Great talent rarely appears alone, silent on a hill or sitting solitary in an ancient monastery contemplating life and god and that which has come before. Gifts grow in a specially cultivated ecosystem prepared and set into which the seeds of tremendous art can germinate. Renaissance Italy – Donatello and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and Rafael; années folles Paris, Hemingway wandering down to Shakespeare and Company to drink with Ezra Pound after receiving the criticism of his newest novel from Gertrude Stein.
But there are also two kinds of environments, and this is where it perhaps becomes a little complicated. The 1920s in Paris, an open society, a boom of wealth in a town famous for its permissiveness in allowing the free flow of people as they came together to walk along the Seine. Florence, beautiful palaces and landscapes and the great largesse of the Medici’s, lovers of art who attracted talent as a moth to a flame. But Yerevan, Tbilisi – the Caucasus and Crimea in the early days of communism. A perfect venue for the writers – utopians all, of different stripes – poets and novelists who imagined that the arrival of the Bolsheviks meant for them a dawning of a new age. Was not the Tzar dead? Was not the great war over? Yegishe Charents and Gurgen Mahari and Zabel Yesayian and Vahan Totovents. And Aksel Bakunts. All sitting around the inner rooms of Aipetrat Publishing House in Yerevan discussing each other novels – the Inklings, who nobody ever heard of.
Because though moments can be propitious environments can turn toxic. Yerevan, a tiny pre-soviet town, backwater of a great empire, poor and speaking an almost undecipherable (though olden and beautiful) language. A great iron curtain slams down over them, oxygenless and sterile and denying them the avenue, Paris perhaps or Berlin, through which their talent would reach the wider western world. Then came the reigning years of Stalin’s paranoia, the Great Purge it was called, and the glorious spark of creativity was silently snuffed out.
Yegishe Charents was arrested and released and arrested again to disappear. Nobody even knows where his tomb lays. Gurgen Mahari, sent to Siberia for seventeen years. Aksel Bankunts – executed in 1937 after a twenty-five minute trial. The crimes of these once-extolled soviets? “An excess of nationalism”. They loved their religion, their language, and their little patch of land. They were not sufficiently loyal to soviet globalism (yes, that idea is not new). They still considered first the rugged gorges and darkened forests and ancient monasteries in which they rested their ideas of home.
I just finished Bakunts’ “The Dark Valley”, a collection of short stories only recently translated (2008) and available to the English-speaking world. It is exceedingly difficult to even find novels, poems and other works produced by these writers in English. I’ve found Mahari’s “Burning Orchards” (but can’t find “Blossoming Barbwire” in English, only French – to say nothing of his three-part autobiography). Bakunts has unfinished novels and some books of poetry – Yegishe Charent’s epic poem Dante, Gevorg Emin’s poetry – slammed behind a heavy iron curtain to never be seen again. Did not even Antonina Mahari attempt to sell the rights to “Barbwire” out of her poverty, and was told it was worthless?
“The Dark Valley” stories are best probably described as postcards from a century-old Armenia. They are simple stories about the animals and the valleys and the legends of the villages nestled timelessly, forever in the hinterlands of the southern Caucuses. There is something edgy, bitter about Bakunts. His stories are sad and often brutal, not love poems but ones of abuse and violence and death. His prose is not flowing, flowery and epic as is Mahari’s – his sentences are short and his style choppy, reminding me somewhat of Hemingway in his curt delivery. But there is so much about Armenia in his stories, about his desperation at how things are too slow to change and his love of that which still stays the same. After reading the stories, its clear why Stalin murdered him – for Aksel Bakunts had a rebellious streak that comes out clearly even in his stories; and he is not friendly to the hapless soviets and their attempts to create order out of societies who have spontaneously organized for so long in their mountain lands.
“The Dark Valley” deserves to be read; we must honor the writers of 100 years ago who dared to make their voices heard, who together wrote prose and threw out their seeds upon the infertile land of the Bolshevik revolution to have them there wither away and die. Bakunts was murdered for these stories, but Bolshevism is now also dead, and the stories have survived and have found new life!!! And for that we must let them live within us.