November 7, 2015

Re-Action: Zarubyan's Women

by Ani Baghumyan

“At the moment (I have 7 1/2 before dinner) I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” 
―Virginia Woolf, in Diary III, 18 March 1925

I remember the first time my mother and I went to the school that my family wanted me to attend. The school was a private one, and I needed to pass the interview before getting accepted. We didn’t know the exact address of the school and we had a very hard time finding it. It wasn’t far from our house, but my mother had never been in that neighborhood. I remember that day even though I was only seven. I walked that same road almost every day for eight years. I can recall the first time so vividly because it was new. I had never been there. I had never walked that path. As that route became more and more familiar I started noticing less and less. Only when a certain ordinary or familiar thing had been changed (a tree had been cut, or a new house built, or the road was paved) would I stop for a moment, as if somebody had nudged me out of my autonomous mode. It’s always like that. You only notice the old clock hanging on the wall when it shows the wrong time; when it swerves from its “normal” route. It’s not normal when the sun is no longer in the sky, yet the clock persists that it’s only 3pm. Or, maybe it is? It’s just a mechanism used for representing time and if it went the other way around (left and not right), the definition of “normal” would have been different.

Armenian literature, at least the kind we study in school, is a literature that reinforces the same myths and tales that we have been told since our childhood. Or, more precisely, it’s interpreted that way in a way that encourages conformity as a safe and best strategy for living in general. Maybe this is the reason that we have what we have today. But let’s not assume things, as it’s said in Girq-anvernagir (Book-Untitled). It’s difficult not to, but not impossible. It’s difficult, because that’s what most of us have been taught to do. Not impossible, because we can question what we have been told, including those myths and tales. It’s difficult, but not as much as we assume it is. And more possible than we assume it is. Maybe what we need is a new language, or a revised one.

This advice proves to be useful while reading Zarubyani kanayq (Zarubyan’s Women), when after reading the text you look at the photograph on the facing page assuming that text and photograph should somehow be connected. We read the text and then look at the photograph with the aim of conforming the images that the text evokes to the ones in the photograph. We look for similarities and continuities and we find them immediately if the photograph is just the visual representation of the text. In short: it is conformation. But we are told that, “To write means not to create images close to reality, but to destroy the similarity” (Գրել նշանակում է ոչ թե ստեղծել իրականին մոտ պատկերներ, այլ կործանել նմանությունը). How? Through difference and repetition. The images that the text creates do not seek to resemble the photographic image or come closer to it but want to destroy the similarity through difference. “Photographs,” John Berger writes, “do not translate from appearances. They quote from them. It is because photography has no language of its own, because it quotes rather than translates, that it is said that the camera cannot lie. It cannot lie because it prints directly.” In this sense, the text can also be viewed as a quote from the photographic image. The photograph shows not only what it is, but also what it is not. In this case, the text that seems arbitrary and disconnected from the photographic image can also indicate what could have been inside the frame but is not there. In other words, it becomes the possibilities existing beyond the frame, anything that could have been inside but is not. It becomes the quote of absence, of that which is not framed.

Photographs also create a strong sense of presenceyou look, and your look, your gaze is returned. One is very self-conscious of one’s role as a reader, and in that sense one also becomes very conscious of all the things that the reader’s act entails (like turning the pages counterclockwise to know what’s coming next, but then find yourself constantly “clockwising” and “counterclockwising” the pages in order to make/create a sense/meaning; being present is what makes the shock of discontinuity even more real and stressed). Language does the same (creates a sense of presence or makes the reader present) by addressing the reader directly: dear reader.

There is no plot and the text is discontinuous, fragmented. In this way, the text and photograph are very similar. The physical narrativness or the narrative/continuity/plot of the reading process is disrupted too when the reader has to turn the book upside down, “clockwising” and “counterclockwising” the pages in order to put fragments together.

To understand why the book begins but doesn’t continue, one needs to look back (at hi/story), turn the pages (of hi/story), turn the past upside down so that one might translate the present through the past.

The beginningthe renaming of a street (from Plekhanov to Zarubyan)marks an end and a beginning at the same time, the end of an era embodied in the old name and the beginning of a new one. The ending of the book is a beginning and an end as well. It’s the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, a statement of the basic principles and laws, which mark the beginning and the end of one’s freedoms. What happens when the line between the end and the beginning gets distorted (a letter is taken out)? The line is blurred, it’s hard to tell where something begins and where it ends. Also, when read out loud (without the letter ու), the language sounds very much like the one spoken by those in power. Fictional language breaks the laws of realanguage to show how constitutional laws are being broken right before our eyes. How do you describe the violation of the letter and the spirit of the laws? By literally extracting a letter and rupturing language.

There are no whole characters in Zarubyan’s Women. The language constantly fails to create wholeness and fullness. The characters are fragmented like the plot itself. “Let me describe” and fail to describe. Wait, let me try again. And fail again. A memory of loss. How does one find the language to describe it? Memory itself is already a loss. The memory of a loss in a way becomes a loss of a loss. Accidents that break the narrative of our life. Can language describe it? If the narrative is broken then language is broken too.

The book doesn’t have or create a memory (of itself). It is hard to memorize a passage or retell since it’s just a fragment. I could recall the passage about a visit to Shushi, since the text and the photograph on the facing page were connected thematically. It’s possible to memorize only fragments, but not a complete passage or the plot, and that’s what memories are: fragments of the past. Fragments taken out of the narrative and most of the time we can’t put those fragments in the right order; the narrative is broken. The photographs are also hard to remember or memorize. They are fragmented as well, as if they have been photographed from memory or at the moment of remembering.

The book wants to create a new language-mentality (լեզվամտածողություն). There are many photographs of different women, which one of them is Araks? There is no way one can tell. Araks can be any one of them. Meanings too are more than one. There is no one or single true reality and narrative/plot of life because even the clock swerves from its normal route, suggesting a strange formula for the representation of time, even the clock is right according to our normal standards twice a day. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have clocks that aren’t normal. They make one stop and question the reality.

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