Literature and Engagement: Vahé Oshagan’s Novel Odzum

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By Tigrane Yegavian

The famous French-Armenian historian Anahide Ter Minassian did not have the chance to see this newly published book she translated from Armenian to French in the twilight of her life. An iconoclastic story, Vahé Oshagan’s short novel Odzum [anointing, or unction] (Vahé Ochagan, Onction, Marseille: Editions Parenthèses, 2020, 128 pages, 19 euros.) [https://www.editionsparentheses.com/Onction] is one of the most relevant stories in the book Tagarti shurch [around the trap] published in New York in 1988. This committed and fiercely free text questions the engagement, action and revolt of a whole generation, the one which turned twenty at the end of the 1970s.

What have been the attempts of Armenian literature to respond to the challenge of armed struggle? This article was written in part based on an interview that the late historian had given us about Vahé Oshagan, shortly before her death.

A “transgressive novel,” if there are any, Unction evokes an episode of Armenian life in the diaspora scarcely or poorly addressed in our contemporary literature. Let’s call this genre “Hay Tad-ism,” because it’s about armed struggle. In contemporary Western Armenian literature, there are some authors in the diaspora who have taken up this subject. Among the most committed, one can find three writers from the second half of the 20th century, two of whom fell into oblivion: Raymond Boghos Kupelian and Kevork Adjemian (who was one of the founders of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia [ASALA]); but also Vahé Oshagan (1922-2000). Of these three names, only Vahé Oshagan is relatively accessible to us, as evidenced by the recent publication in Armenia of his poetic work (Gayanner [stages], Erevan: Khachentz, 2017).

A minor genre, if any, this literature is currently almost exclusively available in the Armenian language, apart from two novels by Kevork Adjemian which are about ASALA seen from the inside (A Time for Terror (1997) and Ruling over the Ruins (1999)). Literarily poor, it does not shine through style or aesthetics, but through its iconoclastic and transgressive dimension.

Attracted by existentialism when he frequented the Sorbonne and the cafes of Paris in the 1950s, he had maintained all his life a kind of great gap between his membership of the ARF Dachnaktsutiun, and his loyalty towards the Armenian community structures, and on the other hand, a transgressive writing, a yearn to awaken a whole people from its inertia. If at times he developed a “poetry of the absurd,” he nonetheless remained faithful to a quest for meaning; a questioning of traditional standards, their exploration of the Armenian diasporic reality and its taboos. His poetry as well as his prose render in him a metapolitical project: it’s a question of breaking myths. But to replace them with what? And to pretend to what type of normality to suppose that this is the supreme aspiration of this revolutionary militant youth?

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Destroying Myths

Oshagan’s generation is that of the sons of survivors haunted by their stories. The writer was in his 50s when the first terrorist attacks hit the headlines. Driven by urgency, Oshagan writes, fascinated by these young revolutionary characters ready to commit a terrorist act to wake up an amorphous, anesthetized people, knocked out by the Catastrophe and centuries of serfdom. The debris of the Catastrophe surviving in a diaspora where the present is impossible, the future improbable. This Armenianness, which rots away from everything and everyone in the suburbs of the great western metropolises, is described as “frozen, petrified, fossilized in the paradise of false religion” (p. 52).

There are three young activists: an Armenian communist boy from France, a Lebanese-Armenian girl, and the youngest of the commando, an American Armenian who looks like a “blond angel,” both cut off and protected from his painful heritage. They plan to attack the saint of saints. It is incumbent upon them to destroy the church and religious mysticism first, then liberate this “Armenian people of mustaches” from their permanent passive state, to “transform them into something vital, alive; something that can be passed on from generation to generation. They have youth, charm, healthy bodies, sexual bodies. They have carefully thought it through and are devoted to the cause, ready to make a sacrifice. In this immediate context and in their eyes, the enemy is no longer the predatory Turk but the Armenian castrated by centuries of serfdom that must be freed from his chains in spite of himself. Facing them, the target is embodied by an old kahana (married priest), a native of Kessab.

Vahe Oshagan

This choice cannot be a coincidence if one takes into account that this village, today in Syria, adjoins Musa Dagh, the mecca of Armenian resistance. They don’t know that the man they targeted no longer believes in the God of Christians and the hope of the resurrection. He’s a sick man with a painful, aged body — but remains a brave and resilient man. Vahé Oshagan has chosen to attack national myths, this spirituality reduced to its simplest expression, in the hope of deconstructing other myths like those maintained by traditional diaspora parties. In short, breaking the myth because with the myth would also disappear centuries of oppression, fear of the Turk, terror of the massacres. Except that the operation will take an unexpected turn. Not only will the priest survive, but this ordeal is experienced as a regenerative passion. The writer has contented himself with pressing where it hurts, rehashing old fetishes through characters at most romantic, at least stereotypical.

Incompatibility between Sex and Armenianness

“For Vahé Oshagan sex is of central importance,” said Anahide Ter Minassian, who remembered the heated discussions with the writer in post-war Paris when she was a teenager. She remembered the proud descriptions with many details of his young Parisian female conquests. He was a young man recently arrived from his native East, where relations between the genders were regulated. He felt intoxicated by his discoveries of French women “so accessible,” the opposite of the “Armenian sisters.”

No wonder also that Vahé Oshagan wanted to attack the taboo of sexuality, which, in the eyes of Jacques, the commander of the commandos, does not rhyme with fulfillment in the case of the Armenians. The men suffer from permanent insecurity; the women are afraid of opening old wounds, instead repressing all heat. Pleasure is absent. Within these young comrades animated by the same project, there is a rigid discipline: just shake hands, there is no way to fall in love.

“It is all around the mouth and at the tip of the finger that sexuality nestles — first the kiss, then the words, the tumult, the song, and then the silence that is also built around the mouth … the language that searches, the mouth with its secret content, closed with extreme intimacy … the center of Armenianness is the mouth” (p. 72), Oshagan makes Jacques’s character say.

In this lost world, suffering is beyond the body, the flesh, enjoyment, far beyond, and much stronger than sex. And because Armenians are weak and vulnerable in this “sexual zone,” you have to strike where it hurts. “They will wake up well, free themselves from the old fear of the old taboo.” There is something grand about breaking a centuries-old spell, breaking the bonds of the moral obligation that unites and disunites Armenians in the diaspora, opening wide the prisons where all this frustration was contained. To do this, what could be more obvious than to act in an Armenian church in the middle of the celebration of the Eucharist?

Anahide Ter-Minassian

A Need for Sacredness

With Oshagan, there is no requirement to believe in the presence of God. But we cannot ignore the sacred. Here, the priest’s body is the object of the act of desecration. After hugging in public and letting notes of jazz music at full volume escape from a transistor, the young people go to undress Der Avedis during mass, to tear his ornaments with a knife, “all the pieces of his useless tinsel, ridiculous celebrant, to throw them away, until all that remains is his panties, his shitty panties” (p. 64). Provocative gesture? Terrorist act or revolutionary agit-prop for this generation of militants? It’s up to the reader to decide.

Let us remember here that the defilement of the holy place did not take place. The purpose of the commando was to violate what was most sacred among the Armenians; understand the level of vitality of the Armenian soul which is not defined in the text. A soul pure enough to care for these self-satisfied, sick, “falsely happy, falsely pious” bodies. Instead we discover a nationalized God, a Christianity subordinate to tradition, a kind of national religion confined to the Armenian faithful only. Father Avedis’ god is a nationalized god. The diasporic Church does not live; it is a shell emptied of its essence, where the faithful go astray in folkloric formalin. A varnish on the surface. Confiding one day to the philosopher and philologist Marc Nichanian, the need for a metaphasic of the diaspora, Oshagan aspired for a moment to make the diaspora a kind of “spiritual homeland.” This quest lived in him throughout his eclectic work (theater, essay, novel, short story).

Limits of a Revolutionary Project

One of the limits of Oshagan’s attempt was to want to combine moralizing discourse, a familiar register strewn with rude words (“cock” … etc.), and stuttering of the language between Armenian, English and sometimes French. But authenticity is not always there; the border between the Armenian and foreign worlds, more airtight than ever, lends itself to a dangerous slide towards emotionality, patriotic lyricism, and thesis novel … incompatible with the modernizing and liberating project to which Vahé Oshagan aspired. What can literature do then? Relate reality in its most glaring truth, tear down the masks, relate the urgency. “There is a palpable urgency that was not unrelated to his fear of death,” Anahide Ter Minassian told us. Vahé Oshagan, suffering from heart problems, was terrified that death would abruptly interrupt his work as a writer. Hence, no doubt, this radical, transgressive writing, bearing fetishes and myths to be demolished by regenerative terrorism, at most a therapeutic shock. A literature powerful enough to confiscate our present.

Two Mythological Characters

Let’s be clear, this book has two heroes, the author and the translator. Vahé Oshagan, intellectual figure, son of the great Hagop Oshagan, torn by his own contradictions as a member loyal to the partisan discipline of Dashnagtsutiun and the iconoclasm boiling and bubbling in his heart. Ter Minassian said of him, “He was a handsome man, charming and with an ironic smile.”

She remembered not without emotion these “literary encounters” in the modest apartment of Digin Chakérian [Shakerian], the wife of the godfather of Vahé Oshagan, a stone’s throw from the Place des Fêtes, in the popular and poverty-stricken Paris of those years where one was poor, dignified and proud at the same time. There were evenings where the still fresh memory of the great Armenian literary figures of Constantinople was evoked, and where the young Vahé looked like a “rabbit in clover,” if one believes the testimony of Anahide.

Our future historian had become friends with him and she became his confidante, as he multiplied his female conquests to better feed his poetic inspiration. But why did she choose to translate Odzum [Unction] rather than another text? Admittedly, there was also a short story translated with the editor Houry Varjabedian and published in the beautiful collection Nos terres d’enfance [Our Childhood Lands]. The homeland took the form of old shoes that are painted.

It’s hard to believe in chance. Anahide Ter Minassian lived through these years of political turmoil and engagement with a fiery and militant commitment that was never denied until her last breath. Probably it was due to this longing that is present in her for total liberation, coupled with an ideological affinity with her friend. And a freedom to reconsider the work of her friend with a gaze relieved of the weight of complexes. “Vahé considered that the worst calamity caused by the Genocide was to have destroyed the Armenian novel,” reported Anahide. The imprint of the Catastrophe gave them the strength to accomplish a perfectly complementary work, inhabited by a common passion to transmit and awaken an invigorated national conscience among young people. A kind of self-conquest.

 

 

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