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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.