... It was loud and squeaked like there was no tomorrow, basically because they hardly used any oil to fix the damn thing. Oil was quietly imported into town, according to the local gossip, but it wasn't used on the transformers: why waste oil on a working transformer, they used to say, especially in these times of deficit. When it breaks, then... What!? Did she hear something? Penelope tried to listen and forgot all about the switch. No, it was a false alarm. The children outside were yelping for something else; it wasn't that famous cheering call "Li-i-i-ights" that usually gave a quake to the walls and fundaments, when -- all of a sudden -- the sub-station would come alive, with its buzzing bass, like a factory whistle, calling all the housewives to their heroic labor. [...] It's not strange, that instantly all the Russian schools along with their teachers and students were transformed into Armenian, but the native dialect had already generated monstrous mutations of the two languages and invaded through the margins of colloquial speech. Clearly, the shift of the linguistic system was not organized in a gradual way, and the whole thing resembled a soccer ball being kicked from one goalkeeper to the other; the cacophonous moans of the Russophone army rose to the azure of Armenian sky, and not that they were against it or anything, but... Please, not so abrupt, not right away, not so suddenly, but step by step -- with some sense of rationality and coherence... Well, there were a few real renegades, holding on to unnecessary distrust and even conspiring to relocate to Russia. The critical issue between children and parents arose once again, only now it was the mirror effect, parents negotiating in Armenian, Penelope and Anouk in Russian, and were they to have children -- they would switch back to Armenian. Only Penelope wasn't really planning on having children anytime soon, so this whole turmoil really didn't bother her, - since she taught neither physics nor biology, but Russian language, and the switch to Armenian wasn't so threatening until perhaps one day somebody in the high office would decide to remove Russian from the curriculum - but the chances for such a turn were relatively small, since Armenians, unlike for example the Baltic nations, weren't hostile towards the Russians, quite the contrary -- even though it were the Russians who, for example, in the name of bolshevism -- gave away Kars along with Ararat to the Turks, and even organized systematic pogroms of the Armenian church at the end of last century... And anyhow, in the larger picture, the Russian nation did promote Armenia's preservation... as long as it was in their interests, Armen would have reiterated, and most likely, he would have been right. What can you do, they are huge, showing off their muscles and jumping around the boxing ring, always demonstrating their well-modeled and robust biceps, waving with their arms, stroking the enemy with their gloves, maybe punching once or twice for a better effect, and then... shaking hands; imposing, they will always have the final word, while the smaller nations will have to get by somehow; the key to survival is ducking in time, not to fall under their feet, under their humongous boots..." Full of coincidences, the narrator's day takes a turn as she runs into a former lover, Edgar-Garegin, with whom she had spent many days standing outside of the Opera -- demonstrating. Only now Penelope finds out that he's become a "new Armenian" living somewhere in Russia, "driving a Mercedes" and married to someone he doesn't love. Juxtaposed to his reality is Penelope's best friend, Kara -- a pianist, who has become a baker, selling pastries for a living, and teaching music at local schools for aesthetical pleasure. The threads of events finally bring Penelope to the day's closure, as her quest is fulfilled with a simple ten-minute shower, which she had been pursuing since morning: "Suddenly the lights came on, freeing Penelope from submission to her own theories, and she rushed to the kitchen, no, the bathroom, no the kitchen, no... - Daaaad, - she yelled, torn between two choices, - turn on the boiler! Or the teakettle, - she added and clarified energetically: - Better yet the kettle, I'll handle the boiler. - And ran into the bathroom to fill up the pans with water. Yes! Yes! Of course, it's not too pleasant to shower in the morning, as it is before going to bed, but in this case, my darlings, you can't pick and choose -- take what you're offered and be content. And anyway, hot water is hot water. Liquid of divinity! And 'divineness, and inspiration, and life, and tears, and love...' Damn it, Pushkin, he always gets in the way. Obviously, if that's all you've read at school, reread at the university, how do you even try to erase those verses; that sly swindler (like our Armenians love to criticize: "What `Russian' literature are you talking about, Pushkin is African, Lermontov -- Scottish, Mandelshtam -- Jewish, Chekhov -- perhaps Check"... and Chaikovsky, you can't help but add, is probably a gull? [word-game: chaika-seagull]... Okay, the boiler is on. Penelope made sure that there were bubbles in the water -- sure sign that the boiler was on. Half an hour and... She moaned with anticipation of pleasure." The story brilliantly depicts the absurdity of daily routines during the epoch of socio-political uncertainty and intellectual degradation; the devaluation of currency, lack of food, electricity, heating, gas, and other vital things necessary to live through a single day. Markosian-Kasper's witty humor leaves nothing behind; she touches upon every aspect of those surreal times of chaos and instability. The book was nominated for the Moscow Booker Prize in 2001 and translated into Dutch, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Quite frankly, I was surprised and dismayed that her entire oeuvre up to date is in Russian, which she explained: "Being in school for so many years, where the main language of instruction was in Russian, I felt more at ease writing in a language in which I was professionally trained." Helena, which appeared in Moscow's literary journal Zvezda in 2000 and was translated into Estonian soon after, is a story about emigration. An autography in essence, Markosian-Kasper's second novel casts the heroine in a foreign land: Troy metamorphoses into Tallinn, and Paris is a young Estonian filmmaker who sweeps Helena off her feet. Only it is not so simple - estranged from her Armenian community and dreading to be labeled an émigré woman, Helena struggles hard to assert herself and her independence. Markosian-Kasper's affinity with Greek culture and mythology is apparent even in her third novel, Caryatids, published in 2003 in Zvezda. This novel raises many issues about contemporary Armenian society, the polemics of marriage, women's roles and their aspirations. Of course, if they have any. The wife, Rita, and lover, Ira, are the two embellished "sculptures" constructed by Ishkhan, a mediocre Yerevan artist. Rita suffers from a deficiency of personality and self-esteem, whereas her "rival," seems to be more independent and "unrestrained." But that is only superficial, as Ira's sarcastic and effacing remark "I'm just a woman, - I can only develop another person's ideas -- not my own" can only explicate the watered down nature of this "feminist," who reads Emile Zola instead of Kate Chopin, models for the sculptor instead of being an artist herself, and who readily relates herself to Bulgakov's Margarita. What is an Armenian woman's subjectivity and how is it constructed? Markosian-Kasper poses the question of guilt, felt by many women, whose husbands stray away from their marital beds -- the guilt that leads them to act as the "ones who salvage the marriage" by forgiving their men and giving them a second, third, and as many chances as they need. "She even felt something like being at fault, a paradoxical reaction, of course..." which is characteristic of many women and their passivity. Apart from the novels, Markosian-Kasper also produced a book of poetry (My Unfinished Castle; 1990) and a play that appeared in Yerevan's literary journal Arvest and was staged in an independent Armenian theatre in Paris. I hope many people will get around to experience this surprisingly fresh and witty voice that has received much acclaim from Russian and European critics. And for those who can't read Russian -- Penelope is finally being translated into Armenian and will debut through our very own Writer's Union by spring of 2004. Gohar Markosian-Kasper's fiction, never readily available in any bookstore, is something you have not yet experienced in Armenian literature -- and going out of your way to find a copy is definitely a rewarding "odyssey." -- Shushan Avagyan was born in Yerevan, Armenia. She is currently working on her master's degree in English Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship at the Illinois State University.