Kalle Käsper and Gohar Markosyan-Käsper in Saghmosavan, Armenia

Kalle Käsper: For Armenia – the Country of His Love

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YEREVAN/TALLINN — Estonian writer Kalle Käsper (born in 1952 in Tallinn) graduated from the Russian philology department of the University of Tartu and the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors in Moscow. He is the author of seven collections of poetry, about 20 books of prose, and a number of plays and screenplays in Estonian and Russian. In 1996, his first novel, Ode to Morning Solitude, won a prize at a novel competition. Between 2002 and 2014 he created the eight-volumes epic, Buridans, which was awarded the Tammsaare Prize, given every five years for a work in the novel genre.

Kalle Käsper is connected to Armenia through his marriage to the Armenian Russian-language writer Gohar Markosian-Käsper (1949-2015), whose works have been translated into all major European languages. His novel Miracle (in Russian) is dedicated to Gohar’s memory and was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize in 2017.

Dear Kalle, fate has brought you together with the Armenian people, and I would like to start our conversation with the talented and unforgettable Gohar Markosyan-Käsper, whose works I have read with pleasure for many years, and thanks to whom I have also become acquainted with your work to some extent. I was not lucky enough to meet Gohar, but it is obvious from her literary style that she was an erudite, ironic, kind-hearted person with a subtle sense of humor.

First of all, dear Artsvi, let me express my sympathy with the tragedy of Artsakh. Sharing your pain, I am nevertheless confident that your people, who have gone through such severe trials, will be able to cope with the current one as well. Strength to all of you for that!

Now about Gohar. You are right, she was not only talented but also extremely erudite. I developed the habit of asking Gohar in search of an answer to some question, before going to the bookshelf with encyclopedias, and usually the reference book was not needed after that. Gohar’s father, opera singer, bass Carlos Markosyan, was a fanatical bibliophile, he collected a magnificent library on which Gohar and her sister Hasmik [ballet scholar Hasmik Markosyan – A. B.] grew up. Gohar loved thick novels — Balzac, Zola, and also fiction, read everything in this genre, and wrote fantastic epic The Fourth Beta. She knew history very well, being especially interested in the Ancient World — this passion, in the end, gave birth to the novel, Mycenae, Rich in Gold, about ancient Greece in the era of the Trojan War, about Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Cassandra and Orestes.

When we first traveled to Italy, Gohar served as my guide — she already knew what to see first, based on the books she had read. At the end of her life, she started to write a guidebook to Italy, which remained unfinished: I have completed the work, and I hope this book will reach the reader soon. But apart from such general erudition, Gohar, as a doctor, PhD in medical sciences, possessed specific knowledge that was not available to “mere” mortals. She thoroughly knew anatomy, chemistry and biology, and all this knowledge, plus medical experience, helped her in her literary work. She looked at life the way doctors look at life: soberly.

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You are also right about the irony — yes, it is Gohar’s main literary tone, and quite rare in Russian literature!

The history of Armenian-Estonian literary relations has a short but interesting history. Khachatur Abovyan studied in Tartu, the so-called “Estonian songs” were composed by Vahan Teryan and Alexander Tsaturyan, the great Armenian writer Kostan Zarian wrote the poem “I Entered Tallinn with Joyful Steps,” and Ain Kaalep, Ira Kaal, Vahur Afanasjev and others dedicated poems to Armenia. Nevertheless, your life and creative union with Gohar Markosyan-Käsper occupies a special place in the history of Armenian-Estonian literary ties. As you said in your story, “The Life of Trdat,” you looked at the world through the eyes of a Russian-speaking Armenian writer, that is, you penetrated so deeply into the essence and psychology of Armenians.

Every nation, as I have long noticed, lives in its own historical time. Armenians are an ancient people, while we, Estonians, have entered the stage of the universe quite recently, a couple of centuries ago. This is the huge difference between you and us. As an old man is wiser than a young man, so an ancient nation is wiser than a young one. I still remember the first Armenian I met. When I was a schoolboy, I was fond of volleyball: I did not make it as a player, but I became a referee. As a referee, I traveled to all-Soviet competitions, and there I was noticed by my senior colleague, an Armenian. Others did not pay much attention to this strange phenomenon — a boy referee — but he did, talked to me, encouraged me in every possible way. This is typical for Armenians — they are sincerely interested in people. You are a sighted people, we are half-blind. We do not see another person, but you do.

Our literary history is different from yours, too. When Khachatur Abovyan came to study at the University of Tartu, Armenian literature had almost two millennia behind it, while Estonian literature was just being born. Less than two centuries have passed since then — a pittance for history. Therefore, it is not surprising that the achievements of Armenian literature still exceed ours. At the beginning of our marriage, Gohar and I used to translate Armenian poetry into Estonian, from the classics — Nahapet Kuchak — and  from modern poets Hovhannes Grigoryan. Then we ran out of time and had to give up this pleasure. But the interest in Armenian literature in Estonia continues without us; the proof is the fact that a couple of years ago Book of Lamentations by Grigor Narekatsi was published in Peeter Volkonsky’s translation.

As for The Life of Trdat, I have always been interested in the image of the outsider. I once wrote a story about a Russian who married an Estonian woman and moved to Estonia, where he was looked down upon, and then a story about an actor who fell into the KGB net and became a snitch. From here, as you understand, there is only one step to the outcast – an Armenian writer writing in Russian. He does not feel at home anywhere – neither in Yerevan, where everyone believes that an Armenian must write in Armenian, nor in Moscow, where he is a “person of Caucasian nationality.” Such an existential situation causes a strong reaction — a person begins to think more deeply about the universe, comes to thoughts that for many people are “forbidden.” It is such people, even if they are wrong about something, who move life forward.

I know that some Armenians did not like this novel, because, in their opinion, it is not “patriotic” enough. I am ready to argue with the latter judgment, because a true patriot, in my opinion, is the one who tells the truth to his compatriots, although for him, as I wrote in a poem, “it is rarely useful, and sometimes even dangerous.” On the other hand, of course, I understand that it is risky to write about another nation, and I apologize if I have offended anyone with my writing.

And how interesting are your Armenian characters and motifs to Estonian and Russian-speaking readers?

Reading is about recognition. We read and subconsciously compare the novel with our life, with our experience. So, it is clear that a work in which the events take place in the reader’s home country and the characters are compatriots is a priori closer to the reader than a text about a foreign country. This, by the way, explains the paradoxical fate of Gohar’s novel “Penelope,” which could be worthy of appreciation by Leningrad blockade survivors, but not by the “new Russians”, for whom taking the shower is a matter of course. Trdat was treated with understanding in Estonia and Russia, but the novel did not cause any special excitement either here or there. It is foreign.

But The Armenian Women did. Every nation believes that it is they who live the proper way, and the fact that I dared to cite the Armenian way of life as a positive example angered many people. Well, I am satisfied.

I 100% agree with your beautiful The Armenian Women, especially when you write: “If I had to define the essence of an Armenian woman in two words, I would choose the expression ‘strong rear.’”

Thank you for the compliment. An Armenian woman is a jewel, polished by centuries. The Armenian women do not become so easily — they are the fruit of upbringing of many generations. Of course, not all men like the fact that Armenian women are so hard to get. You mentioned my Trdat — he was in favor of free relations. And it is understandable, because in our youth we, men, crave for amorous victories — the more, the better. It is more difficult for Armenians to realize such dreams than for Estonians or Russians.

Nevertheless, a stable family is the basis of society. And the basis of a stable family is the fidelity of the wife. A man cannot work fruitfully if he has to constantly think about whether his wife is cheating on him.

I would be interested to see what will happen to Armenian women in the new conditions, when the free mores of Western society have challenged them the most. Will the “strong rear” hold out?

Kalle Käsper

In my personal opinion, Western manners may affect them, but only in a positive way. Kalle, I think that after Gohar it will be difficult for you to travel to Armenia, but it would be interesting to know your opinion about today’s Yerevan, which you called “the most beautiful city built in the twentieth century.” Today, the architecture of the city, the people and many other things have changed a lot. Young Armenian women in the capital are very willing to communicate with strangers, which, as you rightly noted, was not the case in the Soviet years, and there are no more Yerevan shuttle buses, which Gohar called “prison cells on wheels.”

Armenia is the country of my love. I fell in love with Armenia when I was still young, I am afraid to say more than half a century ago, when as part of a student delegation I came to Yerevan for the Peoples’ Friendship Festival at the Polytechnic Institute. Then, as it often happens with youthful loves, this feeling began to fade slowly, and probably would have faded completely, leaving only a light, sad trace of something irrevocably lost, if I had not met Gohar. Then everything flared up again. I still remember with fondness the first years of our marriage, when we sometimes spent several months in Yerevan, in the house of her parents. I remember Komitas Street, down which, near the former furniture store, you see the snowy peak of Masis suddenly appearing on the horizon! I remember walks around the city, meetings with friends, trips to Sevan, Ashtarak. And dark evenings without light, with flickering candles, and dinners, which were kept under a pile of blankets, so that they would not get cold. My best days were spent there.

Of course, Yerevan has changed, it has lost that special intellectual flavor that it had, thanks to the numerous layers of scientists and artists. Many of them have left, some to Russia, some to Europe, some to the States, and new ones have not appeared in such numbers, it takes time and conditions. After Gohar’s death, I was in Yerevan twice, and the last time, something happened to me that could not have happened before – I got into a cab whose driver did not understand a word of Russian.

Maybe he was a Syrian-Armenian repatriate?

Maybe. Some time ago, I started to think about moving to Yerevan in my old age. It is not just that I love Armenia – two of my closest friends live here, one of whom I became friend with when I first came here in 1971, and the other with whom we studied together in Moscow at a scriptwriting course – it was he who introduced me to Gohar. Here is Gohar’s sister, who is now my sister, other relatives… Alas, the move is difficult to realize, so that, I am afraid, will remain only a dream….

Or maybe it will not remain so at all. You are always welcome to Yerevan, where now you have another friend.

Thank you for your interest in our work, dear Artsvi! Good luck to you!

 

 

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