Note: A towering figure in modern Western Armenian literature, Hagop Oshagan casts a long shadow as a prolific novelist, literary critic and historian, short-story writer, and dramatist. He was born in Bursa (Western Anatolia) in 1883, and died in Aleppo (Syria) in 1948.
Oshagan’s life was shaped by turbulent events in the Ottoman realm and beyond: the decline of the empire; World War I, the 1915 genocide of the Armenians—the massacres, deportations, and dispersion. Between 1915-1918, he was a fugitive in Istanbul and narrowly escaped arrest and certain death several times, seven by his own account. He fled across the border to Bulgaria in 1918, disguised as a German officer and returned to Istanbul a year later, only to leave again, this time for good. After 1924, Oshagan lived in Egypt, Cyprus, and for the last fourteen years of his life in Jerusalem, producing a prodigious body of writing—often deemed controversial, subversive, even pornographic—and gaining an enduring reputation as a demanding and charismatic teacher of Armenian literature.
An unfinished, eighteen hundred-page work written between 1928 and 1934 in Cyprus, Oshagan’s Mnatsortats (The Remnants) is his magnum opus and the culmination of a series of powerful, innovative novels that have as their theme Muslim-Christian, and especially Turkish-Armenian, relations in the Ottoman Empire. Mnatsortats is a literary reconstruction of the pre-genocide world of the Armenians told through the horrific collapse of a family—the Nalbandians. The author intended the novel to be divided into three parts (Part I: The Way of the Womb; Part II: The Way of Blood; Part III: Hell) but was unable to write the third part, which was to be devoted to the extermination of the Armenians, depicting the twenty-four hours during which the Armenian population of Bursa was annihilated..
Set in an unnamed Armenian village in the Bursa region of Turkey, the novel spins a story of sex and murder; spans several generations of Nalbandians; gathers into its sphere an array of memorable characters and an inventory of habits and customs; describes the region’s religious, political, spiritual and material culture; and delineates the relationship between the Turkish authorities and their Armenian subjects—all this projected against the background of a disintegrating empire. The selection presented here is from Part I. It describes the early life of Hajji Anna, the wife of one of the Nalbandian sons, and the mother of five daughters, and one illegitimate son, perhaps.
We first meet Anna at the very beginning of the novel, when she is scheming with the mother of her daughter-in-law to couple the young woman with the family’s hired hand, so that the family line will be continued. The son, the last scion of the renowned family whose origins Oshagan grounds in the story of Hajji Artin, the legendary progenitor of the Nalbandians, is either impotent or homosexual. Such conniving is not as unusual at it would seem: Anna’s mother-in-law Sara is rumored to have produced her son in the same way, and Anna herself had her son either by “weakening” her husband to death or through the help of another hired hand. In this context, the “melancholy air” that hangs about Anna’s wedding is suggestive not only of the “twin curses” that the story mentions but the entire silent, scheming system which, in a manner of speaking, produce and reproduce Anna.
Oshagan poses huge challenges for his Armenian-language reader as well as his translator. This is one reason why Oshagan’s novels, which are in the tradition of Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce, are not more widely known. In addition to his formal complexity, Oshagan often seems deliberately ambiguous, the sequence of words pointing in several, often contradictory directions at the same time. The translator is tempted to make Oshagan accessible by standardizing his language, making it seem natural, in short, by domesticating its semantic multiplicities and harnessing its torrential energy.
In G. M. Goshgarian’s groundbreaking English rendition of Mnastortats, Oshagan’s novel has found its translator. Goshgarian has translated into English more Oshagan than anyone else, most of it as yet unpublished. He says: “Oshagan’s Armenian is not at all natural but barbarously beautiful.” Being faithful to Oshagan, therefore, can appear to be bad translation until the reader begins to understand the author’s logic, deliberate puzzlers, and snares. The meanings begin to multiply, and, to paraphrase Oshagan, the reader is home—in literature.—Taline Voskeritchian
Hajji Anna Nalbandian, before becoming the village’s pious old lady, known to one and all for her great generosity, firm hand, illustrious fur coat, and the big mushda1 on her thumb, had shown herself to be a strong little woman with a mannish bent. In the very first years of her marriage, her tongue had, despite Hajji Sara’s famous temper, started turning in her mouth, like a mill-shaft to begin with, and then clickety-clack, clickety-clack, without consideration or hypocrisy; she gave as good as she got, unembarrassed by her pretty body when facing off with the aghas and pashas. She had a memorable past, having been tossed right and left in a stormy, battered adolescence that was, however, free of filth, in other words, of definite, proven sins. She had become the subject of gossip after crossing the Nalbandians’ threshold, but no dirt had dripped from her sturdy skirts. There was a hesitation in people’s judgments when they touched on that period of her life. There was no gossip, however, about her childhood: about the fact that she had been born into a poor family, grown up in it and, going on nine—like a flower that has not yet bloomed—been engaged to be married.
Her parents, like thousands upon thousands of other creatures of their class, lived lives divided between earning their keep and taking care of their children: lives of torment, but without wounds. Carved by the Lord’s chisel, without annulet or capital, and straight as a cradle-rod from one end to the other. No wind bearing danger from outside, from the world and its wide expanses, would ever blow into it. They would grow up, give birth, and be buried, and cause no one any trouble. Just, simple, frugal, they lived like this in life’s margins, as so many people are fated to do. Fields, inherited from father or mother, in every part of the village, so that the children might have their crust of bread. Vineyards, some blooming, others old, so that the children would not have to look at other people’s wine vats with heads hanging; so that, winters, after the snow has wrung the last drop of fire from the air, they (the children, again), a dish of preserves in front of them, might smear the fiery-red grape jelly over their noses and mouths and mock the cold and go tumbling into the bosom of the snow. A mulberry grove, so that they might spin the women’s headscarves, the men’s drawers, and the ribbons on the girls’ socks. Above all, a vegetable garden and an olive grove, so that the mother might distil, along with her milk, the blessed green or yellow liquid into her children’s bones, where it would sweeten as they entered adolescence, becoming pleasure and a dream. Still more: an uncultivated spare plot up on the mountainside, where the children, after sticking a few years under their belts, could learn to wield a shovel and swing a pick. Of course. All this. But only just enough to make ends meet with what the land yielded. Neither sated nor hungry. Without debts, but also without frills or gaudy display. A spiritual valor, rather, nourished by virtues similar to ones I have observed in our artisan class—the class that will not become the profoundly degenerate city-folk of our big communities. With disciplined senses radically wary of sin in all its variants, sexual sin being the kind that was most vigilantly surveyed. For girls do not live (that is, sex does not circulate) once they have become mature and desirable in young men’s eyes—at an age at which they are scarcely formed, fifteen at the latest, when their breasts begin to swell. As for boys, who will feel the tug of sex and the soil and wear themselves out on the soil’s back, they will have no time for superfluous thrills. Spiritual senses, too, simple, scant, yet sufficient to preserve the fragile clay of their souls from worldly temptation, and their patience, until the grave. A deeply rooted notion, so impoverished you could call it ridiculous, of what is right and just and of the sweat of one’s brow. A horror of doing wrong, so extreme that people suffer pangs over an olive pit that has fallen onto their plot from a neighbor’s tree. They will not rest until they have bent down, picked up the insignificant, dry and, sometimes, worm-eaten pit, and tossed it back onto the rightful owner’s land. Such was the average villager in those days, likeable and happy, a type growing gradually rarer by my time. For, in ten or twenty years, our villages underwent ten or twenty centuries of destruction as far as their spiritual make-up and mores went.
God blessed their bed and, following His inscrutable ways, gave them girls and boys in abundance, so many that, even after death had claimed his share, knocking like a punctilious, intransigent creditor at every village door when the time to reap the little ones came round (generally in mid-summer) and quite carefully setting those due him apart from the rest, a goodly number of souls was still left in the house. For their three boys, a trio of brides, betrothed from the age of seven and attentively surveyed with an eye to their growth and the strength of their backs—measured on the bathhouse-and-housework scale. A bride for each of their three boys! Everything is easy if only we set out at an early age. They found honorable places for their four daughters as well, with the usual dowries and gifts at the usual age. Theirs was a peaceful, prosperous home where even death made a mannerly entrance, swinging his sickle with style and grace and making no cruel sacrifices in breaking off the branch where new buds were trembling. Ages were respected. Young men were spared the green sickness and young wives were spared in childbed. Death came to the old people who were already ashes, touched them on the forehead and nape of the neck, and then left without making a fuss. The last of the girls, Anna had already come of age when her fiancé, Parag Ohan, a young man as gentle as a lamb, accidentally fell off his donkey and died, a month before the wedding. They buried him in his bridegroom’s costume, his shar2 on his forehead. The Paragian family line was extinguished. He was the last of twelve boys, every one of them mowed down before his time. The massive door swung shut on the boy’s thunderstruck mother. Such deaths do occur, and outlast all others in the village. Here-I-Stay’s Anna was left sitting pretty, like a broken cup. She was condemned to turn to wood or, at best, go to wife in a widow’s marriage to a man with a houseful of children in some remote, poor little village, as fate decrees in such cases. For young men and women of that age who are not yet engaged are incomprehensible. And every deviation from the rules and prescribed conventions spells present or future calamity. A girl is sure to be an old maid if she reaches fifteen without an engagement ring, whether she comes from a rich man’s house or a pauper’s. Sometimes, however, fate steps in, at the price of a tragedy. It is always death, barbarous and tragic, that strikes down one of the two sexes and, at that price and that price alone, makes possible difficult, ill-omened marriages. How selfish we are when we pass judgment on others’ good fortune. We curse without understanding that that good fortune can veer toward the thresholds of the humble.
Anna’s mother couldn’t believe her ears when, on her way home one morning after a tearful prayer, she was pulled aside for a chat on Church Street, on the very spot where her daughter planted her broad behind the morning our story began, by Hajji Sara Nalbandian. Hajji Sara! Who had made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem and strung gold chains up on the walls of the Nalbandians’ historic room on the big church holidays, after Hajji Seropeh’s death, when the family fortunes took a slight dip as a result of his sons’ loss of direction. With this display of treasures that had “never seen the face of the sun,” Hajji Sara drove all the men in her husband’s line, and their wives, into a jealous frenzy. Hajji Anna’s mother could never forget that day. “My heart practically popped out of my chest,” she would often say later, after the wedding, whenever she had occasion to recall her incredible good fortune: marrying a daughter into the Nalbandian family! She could believe in her death, but not in that miracle.
A melancholy air hung about Anna’s wedding. Nothing is as striking as the broken, half-hearted enthusiasm that emanates from the depths of a dispirited wedding procession. Of course, nothing was lacking as far as muslin and necklaces or the crown3 and horsemen went. Of course, nothing was lacking in the house or out in front of it or up and down the streets. Indeed, there was even an excess of everything, to make up for the half-widowed pall that the wind of death blows into our faces whenever it comes a little too close—To the bonfire! with all the traditional processions around it. But there was a slow and dragging something about them that appeared in their movements. And on Monday morning, when the procession followed the newlyweds home after the sumptuous service, offering a spectacle of strangely opulent, old-fashioned colors in which all Hajji Sara’s holiday finery was put on show, the songs and hymns were faint and timorous, on instructions from God-knows-where. People’s steps were careful and sad. Drunks? You had to look hard to spot the crazies, the professional, self-invited guests who turn up at every wedding—every rich man’s wedding—plant damejans4 before the church door, gulp the blessed liquid down by the gourdful, like old men who raise their glasses to the health of your soul, and make passers-by drink as well. They, too, joined the procession, following the others at a short distance; their braying was the more impressive, appropriate, and appreciated the stupider and louder it became. The village was very touchy when it came to death, the one thing there was no joking about.
Despite all their precautions, the Nalbandian procession met a group of five or ten women winding their way down the street that sloped toward the cemetery. Calculation or chance? As you like. One of them, barefoot and incapable of standing by herself—two downcast young women were holding her up by the arms—moved to the head of the little group, madly waving, in one hand, the pan holding the fire for the incense. Her twisted, wasted feet seemed to be clawing at the rocks. She pulled herself to her full height, stretched her free hand out and up toward the blue sky, stopped the priests and wedding-guests in their tracks and, prophetic and demented, shouted in everyone’s face, “May you never prosper!”
She spoke, fell to her knees, and into a dead faint. Before the immensity of her grief, all the guests in the procession were carried back in their imaginations to Parag Ohan, lowered into the earth a month before. In their mind’s eye, they saw his withered old mother dragging herself along behind his corpse and swooning every ten steps she took. The image dispelled whatever remained of their already half-baked gaiety, shook even the children to the bowels, and sobered up the budding drunkards, who clamped a lid on their feeble caterwauling. The choristers froze in mid-song. The chasuble slipped from the priest’s shoulder. No one thought to reproach the unjust woman. In particular, no one thought to open his mouth and say a word in the rich man’s defense. Misfortune is sometimes naked as a sword, and as just. It strikes its adversaries down without giving accounts to anyone. Crying, lovely, the bridesmaids dropped the bride’s arms to raise Ohan’s mother from the ground. They did not see the bride for the thick veil she wore. But they saw the thin, sad groom wiping away a tear with a corner of his shar. But they could not go on their way; for someone else repeated from across the road, “May you never prosper!”
It was the mother of the young girl who ought to have been walking beside the groom in the procession and wearing the crown instead of Anna, but was lying up the road, six feet under. The curse of this woman from one of the village’s rich families was just as gripping. You may not know that Garabed Nalbandian had been engaged to her daughter for ten years. That, for ten years, the Morukians had shown their future in-law Hajji Sara the requisite honors and covered her with praise. That, three months past, this child of the Morukian family, as exquisite and dainty as a rose, had hanged herself on her return from Bursa, where they’d gone for the dowry. They said she’d lost her mind. They said she’d been tricked. They said all sorts of things. And they buried her to the endless weeping of a villageful of eyes. No hand dared commit so much loveliness to the earth. She lay in her coffin at the bottom of her grave for a full hour, unburied.
The twin curses made an impression. Once the little group of weeping women had withdrawn and disappeared down a side street, it became apparent that something much sadder was now accompanying the wedding party. The procession paused in front of the Nalbandian house for the sachu.5 It was then that, in order to dispel this heavy-heartedness and, especially, render the bride’s entry into his home auspicious, the master of the house—Hajji Seropeh’s son, a Nalbandian in his forties and, in fact,6 a shoe-smith by trade, whose name and memory have now been effaced—standing with one foot on the threshold and the other outside, gave the bride the finest olive grove in the whole village. Hajji Artin’s beloved, noble grove—where governor and grand vizier had drunk brandy and eaten carp—for Naked Anna! That was the kicker, just the sort of lunacy you might expect from people with Nalbandian blood in their veins.
This surprise sufficed to dissipate the sad mood. A wedding stands and falls with its guests. They come and go, they eat and drink, but their main role is to trumpet the fame of gifts like this one far and wide.
They shouted, “Long live Nalband-oghlu!” They shouted, “Long live the bridegroom, long live the bride!”
Taline Voskeritchian wishes to acknowledge Nanor Kenderian and Tamar Salibian. G. M. Goshgarian wishes to thank Peter Ripken and Gabriele Peine
1A thumb-shaped tool used by shoemakers to smooth leather.
2A very finely spun silk cloth used in place of a handkerchief; it is tied around the groom’s neck to symbolize the very thin, very beautiful, yet indissoluble marital tie.
3Bride and groom wear a crown throughout most of the Armenian wedding ceremony.
4Big-bellied bottles of varying size, wrapped in straw matting, for brandy or wine [compare English ídemijohnë].
5A gift, invariably consisting of land or landed property that the bride receives from her father-in-law or mother-in-law when she first crosses her husband’s threshold. Its essential feature is its inalienability. Since it almost always consists of land, it would ordinarily be subject to the same fate that land usually is. This explains why it is traditionally exempt from many state laws. It cannot be used as collateral for a debt, is unaffected by a decline in the family fortunes, and remains in the recipient’s possession even if all else is lost. Married women jealously separate what their sachu yields from the rest of the family harvest, reserving the right to use the proceeds of this land as they see fit.
6Nalbandë means shoe-smith or blacksmith in Turkish [translator’s note].