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The Critical Corner - 01/10/2005

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THE KEEPERS OF OUR LETTERS

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 10, 2005

By Shushan Avagyan


On the other side of the grand building of the National Art Gallery of
Armenia, there is a small wooden door on Manukyan Street that leads me
to the quiet halls of the Museum of Art and Literature named after
Charents. It is hidden from the eyes of the random passer-by, unnoticed
by the fast walking pedestrian who uses the street for a short cut to
the metro station. Its location makes perfect sense - hidden behind
the Gallery - it isn't supposed to be a tourist attraction, it's a
center for research and studies. Inside, the dignified solitude of the
hallway instills a totally different sensation from the loud
mercantile street atmosphere. The sign on the side of the door reads:
from Sayat-Nova to Charents.

I come here with a letter of request to access the vast heritage left
to us by the remarkable minds from the eighteenth, nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. I hand the letter to Henrik Bakhchinyan, the head
of the archives - as he recalls my name, just like he remembers each
person who has walked into his office with the same ambition to see,
touch and read the manuscripts of the great ones. He takes me down to
the archives and introduces me to the keepers of our letters. The
reading hall is a small room with a few desks, a piano, a wall-case
with black and white photographs of Grikor Zohrab with wife Clara, and
daughter Dolores Zohrab Liebmann among other figures, and an electric
stove to keep the place warm. Here I meet Berj (her real name is
Perchuhi Gazazyan). She directs me to the old wooden cabinet, which
holds the neatly filed card catalogs. Each card is a hand-written
bibliographic record. I browse through the card catalog as my fingers
get dry and black from the years' old dust; then I write down the
`call numbers' of selected materials on a special form provided by
Berj. The next day at eleven in the morning my precious originals are
waiting for me on the desk, in brown paper bundles with fragile
contents that lure and frighten me at the same time.

During an era when the Sultan was envisioning an empire of terror and
intellectual repression, Toros Azadian, an ingenious man from
Constantinople, was envisioning a literary revolution that would turn
the politics of racism to a politics of tolerance and intellectual
dialog. He collected the letters, diaries and memoirs of his
contemporary writers, as he wrote, published and spoke about the
importance of the cultural heritage and the histories of those who
were silenced under the Sultan's rule. Saved from destruction, these
historic treasures traveled from his private library to the archives
of the Armenian Prelacy in Constantinople and finally to the safety of
the Museum in Yerevan. And a century later as I hold the letters of
Sibyl and Hrant Asatur in my hands, and read the epistolary novel of a
clandestine love affair preserved on creased yellow pages torn from
diaries, I think of Toros Azadian. I burn with Asatur's passion for a
woman who was married to another man. `It's true, I envy all those who
have shared your friendship before me; I wish, Zabel, to have been
close with you since your girlhood, I wish I were your only one. I
wish you shared your grief, thoughts and feelings with me only. I wish
I were the blood flowing through your veins, your inspiration and
breath that may cease by death only.' Her writing is as passionate as
his, her signature at the bottom - rushed. `Hrant, my heart is afraid
of too much happiness. You are so precious to me that I've become
selfish wanting only your company.' I burn with Sibyl as she kisses
her husband and caresses the letter from Asatur concealed in her
pocket. Concealed, like the Museum of letters is concealed in the back
pocket of the yellow tufa building, where I sit with my frozen fingers
in the cold reading hall. I burn with Azadian who was able to preserve
this passion between two remarkable writers and enabled me to witness
it.

But I am here for another reason: Shushanik Kurghinian's archive of
notebooks and family photographs. The first day Berj is not in a good
mood; she dismisses me with a few brusque words. There is a defiant
note in her gaze - it emanates a certain sternness. But her blue
pupils also reveal a temperament of great sensibility. I come back the
next day, her bitterness is gone - she even tells me about her
father's family from Van. She recalls her first day at the Museum
twenty-some years ago, her excitement, the thrill. Then the December
`days of anarchy' during the 90's, the leaking walls, the rooms with
the damp boxes holding the manuscripts, the temperature below
zero. Her bulging red hands tell me about those days when she ran
frantically from one storage vault to the other, with towels brought
from home to wrap around the soaking boxes. Her month's salary is the
tip you pay for your dinner at the Italian restaurant. But at this
moment, she is the one holding the box with Kurghinian's photographs.
This one is my favorite: it's 1908 in Rostov, the writing in the back
says it was taken during an expedition to River Don; they are seated
around a huge table in a courtyard. Her husband, Arshak Kurghinian is
dressed in a light peasant shirt with buttons on the side; the other
men are dressed in European suits. The young women are wearing stylish
one-piece dresses. The children are playing in the foreground.
Kurghinian, in her simple Mushetsi vestment, is gazing straight into
the camera with her smart piercing eyes. Her hair is long and braided
in the traditional Armenian village style - a thick braid resting on
each shoulder. The pensive poet is stretched on her chair, with her
legs crossed and relaxed - she is the unpretentious hostess who will
dismiss you if you are unwanted, just like Berj. And you will have to
abide by her rules.

But Berj is rather generous today. She has agreed to read from one of
Kurghinian's notebooks, as her handwriting is illegible to me from
this particular time-period: an epoch of the poet's awakening and the
socialist movement. Berj is an expert when it comes to deciphering the
script of the great ones. I close my eyes to her rhythm as she reads
the stanzas in iambic tetrameter. The unfinished paper, which I have
been writing for the past three years, surfaces into my memory:

`Her language is simple, but very effective for the time, considering
the little formal education that she had. As Rowe emphasizes, unlike
[Mariam] Khatisian's scholastic language, Kurghinian's poetics
incorporates many dialectical terms that mimic the speech patterns of
the working class and peasantry to whom her poetry was directed.
Furthermore, even though Kurghinian lived in a Russophone environment
and widely read in Russian, she continued to persistently write in her
native Armenian. She consciously chose verse over the novel as a
genre, which was highly in vogue at the turn of the century, because
she wanted to draw the attention of the illiterate masses, who had no
access to literature and no time for lengthy readings.  Kurghinian
`sang songs' of rebellion, scrupulously working on perfecting her
rhyming, so the stanzas could be easily remembered and learnt by
heart.'

As the last refrain trails in my mind, Berj's voice trails into the
hallways of the empty Museum. It then stops abruptly and the Museum is
quiet again. It's almost four and I need to leave, Berj reminds me, -
the work must be paused until tomorrow.

I exit the building that solemnly stands in the shade of other museums
that had the privilege to undergo restorative works in the past years.
For a reason I cannot understand, the Museum of Art and Literature was
not included in these restorative works that were funded by Lincy
Foundation. Perhaps the keepers of our letters weren't loud enough to
outcry the importance of their house. Perhaps the ones who were making
the decisions - writing up the list of museums that needed
renovations - misplaced or forgot to include the institution that
houses over one million original manuscripts from various spheres
including the visual arts, literature, film, theatre and music. But
how loud does one have to scream about the significance of preserving
this wealth?

The next morning I am sitting in Gurgen Gasparyan's office, talking
about his translations of Rimbaud, Mallarme and Verlaine into
Armenian. Gasparyan is the associate director of the Museum, but
primarily he is a translator. He draws out a thick book from the
shelf, Jean-Pierre Mahe's translation of Narekatsi's `Tragedie,' and
begins reading from Mahe's introduction to the book and simultaneously
translating it for me. His eyes glow as he leafs through the French
publication that was released in 2000 as part of a scholarly series.
We are sitting in our coats and scarves tightly around our necks - he
has no heating in his office. Not even a small electric stove, like
the one downstairs, in the reading hall. He is helping me scan
Kurghinian's photographs onto a compact disk, which will travel with
me overseas. He is curious to know why I am so intrigued by Kurghinian
and her works. To reciprocate his reading on Narekatsi, I offer him
excerpts from Kurghinian's autobiographical writings:

    `They are surprised at how I became a poet . . . and enraged at my
    ability to write good songs. Perhaps it's because I look like
    someone who has dared to enter the theatre without a ticket.'

And:

    `Women's liberation comes with human progress; hence, the modern
    woman's rights, like a flag, flies high above the shameful gallows
    of ignorance.'

And:

    `I disagree with you; belletristic, better yet call it aesthetic
    literature has been and will remain a powerful source, a
    supportive platform for the reading public. In order to have such
    power it must interpret life - the time period, its desires,
    searchings, emotions - in a most intimate and truthful way.
    Without literature, trust me, our ears will wilt away.'

Gasparyan lights a cigarette and expresses his regret for the Armenian
public's lack of interest in literature. It's a shame, he says, nobody
really knows or remembers Kurghinian anymore. He is concerned with the
general ignorance, and indifference toward the archives and the
heritage. Whitman's words come to mind - `To have great poets, there
must be great audiences, too.'

Gasparyan is also the Museum's publisher. He came here from Nairi
Press, where he worked for many years, publishing modern and
contemporary Armenian fiction.  Since his arrival in 1995, the Museum
has managed to publish over eighty books, including the unique
correspondence between Sibyl and Hrant Asatur. One of the outstanding
projects has been the publication of Zohrab's well known and, also,
previously unpublished works - articles, memoirs and letters, in four
volumes. These are of vital import to the literary scholar and critic
in their ongoing discourse on Zohrab. The list of publications is
endless. But as Gasparyan mentions, the Museum budget can allow only
one or two publications a year, and many books get published through
individual subsidiary grants. Like Gasparyan notes in his introduction
to the newest release of Abovian's `Verk Hayastani, voghb
hayrenaseri,' the publication of this particular book was enabled and
supported by Vahe Baladouni, professor of philosophy from University
of New Orleans. The cornerstone of modern Armenian literature, this
groundbreaking historic novel written in the vernacular Yerevan
dialect, was penned in 1841 and first published in 1858. This
publication is the unedited version containing the author's original
syntax, and includes detailed endnotes, a glossary, and a translation
of the author's preface into English. Gasparyan hands me `Verk
Hayastani' as a keepsake, and I place it alongside the compact disk
with Kurghinian's photographs. I press his hand in gesture of
appreciation and also goodbye; it is the last day - everything will
be closed tomorrow for the holidays.

As I walk out of his office and down the stairs to the exit, I muse
over our conversation on the significance and necessity of the
Museum's preservation and the preservation of its contents
thereof. Closing the doors behind me, I step outside into the crisp
wintry air and stroll away to the quiet humming of the Museum.


--
Shushan Avagyan 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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