Impromptu Prose: Novelist and newspaper make for successful formula of fiction
Each Saturday, for the past 18 months, “Aravot” newspaper publishes a chapter of “Haykakan Zhamanak” (Armenian Time), a novel by Armen Shekoyan.
How is it that for all that time, a novel next to news appears somehow harmoniously, especially tells about the Soviet past interlaced with the present?
Author Milan Kundera writes that unlike history that is foisted on a person as an alien force, the history told in a novel is born from human freedom, his deep personal creativity and his choice, and is a sort of revenge against history.
If so, then Armenia missed a huge period as a novel history.
Of course, novels were published in the Soviet years, but they, as described by Kundera, were copies of imposed history of an outside allien force where characters were made to fit the sterile characters of censorship. Only literature on the subject of the village was given certain freedom, as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was pursuing a policy of rebuilding the village left in ruins as consequence of the Stalin regime. Prose and real life about a Soviet city were parallel lines that could never cross.
And if Kundera’s thought is continued that real history is not in textbooks but in novels, then Soviet-Armenian reality is devoid of history. Shekoyan writes the other parallel, the unknown one that remained only in memories and could never be published in the Soviet times and that today becomes news on the pages of “Aravot”. It is a rare literary work the publication of which shows the abolition of Soviet censorship.
Shekoyan, 53, is an author of poetry books. His last collections “Anti-poetry” and “Yerevan Hotel” destroyed the ideas about poetry (see Anti-Poetry ). When he was 50, he decided to write only prose, which were published in “The Silk Road”.
Chapter Four of the novel begins with the following line: “I am writing an autobiographic novel on my own responsibility.” That autobiography becomes the biography of a whole Soviet generation. The main four chapters of the first volume of the novel – youth, student years, seashore and army, are part and parcel of a young man from Yerevan and counter to idealistic intellectual or working-class characters of Soviet-Armenian novels. The boy in the novel has a street education in parallel with that of the Soviet school system (boys selling water and tickets at a football stadium are an anti-picture of the idealized pioneers helping elderly people cross the street).
After the Stalin regime in the monotonous life of Brezhnev’s stagnation people got the right to previous minor offenses that made them happy. The novel is the story of that happiness and its search in our everyday life. During those searches the author freely pops in and out of the novel without getting subjected to the accepted rules of narration which is a novelty in Armenian literature. For example, in describing the supper meal made by cook Matso of tinned stewed meat on the first day of the army the author goes out of narration to find the taste of stewed meat and then incorporates the search in the novel narration: “When I was writing this very part of the novel and re-experiencing the taste and smell of Matso’s stewed meat, suddenly I felt gluttony and quickly left home, ran to the “Petak” supermarket, bought a few cans of stewed meat and quickly returned home and when we ate that stewed meat with fried potato and tomato, it turned out that the Soviet stewed meat was absolutely different.”
“Aravot” editor Aram Abrahamyan says that the novel receives the most polarized feedbacks – one part is from language purists who complain: “How one can write in a Yerevan street language?”, others compare it to Yeghishe Charents’ “Yerkir Nairi”.
Shekoyan’s novel willy-nilly destroys also other ideas about literature. One writer, complaining of “Armenian Time”, said: a novel should have a body, Shekoyan’s hasn’t. “Armenian Time” represents one body which the Armenian writer is not accustomed to, this body is spread in the past, present and future. Every subsequent chapter of the novel exists in the future and the author himself does not yet know what should happen then. The contents of the next chapter depend on cases and responses to the published chapter.
The main seasoning of the novel – humor – makes it tasty most of all. The whole narration is threaded and held together with humor and it is impossible to feel its taste through just one quote. But it is a humor that does not ridicule from some moral positions, which is now accepted in Armenian prose, but humor with which the author makes the reader love various characters such as lieutenant-colonel Karavan and his wife Larisa Ivanovna and the diminutive Benyamin, a pupil from the village of Lenughi, who would not be promoted to a higher grade in school for several years. And Public Television anchor Nazeli, who we see outside the book in the air, and agree with Shekoyan that she is a real beauty . . .
And the reader begins to show interest in their fate outside the novel, like one is curious in the fate of his acquaintances he knew years ago.
The first volume of the book was published a few months ago. Although it is written under the title “Unfinished Novel”, the first volume has a clear finale when after a year of service in the army the author comes to the Paplavok café, sees a coffin, and the funeral of poet Chilo.
And while the third volume of the novel gets its continuation in “Aravot”, the second volume is ready for publication. Abrahamyan says that he will continue to publish the novel as long as Shekoyan writes.