REVIEW: When More Is More:  Vatche Semerdjian’s Under the Spotlight

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By Dr. Arpi Sarafian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

There is something uncanny about a book that draws one in when it should perhaps intimidate with its immensity.  It is true that we live in a culture that glorifies the superlative, yet a book of over a few hundred pages gives me the uncomfortable feeling of being imposed upon.  Does the author expect me to actually read through?  Nonetheless, Under the Spotlight (Tekeyan Cultural Association, Los Angeles 2014), the more than 1,200-page, two-volume collection spanning 30 years of Vatche Semerdjian’s journalistic writing, lures the reader in and keeps her there.  The seduction starts with the handsomely-designed dust cover, featuring a half-portrait of the author, and continues with the Table of Contents, carefully organized into headings that make the material immediately accessible:  “The Armenian Genocide,” “The Perennial Crisis of the Armenian Church,” “The Armenian Press,” “The Daily Lives of Armenian Americans,” guide us through the wide range of topics covered.  Catchy titles, on the other hand — “Let Us Not Forget That The Armenian People Have Two Enemies,” “The Wrong Question,” “Another Denial?” prompt us to turn to the relevant pages and to read the articles through before going on to the next one and then the next and the next.  Under the Spotlight is a feast.

All of the articles collected in the massive volumes originally appeared in Nor Or, the official organ of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party.  Volume I covers the years 1980-1993, Volume II the years 2000-2005.  What makes this third publication of Semerdjian’s essays more than a mere collection of articles, however, is his ability to take his observations and analyses beyond their specific contexts and to show the relevance of the issues he explores to the complex world we live in today.

The book is a handy reference guide for our daily lives. The essays are stunningly fresh and give us glimpses into many of our current concerns.  Whether it is life in the Diaspora, the Third Republic, or the Artsakh crisis, Semerdjian’s insights into the Armenian reality give the reader a clearer sense of where we come from and where we are headed.  When the odds for our survival are not too favorable, connecting the past to the present, with concise summaries of treaties like the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, or of key Holidays —Vartanantz, May 28, November 29 — helps the reader fathom the deeper significance of our history and the urgency of keeping it alive.  The second half of the second volume of the collection is aptly titled “Diasporan Anxieties.”

It would be foolish to deny the book’s value as social history.  Semerdjian’s close involvement with the community — he has been president of the Tekeyan Cultural Association Los Angeles chapter for more than 25 now and was, besides being a regular contributor to the Armenian press, editor of Nor Or from January 2000 to 2005 — enables him to put the Armenian social, political, and cultural reality of the past 50-60 years under close scrutiny, hence the book’s title.  What takes the collection beyond it being a mere factual record of our lives though is, once again, Semerdjian’s ability to transcend the particularities of what, when and where and to leave the reader questioning and reflecting on the deeds, and the misdeeds, of our political leaders, our religious hierarchy, and our editors.  It is this larger context, this vision of the way things could be — and ought to be — that gives the collection its wonderful coherence.  Under the Spotlight reads like a book.  It is, to borrow poet Ezra Pound’s words, “news that stays news.”

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Semerdjian’s is a judgment we trust.  Here is a man who speaks his mind without mincing or masking.  He openly condemns President Kocharian’s pronouncements, for example, regarding our territorial demands from Turkey.  “It is wrong to separate Genocide recognition from our right to claim our lands,” he writes.  There is no imposition here, yet Semerdjian’s sincerity and his commitment to the honest truth carry much moral weight.  We share his deep pain at the “tragic decision” to close down, in June 2005, the 78-year-old Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus.

For one who so rigorously exposes the stark reality — deploring our immature politics and weak presence at crucial treaties, our perennial divisions and shortsightedness — Semerdjian’s outbursts of joy come as a relief.  He writes of the “supreme joy” of his experience as a teacher of Armenian language and history at the TCA Arshag Dikranian School in the years 1997-2009, and humbly expresses his gratitude to the students and to the friends who made the experience possible.  Semerdjian is confident his students will continue to affirm Armenian values — albeit “empowered and guided by English.”

What ultimately emerges is Semerdjian’s deep faith in the possibility of a fresh start for our nation, despite the difficulties facing it.  He hails the birth of our Third Republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and welcomes the ensuing “healthy competition” of the political parties to help her thrive.  When others have been prophesying doom, Semerdjian congratulates our leaders on their success in walking our fledgling Republic to its “15th anniversary and beyond.”  He also seizes upon positive moments in World politics, as when in 1990, on April 12 and April 13, respectively, East Germany and The Soviet Union took responsibility for the inhuman acts committed against the Jews during World War II to see a “ray of hope” for our cause.   Semerdjian cares deeply about the fate of his people.

Ultimately, it is the grace of Semerdjian’s writing, his elegant use of Armenian prose — never wordy, always exact, and polished — that keeps the reader interested.  The ability to remove himself from his writing, even when he writes of personal matters, such as when he was “forced” to step down from the editorship of Nor Or because of the corruption and the petty rivalries surrounding him, adds much to the essays’ aesthetic appeal.  Semerdjian boldly names the culprits but is never self-aggrandizing, vulgar or shrill.  His wit aims not to deride or to belittle, but to help change the way we think.

Semerdjian has an overwhelming desire to communicate.  His articles are dense with information, yet there is nothing to eliminate.   On the contrary, his observations and incisive comments give one much to ponder.  The 1,200+ pages have made their case: more is more.