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Zareh Vorpouni: The Renegade of Late 20th Century Western Armenian Literature

Jennifer Manoukian
Zareh Vorpouni was a lone ranger. In a corpus that spanned genre and era, he embodied the new, the experimental, and the transgressive in Western Armenian fiction in a way that few writers can, or have cared to, rival. Writing most prolifically in the 1960’s and 1970’s when readers and interest in literature were in decline, Vorpouni’s cultural apotheosis in the eyes of the Armenian diaspora never happened in his lifetime, during which he was read and admired only by a small group of Armenian intellectuals mostly concentrated in France—his home from 1922 until his death in 1980.
But Vorpouni’s obscurity is unwarranted, especially in a day and age in which the touchstones of Armenian diaspora culture are growing stale and many are in search of the freshness and the intellectual vigor that Vorpouni epitomized.
Vorpouni’s work represents a modernity of thought and expression in step with the contemporary world—a world so often subordinated in Western Armenian literature in favor of the historical. His oeuvre challenges the idea that Armenian literature belongs to another time, another world, another generation; that it is a chore and a bore to be read out of obligation rather than out of enjoyment; and that it cannot speak to the human condition in the reader without first passing through his or her Armenian condition. Above all, his oeuvre is proof that Western Armenian literature did not completely lose its vigor in the late twentieth century—that it was, in fact, in the process of a great transformation.
The first major attempt at excavating Vorpouni’s work and bringing this peripheral figure into the foreground comes through the English translation of his novel The Candidate, published this month by Syracuse University Press. Following the trials and travails of two Armenian refugees in 1920’s Paris, this volume—co-translated by Ishkhan Jinbashian and me with an afterword by Marc Nichanian—has at its core a commentary on the (im)possibility of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, the toll of sacrifice and the tremors of trauma and love, which, at times, mirror the wandering, introspective and unorthodox life of its author.

Though his life and literature are tied most inextricably to France, Zareh Vorpouni (né Euksuzian) was born in the Ottoman town of Ordu on the Black Sea on May 24, 1902. His ordinary childhood—much like the childhoods of other writers of his generation—was interrupted in 1915 when news of the massacres upended it. In an effort to save their own lives, the Euksuzian family converted to Islam. Vorpouni writes that his father went to the local mosque every day to inspire confidence in his family’s conversion, but after two months, the Ottoman authorities decided that the converts would be deported along with the rest of the Armenian population. Vorpouni and his siblings, however, were spared the deportation thanks to Turkish friends who took them in and promised to care for them until their parents returned. But it was only Vorpouni’s mother who would return. After drifting from the deportation route, Vorpouni’s parents walked to Tokat where they knew the mayor of the city and his family. Vorpouni’s father left his wife with them before hiring a mule-driver to take him back to Ordu, but the mule driver killed him before he reached home. “Even once my mother returned with the other Armenian deportees who had fled, we couldn’t sleep at night for years, waiting with our ears pressed up against the door for the bell to suddenly ring and for our father to appear in the doorway,” Vorpouni would later write in a letter to Gurgen Mahari.[1]
For a year, Vorpouni wandered from town to town selling the peshdemals (towels) his mother had woven to support her four children all the while nurturing the hope of taking them to safety in Russia. In 1918, after appealing to and bribing a boat captain, she managed to cross the Black Sea with her children and arrive in Sebastopol, Crimea. The German forces had just begun to evacuate the city and the Allied powers and the anti-Bolshevik White Army had taken their place. Sixteen-year-old Vorpouni was soon apprenticed to an Armenian shoemaker from Shabin-Karahisar, and as a struggling writer later in life, would reminisce about this period, wishing he had the stable life that came with mastering a trade.
In 1919, when the Bolsheviks entered the city, Vorpouni’s mother moved her family once again, this time to Constantinople, to give her children the Armenian education she and her husband had envisioned for them. After having lost five years of formal education, Vorpouni began attending the prestigious Berberian School in Üsküdar that same year. Along with the Getronagan School, the Berberian School had been a training ground for Armenian intellectuals since the late nineteenth century and would produce one final batch during this period of national revival between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic. It was these graduates—Vorpouni included—who would fuel intellectual life in the far-flung corners of the diaspora into the mid-twentieth century.
As a student in armistice-era Constantinople, Vorpouni was at the center of a burgeoning Armenian literary life, which led to brushes with literary figures that would set him on a course toward writing: his lifelong joy and torment. With this new course came a new name, given to him on his first day at the Berberian School. On that day, the Turkish-derived Euksuzian was Armenized to Vorpouni, marking a break with the past in which Vorpouni saw great significance: “Perhaps here a Freudian explanation can be seen: an Oedipus complex. Kill your father to free yourself from him. In this way, I killed my father by changing my name—and I found my freedom,” said Vorpouni in a 1978 interview.[2]
His freedom came most notably through writing. His years of reading voraciously as a student helped him form the literary sensibilities that enabled him to write with such a distinct style later in life. Armenian and French poetry were some of his closest companions in Constantinople, ultimately pushing him to write his first pieces. “One day, at the Librairie Mondiale in Constantinople, I picked up a collection of Verlaine’s poetry. I knew his name, but when I started to read the first poem, “Memory, what do you want from me…,” I told myself that I had to write like this to free myself. I wrote like this to free myself.”[3]
But unlike the French poets he knew only in print, he came to know the Armenian poets he revered in the flesh. Madteos Zarifian, a new luminary on the armistice-era literary scene, was not only a teacher at Vorpouni’s school but happened to spend time in the home where Vorpouni had rented a room. Vorpouni lived with the family of Zarifian’s fiancée, Noyemi, and Zarifian’s frequent visits let the aspiring writer feel that writing was within his grasp: “Many times Zarifian didn’t have any paper. I would slowly pull out of my pocket scraps of paper for his poems,” Vorpouni wrote, adding proudly, “I supplied many of the pages for Zarifian’s poetry.”[4]
When Vorpouni wrote his first poem, “Գառնուկս” (My Lamb), a lovesick ode to a girl named Suzanne, it was Vahan Tekeyan who published it on the front page of Ժողովուրդի ձայնը (The Voice of the People) in July 1922. Tekeyan, a veritable literary talent scout during this period, consciously sought out and published up-and-coming writers as a way to prevent the stagnation and decay of Armenian literature. “I published your poem because you’re a poet,” wrote Tekeyan.[5] Though simple, these words legitimized Vorpouni’s interest in literature and gave him the encouragement to continue.
But Vorpouni left poetry behind in Constantinople and began his new life in prose. The day after his poem appeared in the press, he—along with a flood of other Armenians fleeing the advancing Kemalist forces in the final months of 1922—boarded a ship for France, a country that would see his writing develop, veer, stall and ultimately mature through the decades.
Marseille was the site of Vorpouni’s first forays into prose and the cultivation of political, literary and intellectual proclivities that would both connect his writing to his contemporaries and distinguish it. His writings and ideas first found expression in the Armenian literary journals that proliferated at the time. He and his friend Bedros Zaroyan added to this flurry of publications with their short-lived literary review Նոր հաւատք (New Faith). Founded in Marseille in 1924, New Faith was a journal for a new generation living in a new country under new conditions. Lofty in its goals, it set out to confront the intellectual atrophy spurred by genocide and dispersion by uniting the members of the new generation around literature, asking them to “express their desires, inspirations, expectations and viewpoints, in a word, their new faith.”[6]
Though New Faith did not last beyond its first issue, Vorpouni struggled to prevent the same intellectual atrophy through his fiction and through his work on other literary reviews in the years that followed. Once he moved to Paris in 1924, a city that would become the center of Western Armenian literary life in the 1920s and 1930s, the chances for collaboration with other young writers who shared his outlook grew, transforming their individual work into a movement: the Մենք (Us) movement.
Us was a literary group comprised of 15 young Armenian writers—including figures like Nigoghos Sarafian, Shahan Shahnour, and Vazken Shoushanian—that produced a literary review of the same name. Published in 1931 and 1932, this review was a source of solidarity for young Armenian writers living in a community that had little interest in literature. “[We seek to] be the cement that binds all young Armenian writers scattered in the four corners of the world and in this way to facilitate the free development and enrichment of a new Armenian literature,” the founders wrote in the manifesto that introduced their first issue.[7] Despite signing this manifesto and publishing three pieces in the journal,[8] Vorpouni did not feel part of the group: “I belonged to this generation, but I never felt like I was in that generation. I never felt as mature as the others,” he said.[9] Nevertheless, Vorpouni did share the group’s drive to break with the literature of the past and create something new in its wake. “We needed to set ourselves in opposition to those who had preceded us…we wanted to beat those men up. That was the revolt in each of our hearts and it was this revolt that created our literature against these honchos.”[10]
The honchos were the surviving old guard of Ottoman Armenian literature—Hagop Oshagan, Gostan Zarian, Vahan Tekeyan, and others—who had dominated literary circles before 1915, but who, in the eyes of the Us group, were not suited to address the new diasporan predicament. For Vorpouni, one of the exceptions was Zabel Yessayan, who by the 1920’s had settled in France, had embraced socialism and had begun editing the literary pages of the pro-Soviet journal Երեւան (Yerevan). A member of the Communist party between 1924 and 1937, Vorpouni shared Yessayan’s ideological leanings and contributed his short stories to the journal. In the 1920s, the doyenne of Western Armenian fiction and this promising writer began corresponding regularly. In a letter dated May 1927, Yessayan writes to Vorpouni to urge him to make time for writing, mentioning that she had lectured about his writing on her trip to Soviet Armenia the year before: “I’m writing all of this because I believe in you. Perhaps I believe in you the most…I am convinced that you have a great journey ahead of you, but the trick is to not deviate from it.”[11]
And deviate from this journey he did not. In 1929, at the age of 27, Vorpouni published Փորձը (The Attempt), the first in a series of seven novels that would take an entire lifetime to write and still be left unfinished. The series, Հալածուածները (The Persecuted), was conceived as a way to tell the story of Armenian refugees in France in the 1920s through realist fiction with a political subtext: “The Persecuted series is nothing else if not a cry against the injustice done to the Armenian people. I want my greatest effort to be for justice. I write stories to do just that.”[12]
But unlike other Armenians who used writing as part of a search for justice, Vorpouni did not see his writing as inhabiting the same realm. This realm, which he calls the “Armenian ghetto,” was defined by a parochialism that refused to look outward at the wider world. He had no use for the “akh, vay, Ararat” writers fixated on loss and nostalgia and sought to write literature that was of the same intellectual rigor and literary caliber as what he was reading outside the Armenian ghetto.[13]
Vorpouni’s novels sought to challenge this “psychology of a small people” by undermining it with an alternative.[14] With his writing, he attacked the banality and mediocrity in the Armenian ghetto and, in the process, tried to raise the standard of Western Armenian fiction. He also saw writing outside the ghetto as a form of individual and national catharsis essential for the literary metamorphosis to which he aspired: “Before writing, we are in a state where we have so many memories that it is as if we have lived a thousand years and we want to unburden ourselves from them. Indian philosophy suggests that we must empty the mind, empty it always, so that it can be filled with new things. Otherwise, always leaving the same things inside will make them rot. It’s the same for the writer and the ghetto. The same ideas start to rot, or start to be infested with maggots. It is for this reason that we must cut ourselves off from that realm and emerge from it so that fresh air can come in.”[15]
For Vorpouni, the epitome of Armenian ghetto literature was Shahan Shahnour’s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song), a novel published in the same year as The Attempt but to much greater acclaim. Though both novels center around the tribulations of a young Armenian refugee in France—Shahnour’s Bedros/Pierre in Paris and Vorpouni’s Minas in Marseille—Retreat without Song appealed to the sense of defeatism and fatalism that pervaded the Armenian community. “In forty years, it is your book that they will be talking about, not his,” Yessayan wrote to Vorpouni, consoling him after the success of Retreat without Song. “This is because it is in yours that there are real questions and in his there isn’t a single one.”[16]
Yessayan was right—and not only about The Attempt. All of Vorpouni’s novels both explore and raise questions about the enduring themes of romantic love and platonic love; capitalism and socialism; gender and sexuality; and human grief, solitude and the malaise of existence. The timelessness of his questions makes his novels, including The Candidate—published nearly a half-century ago and taking place nearly a century ago—startle in their seemingly eternal wisdom.
The Candidate—the second in the Persecuted series—opens in Paris in 1927 after Minas, a young poet, has found his friend Vahakn’s body on the floor of the apartment they share. In a fragmentary way, Minas tells of his meeting Vahakn in the cafés of the Latin Quarter; the friendship that joins them; their conversations with Ziya, a Turkish student in Paris; Vahakn’s murder of Ziya; and Vahakn’s suicide.
At the core of the novel is the letter that Vahakn leaves Minas to explain the enigma of Ziya’s murder and his own suicide. The letter recounts Vahakn and his mother’s deportation from their village in the Ottoman Empire; their march across the desert; his mother’s death and Vahakn’s adoption by a Turkish woman, Fatma, who rapes and abuses him; his feelings of alienation and self-estrangement in France; his obsession with Ziya; and his inability to adapt to life after trauma.
When it was first published in 1967, The Candidate drew little attention, much to the dismay of its author. “I’m a realistic man,” Vorpouni lamented at the end of his life. “I want to show life as it is. So why do they like Krikor Zohrab’s Կեանքը ինչպէս որ է (Life As It Is) and they don’t like mine?”[17] Vorpouni spent his life trying to reject this disinterest and shake off the unhappiness it caused him. He was a man who experienced life most profoundly through writing, who sacrificed material comforts for his writing, and who believed that his writing could liberate Armenians from their conservatism and cultural insularity. Yet he was met with, at best, indifference: “[Armenians] didn’t become readers. 1,000 or 2,000 copies of Pagan Songs by the great Taniel Varoujan were published [in 1912] and in 1930 I was still seeing them in bookstores in Marseille. They weren’t selling. Even the great Varoujan’s book wasn’t selling. The Armenian people have no need for literature. They have no interest in it.”[18]
But unlike Shahnour[19] and other writers of his generation, Vorpouni did not forsake Armenian for French. He continued to write in a language fewer and fewer people could read and for a people who cared less and less about literature. He wrote despite the accusations of pornography, despite the ridicule for his literary avant-gardism and despite the general disregard for his life’s work. He kept writing in Armenian despite it all in hopes of spurring a cultural shift that never came. “People have imprisoned themselves. They’ve put themselves in a dungeon. You bring light and suddenly they scream, ‘Shut the light,’ because they have grown accustomed to darkness.”[20]
Now, in a period of cultural restlessness and questioning in the Armenian diaspora, Vorpouni’s work may resonate much more strongly than it could have a half-century ago. He may now have an audience that is ready for his kind of radical, dissenting fiction that prompts readers to reconsider what Western Armenian literature can be. In translation, this renegade may now have a second chance at being appreciated for the creativity and originality that went unseen during his lifetime.

[1] Avagian, L. (Ավագեան, Լ.) (ed.). (2016). Որբունի. «Կենսագրական շաղակրատութիւն Մահարիի հետ». Retrieved from http://inknagir.org/?p=6644.
[2] Pchakchian, M (Պչաքճեան, Մ.) (1980). Միաձայն զրոյց Զարեհ Որբունիի հետ. Բագին 19(10), 50-64: 58. Though published in 1980, the interview was conducted in Paris in 1978.
[3] Ibid., 56.
[4] Avagian (Ավագեան), «Կենսագրական».
[5] Ibid.
[6] Cited in Beledian, K. (2001). Cinquante ans de littérature arménienne en France: du même à l’autre. Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique: 36.
[7] Menk 1 (Մենք 1) (1931): 3.
[8] These pieces were notes on life and art in Որբունի, Զ. (1931). «Գրպանի տետրակ» Մենք 1(1), 34-36 and Որբունի, Զ. (1931). «Գրպանի տետրակ» Մենք 2(1), 73-75; as well as a short story Որբունի, Զ. (1932). «Գինովը» Մենք 4-5(1), 225-230.
[9] Beledian, K. et Kurkjian, H. (1978). “Avec ‘un habitant de la diaspora’: Zareh Vorpouni, écrivain,” Hayasdan Monthly 388(1), 8-14: 12.
[10] Ibid., 13.
[11] Avetisian, A. (Ավետիսեան, Ա.) (Ed.). (1977). Զապէլ Եսայեան. Նամակներ. Երեւան: Երեւանի համալարանի հրատարակչութիւն: 266.
[12] Pchakchian (Պչաքճեան), 58.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 55.
[15] Ibid., 56.
[16] Avetisian (Ավետիսեան), 266.
[17] Pchakchian (Պչաքճեան), 53.
[18] Ibid., 59.
[19] Beginning in 1939, Shahan Shahnour adopted a new pseudonym, Armen Lubin, and began writing short stories and poetry in French. He published six books under this name and earned a reputation for himself in French literary circles as a formidable avant-garde poet.
[20] Pchakchian (Պչաքճեան), 50.

"The Armenian Weekly," October 4, 2016

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