Is a classic really only a novel still read 100 years after its publication? And is it true that history only chooses the works of literature that will stand the test of time from the ‘winners’? From those novels that reverberated upon the lips of contemporary intelligentsia? Because if so this does not bode well for Gurgen Mahari’s novel “Burning Orchards”.
And that is a tragedy.
For Mahari was a master, one of Armenia’s great novelists from the genius cluster of writers born around the turn of the 20th century and writing during the ‘Armenian Boom’ around the 1920s and 1930s (Yegishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Gevorg Emin, etc.). But, alas, Mahari is not one of history’s winners. Born in Van, modern-day Turkey (but that area of land called western Armenia), he fled to “Soviet Armenia” (the modern-day national boundaries) in 1915 during the Ottomans’ first assault on that ancient, fabled city. He became an orphan, living in homes in Etchmiadzin, Dilijan, and then Yerevan. He found his mother only after he became an adult in Tbilisi.
“Burning Orchards” is an extraordinarily beautiful book; a work of such genius that it would certainly have joined it peers – Feast of the Goat; One Hundred Years of Solitude; For Whom the Bell Tolls; Lord of the Flies – and so many others in the oft-read works of our modern literary tradition, except that history did not shine upon Mahari. In fact it is likely you have never even heard of Gurgen Mahari. A young writer behind the Iron Curtain, Mahari, like so many others who sympathized with the Soviets found himself betrayed. In 1936 during what has become known as the “Great Purge” when Joseph Stalin’s paranoia waxed full Mahari was sent to Siberia. He only returned in 1954 to Yerevan, with his wife Antonina Mahari, a Latvian dissident also exiled to Siberia where the two met and married (Antonina lived in Yerevan for the rest of her life).
Gurgen Mahari, for the intervening years, became a pig farmer.
Even upon return home, Mahari’s was not to be an easy fate. In 1966, despite doubts, the ‘softened’ soviet censors allowed the publication of “Burning Orchards”, Mahari’s account of the 1915 “Siege of Van”. The book was met with wide-scale rejection in Yerevan, controversial as it was. The book’s description says it best, “Burning Orchards offers a version of events leading up to the siege of Van different from the received, politically charged accounts, even daring to reflect something of the loyalty many Ottoman Armenians had felt towards the former Empire.” For this reason, the 1966 edition was banned by the authorities in Yerevan and copies were collected and burned in front of the author’s house (I managed to find a single un-burned copy in an outside used-book stall). Against the wishes of the fiery Antonina, and surrendering to popular pressure, Mahari attempted a rewrite to polish over the “offending” parts, but died before it could be finished. According to his wife, he died of a broken heart. This book is one of the few to be found in English. You can find “Barbwire in Bloom”, a short novel based upon his experiences in Siberia (much like “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) only in French. The rest – Titanic or his autobiographical trilogy – are unavailable in anything but their native Armenian; much to my dismay, and that of anybody who loves canonical literature.
The novel “Burning Orchards” is written with the Armenian sense of and passion for their land and traditions; of the high mountains and clear blue lakes, the cold stone monasteries, the hearty food eaten in family and the timelessness of the traditions of a people who have lived clinging ferociously to their small patch of earth since Noah walked down from his mountain. If for this reason alone you, if you consider yourselves scholars (or simply love a compelling story) must read this book.