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The Critical Corner - 12/22/2003

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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

    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

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.

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