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The Critical Corner - 05/24/2005

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Why we should read...

`Crossroads' by Anahit Sahinian
(Selected Works in 3 Volumes, Volume 1, 608pp, Yerevan, 1987)

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 24, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian


				  I.

Contemporary Armenian novelist Anahit Sahinian, now 88, is much
underrated. In discussions of modern Armenian literature her work is
almost completely ignored. Yet `Crossroads', her first major novel
published in 1946, is an accomplished work: intellectually stimulating
and sometimes even bold in its critical overview of life in Soviet
Armenia during the late 1930s and 1940s. Revolving around the building
of modern Yerevan, the tenor and tone of this novel separates it from
the dull tracts about `socialist construction' that were churned out
by the crate-full during the Soviet era.

On publication the novel and its author were subjected to intense
bureaucratic attack. Sahinian was charged with `petty-bourgeois
deviations' and with `violations of socialist realism'. Anything less
banal from corrupt critics would have been rather surprising.
`Crossroads' is not an anti-socialist novel. In it, the emergence of
Yerevan becomes a symbol for those elements of national revival and
recovery that were registered during the Soviet era. But, the novel is
not written in the tradition of those servile pens who happily
presented Soviet society and its individuals in some falsified idyllic
condition conceived of by self-serving state ideologists. On the
contrary `Crossroads' lifts off the deceptive cloak of `socialist
realism'. It reveals something of what life was really like in both
its positive and its negative and with contemporary men and women who
lived with the stamp of their own past history. It is this that gives
the work its edge.

Sahinian presents society as it was, in transition, with inherited
prejudices and backward traditions and ones of its own creation, with
its petty and gross corruptions, its generation gap and its rebellious
youth (who demonstrate a greater penchant for fashion than for
communist theory), with its frequently opportunist and careerist
communist cadre, its private loves and adulteries, its failures but
also with its achievements. `Crossroads' conveys along the optimism
that indubitably existed among wide sections of the population,
despite the purges and the forced collectivisation campaigns of the
era. As they recover from previous decades of war and violence one
senses the pride and confidence of people as they engage in the
fashioning of a new Yerevan. It is the pride and even joy that also
finds expression in Yeghishe Charents's `Nork', a poem of national
recovery where the `helpless dying district' of Nork is counter-posed
to:

    `A new Yerevan that is rising
    And looks into the depths of our souls renewed.'

The positive in the panorama does not detract from a critical realism
that, at certain points, challenges the Communist Party leadership's
claim to ideological infallibility and even questions its socialist
credibility. `Father I have no desire to stand in judgment of you'
says Sarig, son of Gevorg Majgalian, prominent Communist Party member,
but:

    `Forgive me if I have touched on a sore point. I mean, though you
    lay claim to the greatest of humanist ideals, sometimes you have
    bent the stick so far, that instead of putting the ideals to the
    service of man, you have subordinated man to the ideal and to an
    ideal that has itself been misconceived.' (p375)

Throughout, prose of refreshing clarity, unadulterated by pretentious
word importation, becomes a storehouse of wise observation preserving
a sense of the times and a feel of how ordinary people experienced the
massive social projects of the era. Sahinian's fluent narrative is
never tainted by dogma or rhetoric. Her reconstruction of life is
effected with finesse, not by means of any turgid authorial
commentary, but indirectly, through a truthful portrayal of ordinary
mortals in their everyday existence.

At this point one could dwell on an important question of art and
artistic production in Soviet era Armenia. Can a writer produce art in
a political order that forbids engagement with the dominant or
defining political and social developments of the age? In the USSR the
prohibition on serious consideration of the 1930s Stalinist purges or
the collectivisation of agriculture denied artists the broad and
profound sweep with which they could throw light on essential forces
propelling social and individual life. Still, this did not inevitably
preclude artistic creativity.

In the whirlpool of tumultuous and violent events vast numbers of
people, indeed at most times the majority, live removed or relatively
removed from their centre. Their daily lives are only marginally or
fragmentarily affected by decisive events. Yet these people are and
remain integral to social life. Literature that can honestly focus on
even a small section of this vast majority can indeed produce
something of that `dough of life' that, in Hagop Oshagan's famous
phrase, gives a work its artistic quality. During the Soviet era such
a focus required the artist to go beyond the arid schemes of
`socialist realism'. Among artists who did so was Anahit Sahinian.



				 II.

`Crossroads' is not flawless. The plot moves too slowly. The
characters introduced at the outset are too numerous to allow for
adequate development. Still, narrative that regularly attains depth
secures the reader's attention until the protagonists flower.
Dominating Book One is Gevorg Majgalian, a charismatic and energetic
organiser and fixer. He has survived many a serious and potentially
fatal brush with the party hierarchy. When we meet him he is a central
organiser of Yerevan's construction projects. Alongside his
well-conceived public image we see Majgalian in his private world too,
a middle-aged, separated and lonely man with a longing for his
children and a yearning for a return to normal family life.

Forming with Majgalian a trio of dominant characters are the
single-minded archaeologist Ardashes and his wife Shaghig.  With
sensitive and delicate observation Sahinian charts their gradual
estrangement borne of Shaghig's accumulating disappointments, among
them Arsdashes's failure to deal with the immensely difficult business
of securing supplies of winter fuel. This, Shaghig eventually obtains
from fixer Majgalian, with whom she begins a love affair that ends in
her divorce and remarriage. Through the novel, peopled by other
well-constructed characters, Sahinian also offers a glimpse into the
lives of those who survived after falling out with the Party. Many,
such as young Varastad's father, were no hapless victims. Accused of
opposition to collectivisation he is forced out of his village.
Resorting to imaginative and extra-legal means he seeks refuge on the
obscure edges of the more anonymous Yerevan where he builds a new home
and life for his family.

`Crossroads' is refreshingly and delightfully free of flat cardboard
characters that fill the pages of many a Soviet era novel. Sahinian's
men and women are authentic, much more so than the protagonists of
more enthusiastically acclaimed works. The unfolding of their lives
thus becomes simultaneously a commentary on the social and individual
relations of the time. Through them Sahinian pinpoints the then
central and growing divide between town and country, a divide that is
underlined with fine detail through her characters' differing
haircuts, clothing and general demeanour. In some cases the gulf
becomes absolute. In Yerevan there are children who ask to be shown a
`corn tree'.

`Crossroads' also highlights the continuing social subordination of
women, in the family and at work. Truths emerge in scenes of everyday
life - of men enjoying themselves eating kebabs and drinking beer
whilst the women of the house run from kitchen to dining area to
serve.  Elsewhere a woman's marriage ends a promising career. Arpig
for example found her:

    `vocation in motherhood and became a loyal and devoted wife.
    As of then the cord that bound her to the outside world was her
    husband's career that was progressing rapidly' (p341)

Adding historical authenticity to the landscape are passages that,
though focussing on the sphere of architecture, reflect the entire
gamut of cultural life, revealing among other things how
contemporaries conceived of the role of classical Armenian culture and
its contribution to modern life. Sahinian's novel also captures the
essence of the sometimes difficult and complicated relations between
the pre-Soviet Armenian intelligentsia and the new order dominated by
its Communist Party activists. Summarising differing appreciations of
commonly supported projects, pre-Soviet architect Arshag tells
Majgalian:

    `I am the city's chief architect. You are the city's director of
    construction. I am building a town for you and you call that
    communism?'  (p209)

Among the novel's most significant records of subterranean social
development, that were to play a central role in future Armenian life,
are reflections on issues of national history and national
consciousness. Not only does the genocide feature in setting out the
background of some characters but instances of armed Armenian
resistance are also registered and positively so. (p415). More
decidedly still are the hints of a new national consciousness among
the younger generation that was to come to fruition in later decades.
Underlining their character and strength is a rather un-Marxist
formulation by Seta, a formulation that is not qualified at all and
clearly seems to have slipped by a lazy censor:

    `Father, I want communism to triumph throughout the world as
    rapidly as possible. But not so much to eradicate man's
    exploitation of man but to end the oppression of one nation by
    another.' (p411)

`Crossroads also contains descriptions of an earlier multi-ethnic
Yerevan with its once Turkish districts now being rebuilt as
exclusively Armenian. Political constraints presumably prohibited any
mention of where the original inhabitants went and why. Despite the
sometimes cumbersome unfolding of the story, Sahinian succeeds in
weaving all these and other elements of Soviet Armenian life into a
single, integrated and living unity.



				   
				 III.

Compared to Book One, Book Two is disappointing. It repeats earlier
themes and its central young characters are seriously underdeveloped.
Eminent and refined as he is, Hrant Tamrazian must surely have been
overenthusiastic in the credit he accords them.  Still on the basis of
expectations created by Book One and new insights into professional
career ambitions - the clashes and jealousies, the cheating and
parasitism - the reader is encouraged to persevere.  Eventually after
a long faltering interlude the novel recovers as it moves into new
terrain - the onset of WWII and the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

The years of war are evoked well in terms of everyday life. Images of
young men preparing to depart for war whilst the old are gripped with
fear for their sons going to possible slaughter summon up something of
the atmosphere of the times. Alongside descriptions of maiming and
death are moving accounts of projects to build fountains in honour of
the fallen that offer contrasts between self-sacrifice and selfish
career ambition. Particularly forceful are accounts of the
difficulties faced by soldiers on their return home and of the
suspicions cast upon ex prisoners of war, all automatically deemed
guilty of surrender.

Book Three is particularly trenchant. It is daring in its portrayal of
the Soviet government's early conduct of the war, its lack of military
preparation and its deceptive propaganda that concealed its failure to
adequately clothe or arm its soldiers. Chief city architect Arshag
goes even further and launches into a bitter tirade against the
Nazi-Soviet Pact and ends demanding:

    `Why did we put any faith in Hitler? Why did we put trust in the
    non-aggression pact with him? With folded arms we waited for him
    to take us by surprise. Why did we forget those well known words
    of popular wisdom: make a deal with a dog but don't throw away
    your stick. (p401)

Even more striking and to the point, Sahinian shreds the reputation of
party bureaucrats who, in contrast to Majgalian, spouted patriotism but
avoided enlistment; who spoke fiery speeches in defence of the Soviet
Union and Armenia, but only to climb career ladders as far away from
the front as possible. Shaghig, when opposing Majgalian's decision to
enlist, points to the scores of party cadre who did not sign up.
Majgalian who acts as a counterpoint to such opportunists retorts:

    `Those are the ones who have put a party card in their pocket only
    as a means of advancing their careers. They made patriotic
    speeches that were even better than my own. But today they have
    taken to hiding in some hole in the ground.' (p396)

Majgalian's honourable role does not blunt the force of Sahinian's
criticism. Here and throughout the novel he appears not as a typical
party member but as an extraordinary one in what appears to be an
organisation populated by a great number of opportunists and
careerists.

In the overall flow of authentic life the reader is not overly
perturbed by the frequently forced, jarring or unlikely turns taken by
a sometimes ponderous plot. One cannot however pass on without noting
a deeper but perhaps unavoidable flaw that denies `Crossroads' the
status of a truly great work.  `Crossroads' does not, and could not,
consider the repressions and purges of the 1930s that defined the
times and affected vast swathes of the professional classes that
feature centrally in the novel. Had there been any such serious
engagement, the manuscript would have been thrown out, and Sahinian
thrown into prison or worse. This fact limits the work. Yet despite
this `Crossroads' remains an enduring record of human life and reads
more truthfully and refreshingly than most Soviet era Armenian novels.


--
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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