Is Fiction Indeed Fictitious? Ara Iskanderian’s Godless Hour—A Yerevan Tale

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The world of Ara Iskanderian’s first published novella, Godless Hour — A Yerevan Tale (Gomidas Institute, 2021) is a fantasy world. In the author’s own words, it is a world in which “the magical, the mythical, and the unreal . . . still reside.” On the “blackest of nights,” when God looks the other way for a single hour, the Reckless demon Ajami brings to life the stone statues in the Rose City of Yerevan and, to entertain himself, engages them in a contest to decide “Who is the greatest?”

Godless Hour is a narrative offered through the dialogues of a “cast of characters.” The book does in fact have a Dramatic Personae and the story has the immediacy of a theatrical experience. In response to Ajami’s “playful questions,” each revived statue gives an account of its part in Armenian history and culture. Iskanderian lures us with the great names we all grew up with. The debates between Mesrop Mashtots and Tigran the Great, and between the other major players of our nation’s past, engage us fully. The book’s 122 pages build to a crescendo of excitement and intensity.

Godless Hour is “a story of total fiction,” writes Iskanderian in his preface. Yet, it is fiction that is not detached from our own reality. The novella is full of the facts of our history. Haik Nahapet, Mesrop Mashdotz, Sayat Nova, Aram Khachaturian and the remaining of the 20 statues of the Rose City perform at the bidding of master Ajami. Their discourses create a credible world. The contemporary resonance of The High Father’s, “They squabble whilst around them the enemy gathers forth for their slaughter,” cannot be missed. Besides evoking our humiliating defeat in the recent Artsakh war, it highlights the urgency of our current situation.

Iskanderian is careful, however, not to reduce a very complex reality to a simplistic “solution.” As a “trained historian,” to borrow his words, he carefully lays out “the great dichotomy of the Armenian nation,” the tension between a dispersed diaspora and a center that has to hold this important people together. The ever-present fact of exile being a fertile soil for Armenians—the sarcastic, What need of land?—is brought together with the lure of a homeland where the “lost souls” can return and live in peace under the protective gaze of Mayr Hayastan. The book does hint at the possibility of a harmonious existence between the two, yet the questions remain: Will High Father and High Mother return to each other? How does one reconcile the reality of “two parents forever apart?“ Ironically, these unanswered questions make the desired connection more credible, as it embraces the facts, albeit the ambiguities, of the current state of our nation.

One wonders why Iskanderian characterizes his approach as “didactic.” Even if offered as a series of monologues by the individual statues, the diverse perspectives subvert the very one-sidedness of didacticism. Against the dissuasions of Vartanantz being “A children’s delight, but a meaningless fable,” for example, we have Vartan Mamikonian’s defiant, “death embraced is immortality.” Similarly, “True . . much was lost forever,” is juxtaposed with the ever-victorious “Vahagn — a god of war,” and with Sasuntsi Davit’s,

 

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“When the hour doth come

When so terrible is the fate that we are nearly done

Then will I return from whence I did depart

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . ….. . . . . … .

And know that though all seems it cannot be worse

Your Son of Sassun has not yet returned home.”

 

Iskanderian’s rhyme has its charm. His prose also has a pleasing poetic rhythm to it: “Here rides the Daredevil of Sassun — with spark flecking horse’s hooves beneath him and lightning-like sword above him, he brings not war, but a light . . .” Of the great Fedayi, Zoravor Antranik, he writes, “Only songs and toasts will tell of him, though he asked in life for less words . . .” In fact, the attraction begins with the twist in the wording of the title, “A Yerevan Tale.”

Integrating the rational, or the real, and the irrational, or the imaginary, also allows Iskanderian to explore issues that are too complex to be reduced to the precision of the world of facts. The irrational gives him, to borrow his words, “respite from scientific rationale, and . . . intellectualism.” Iskanderian’s is a conscious departure from the Western tradition of privileging the rational over the irrational. Indeed, the “fictitious” helps Iskanderian explore the “facts” of our complicated existence from varied angles, bringing him closer to conveying the “truth,” and making us wonder, with the celebrated novelist Virginia Woolf, if fiction is indeed fictitious. We surely appreciate the “truth” of myths and legends which interweave the “magical” and the “real.”

The question “who would be the greatest overall” is left answered, but the book does give the reader the comfort of knowing that the foundations of our little homeland are unshakable. The Godless Hour of the play comes to an end. The stone statues return to their corners. Ajami the master Trickster is chased away, and the Rose City is reclaimed. Even if, before going off, the Soulless demon bellows, “Then be damned all of you! . . . truly you deserve these rock pedestals you sit upon; they are truly your gravestones,” one leaves the novella with the assurance that this “small tribe of unimportant people,” will not die. It will go on existing. Godless Hour is a “Good morning to a new dawn.” “This land needs only the loving maternal embrace, the womb’s warmth to return to, and perhaps be reborn again,” says the All Mother to the All father, as they part.

Lamentation over “a much larger but lost Armenia . . . is a common theme that could be found through the dialogue of my resurrected statues,” notes Iskanderian. Wittingly, or unwittingly, he adds his own lamentation when he mourns the disappearance of the “little tea shop on Abovian street” in Yerevan, where “over the course of several weeks,” he wrote down his story. The little shop “is now, like so much, alas, no more,” he writes. One can, of course, always choose not to lament and, instead, take heed of the High Mother’s words to The High Father: “Sing praises in place of lament. . . . dream not of past glories . . . and be grateful for the nightmares not seen.”

The novella is a labor of love and may have the imperfections of things that come from the heart. Iskanderian writes of “the joys of this journey of discovery . . . I hope you will enjoy reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.” The fledgling author can rest assured that imagining him writing his little book seated in the little tea shop on Abovian street touches that soft spot we all have, I like to believe, for the land of Ararat, the land of Mesrop Mashtots, Sasuntsi Davit, Sayat Nova, and of the ever mighty and glorious Titan, Tigran the Great.

 

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