I love literature that is grounded. Stories that emerge from the darkened forests, crystal lakes and crisp mountain pastures where sheep are raised in the summer and which are lost to the forbidding snow, sequestered away and quiet during the dark cold months of winter. I like stories that tell of the travails of people who live as people have always lived, ‘peasants’ we like to call them – we who have moved to the cities and lost touch with who we are, where we came from and who thereby were thrown out of balance with the world around us. Who don’t know where the waste goes when the porcelain toilet is flushed, where the water comes from as it flows from the tap or why the power bursts forth at the click of a switch – but who nevertheless have the nerve to rage when these things sporadically malfunction. We who like to lecture those who live on the land about its correct use, from our perch hundreds of feet up into the sky, riding our disconnected lives through the clouds in order to avoid the smells of the cow herds or the nuisance of a sheep-jam.
I once entered one of these, here in Armenia, a cramped single lane road that filled with the bleating – the only path from one pasture to another, in that time it was late November and the shepherds were returning the animals to the warmth of Ararat valley from their storied summer of pasturing, of fresh water and clean air and of the boredom of watching the sheep as generation after generation have done in the mountains of the South Caucasus going back into prehistory.
Grant Matevosyan connects us to these people, these times, and reminds us that their travails are not that different – though unchanging – than the travails of we the condo-dwellers. That whether living in a little village clinging to a cliff or in boxes stacked one atop the other, the intercourse brings the same friction and our responses to each other – we who think we are more educated – are perhaps worse and we, who believe ourselves masters of the universe, are so extremely vulnerable to the simple cracking of a pipe of fraying of a wire and the apocalypse that would ensue.
“Orange Herd” is one of Matevosyan’s most famous stories. With a great deal of humor, he introduces us to the frustrations and conflicts and joys of people living in Tsmakut, a tiny village on the border of Armenia with Azerbaijan and contested in war after war with their ancient enemy. Tsmakut is the Macondo of Soviet literature, in my opinion. Its ironic we all know what Macondo is, that village captured in amber time by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s pen – and that nobody has heard of Tsmakut (or of Matevosyan even); especially given what is by now (for those who read my reviews) known of my opinion of Gabo’s epic tale. I guess that is the drawback of living behind the iron curtain, there is little about a planned economy which allows for the ‘viral’ popularity of unexpected success – unlike in even the messy and corrupt ‘free’ economies of Latin America. Which is ironic too, given how much Gabo pined for the Soviet Union.
Matevosyan is one of Armenia’s great writers, of a generation of amazing writers – an Armenian boom which started maybe in the 30s and extended for a decade or two. His best works, evidently, are not even translated into English; and it is we who lose out for it. Because there is so much to like about Armenian literature – just like there is so much to like about Armenia; the deep jagged gorges and the high mountains and the delicate flowering trees of spring – the bees, everywhere bees; and the lives of people lived close to the land in that existential way of the farmer but not in that tragic way of the African farmer. Something wholesome about the well-tended plots and the carefully grown pear trees. The yearning for Yerevan, the big city, by the young anxious to find something going on – and the desire of the writers to be known, and read.
I keep being amazed by Armenian literature, the more of it I come to know. Literature that has transplanted itself – through the diaspora and writers like William Saroyan and Leon Surmelian – and become American literature as well. But also through writers like Matevosyan and Gevorg Emin becoming Soviet literature. Well told stories imagined in the small villages and flowering gardens of Armenia and exported to a world hungry for stories that are good and honest and true; told with tragedy and some humor; that remind us of what matters.
My little Armenian library keeps growing – I think it will continue to grow well into the future.