The Fall 2022 issue of Asymptote Journal is live now, with a special section on Armenian literature in translation. The section includes Number 11 from Krikor Beledian’s 13-part “Unpeopled Language,” along with a translators’ note by Christopher Millis and me, and the original Armenian in text and audio.
The Asymptote issue also includes translations from Aram Pachyan, Anna Davtian, Marine Petrossian and others. A marvelous mini-anthology–as introduction and as teaching tool for translators.
My review of Nora Martirosyan’s “Should the Wind Drop” (Si le vent tombe) was published May 2, 2022 on the Markaz Review website.
Should the Wind Drop / Si le vent tombe (2020), directed by Nora Martirosyan A coproduction of France/Armenia/Belgium • 100 min • 1.85 • color • 5.1 In French, Karabaghtsi, Armenian, English and Russian, English or French subtitles
This film is available on VOD platforms with French subtitles; a version with English subtitles will become available shortly.
~ Nora Martirosyan’s Should the Wind Drop (Si le vent tombe, 2020) belongs with a handful of films set in Nagorno-Karabakh, the contested region in South Caucasus and the site of the first perestroika demonstrations, subsequent wars of various duration, and Armenian victories and defeats. But the film departs from the conventions that have straddled several such films. Chief among these conventions is the focus on the actual conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and indirectly on the duty of the film to give voice to the cause of Karabakh self-determination, independence, and recognition by what used to be called the international community.
Add to these, a love-story of some sort, a few cute ethnic curiosities, and the obligatory mournfulness of the film score, and you have the formula for a film that can, ostensibly at least, appeal to Western audiences who know very little, and care less, about Karabakh. Should the Wind Drop consciously steers clear of these baits.
Since the Armenian victories of the First Karabakh War, which ended with a ceasefire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh had been in a state of uneasy peace until September 2020, when the Azerbaijanis defeated the Armenians, regained territory lost in the war of the early 1990s, absorbing new lands and inflicting heavy losses in personnel on the Armenian side. Although Should the Wind Drop is set in that period of tenuous peace prior to September 2020, war is not far — in the areas around the Karabakh-Azerbaijan border, in the conversations and pronouncements of the local population, and in the difficulties of everyday life of Stepanakert, the capital. There, a French auditor of dogged professionalism and cool anxiety, Alain Delage (played by Grégoire Colin) arrives one day to write a report about the feasibility of restarting the operations of the airport. The actual airport is not a particularly pleasant site, but its two wings, and their blue color, are a not-so-subtle metaphor for the aspirations of the population: A proper airport will make life in this landlocked republic, whose self-declared independence is not recognized by any UN-member country, more open to the world. It will make Karabakh more visible; it will give the country a future.
Alain himself is a rather standoffish type, who stiffens when his host at the airport welcomes him with a big hug. He is not particularly likeable; he is here to do a job and often seems oblivious to the local officials’ impassioned pleas. He is a stranger to everything that he encounters — from that hug to the black-haired boy he sees crossing the airport runway, to the town’s annual festivities of vartavar — a tradition of people drenching each other with water. The airport officials’ aspirations are to make Nagorno-Karabakh and its problems visible to him, to persuade him, coax him if they can.
These aspirations, too, are the ones that propel the film’s director herself: to make Karabakh visible, palpable, real. The way Nora Martirosyan goes about doing so is through a series of rejections which are quite radical, both in relation to the content of the film and also the practices of such films that come out of a historical injustice — a political situation where the cards are stacked against the victims: Should the Wind Drop does not involve a love story; the structure is not dramatic; the film has no place for the ethnic-as-exotic; war lurks at the film’s edges only.
The most important departure is that the two narrative threads — of Alain trying to do his professional work, and of the boy Edgar (played with remarkable skill by Hayk Bakhryan) trying to do his work — do not intersect, dashing viewer assumptions, but also setting our visual attention free. Our “hero” is no hero; and Edgar is really no victim although the harshness of his situation is beyond doubt.
In terms of technique, Martirosyan relies on long shots, uses close-ups sparingly, makes distance an organizing principle, refuses the aid of melody and instead employs composed sound for moments of tension. Taken as a whole, the film’s content, form, and technique poke at narrative flow, question its centrality, and, most important, open a space for another kind of telling.
Paradoxically, although Martirosyan’s telling is more episodic, it is at the same time more panoramic; characters are often diminished not so much by their flaws or their recklessness but by their native geography, by the circumstances of war as is the case, for instance, with Armen (played by the great Armenian parodist and performance artist Vardan Petrosyan).
Karabakh is contested land but also a wounded Garden of Eden whose mysterious beauty we know is laced by violence, though there is little violence in the film. No violence, and no sex — absences which allow for neither pathos nor excitation.
Should the Wind Drop is a film about approach, not destination. Martirosyan, a native of Armenia, was trained as a painter there and now lives and works as a film and video artist in France. Her approach — in both senses of the word — is painterly and relies on perspectives that shift, as is the case in the long and dizzying scene of Alain’s arrival by car to Stepanakert, the tiny vehicle snaking through the awe-inspiring mountains; or toward the end of the film in night scenes along the border areas, or in the shouts of Edgar who is trying to recover a loss. For sure, the film has its share of scenes of camaraderie — of men joking and drinking, and homesteading; of women manning the clothing store, or putting food on the table, or standing at the hospital’s balcony and showing the newborn infant to the father below on the street. But absent from these scenes is the kind of intimacy associated with human contact and touch — the turn of a face, the hint of a smile, the extension of a hand, things that would seal the foreigner’s fate in this far-off land.
It’s easy to interpret this absence as the filmmaker’s distance from her material, or even an aesthetic coldness. But it may be more generative to think that with this kind of withholding, Martirosyan is showing the dignified, stoic discipline which those embattled by war and loss know well and practice even better. Nowhere is this technique as effective as it is in the impossible meeting of Alain and Edgar, or of their paths not crossing each other around a climactic moment. It does not happen, Martirosyan seems to be saying, because in real life, in places where the earth is scorched with war, where hearts are hardened by loss, such things usually don’t happen. And yet, for all the distance and the panoramic intentions of the film, one of the most memorable images is that of Edgar’s face turning — to Alain? to us? — in a mixture of sorrow, pleading, and precautious wisdom. (The viewer cannot but be reminded of that other great turn of a boy’s face in Francois Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups.)
It’s as if in this scene, Edgar tears the surface of the film, and asks us to look at him, at this boy who is the bringer of water, the quencher of thirsts. There are other, smaller scenes like this one, which seem to come to us with the force of big emotion, but which recede as fast as they arrived. Their brevity is their strength.
The hold of Nagorno-Karabakh on the Armenian imagination — historical, cultural, and political — is as enduring as it is pervasive. Should the Wind Drop displays a gallery of characters, all local, all natives of Nagorno-Karabakh, but often it steers clear of turning character and narrative into a vehicle for transmitting information about the enclave’s history or its just cause. It is the land which takes on almost all these duties — the land, which talks, as it were. Martirosyan’s polyglot film (in five languages) gives the Karabakh dialect more than lip service, so to speak. The land is all-powerful, all seeing in whose shadow people are made small but not insignificant.
Such an approach risks turning the land into something mythic, eternal, bigger than human desires and sorrows, even bigger than the airport they want to re-open, bigger than the war even. This kind of aestheticization may offer an alternative perspective, one based on painterly principles, but at times it neutralizes the vitality — the sorrow, loss, brief joys — of the human beings who inhabit the land, who guard the borders. Actually, Martirosyan peoples the film with an array of characters we won’t easily forget — from Seiran, Alain’s guide, to Armen, to the soldiers who accompany Alain to the border areas, even the woman who cleans the airport’s floors, an anonymous presence whose face we do not see but whose floors shine. About all of them, we know next to nothing because the land is all encompassing. Perhaps the ferocious beauty of Nagorno-Karabakh as it is depicted in the film comes at the expense of characters who ask for more depth, more development.
Among these characters, the boy Edgar is the most memorable creation — he is an all-pervasive presence who brackets the film. But Martirosyan does not romanticize him, nor does she burden him with more injuries than he carries, injuries that would make him more appealing to non-Armenian viewers. He has enough, she seems to be saying. The two narrative threads — of Edgar and Alain — never explicitly entwine, and the two characters’ distance from each other only intensifies the silence beneath the surface of the film. This distance also carries figurative meaning that spans across the entire film.
With Should the Wind Drop, Martirosyan steps into experiment, asks a question: How to represent the near-magical, scorched land of Nagorno-Karabakh — or any other place ravaged by war — without the crutches of sentimentality, melodrama, even drama? It’s a significant question, and one that she begins to answer here. The land is her point of departure and return, the land whose illusory peace the 2020 war shattered, whose expanse it tore into two, whose population it displaced and turned into refugees. But also, the land as a repository of pitfalls for the filmmaker, the viewer, and in the end, for those who live with it — not only for its acquisition and loss, but also for its flames, which the film reveals with such vivid torrent.
In the wake of the 2020 war, Should the Wind Drop is now, ironically, a document, a chronicle of another time. The new realities on the ground await the arrival of the one who comes to survey, to restore, to make the invisible visible after so much has been lost in land, human lives and hopes to the winds and fires of war. Edgar’s turn to the screen is even more wrenching today in his — and the film’s — search for answers. ~
Taline Voskeritchian was born in Jerusalem and educated in Lebanon, Jordan, and the United States. Her prose and co-translations (from Arabic and Armenian) have appeared in London Review of Books, The Nation, Agni Review, Book Forum, Words Without Borders, Journal of Palestine Studies, Alik (Tehran), Ahegan (Beirut), Warwick Review (UK), Virginia Quarterly Review and International Poetry Review, among other publications. She is co-producer of Vahe Oshagan: Between Acts, a documentary on the modernist Armenian poet Vahé Oshagan, to which she also contributed as translator. She has taught at Boston University and American University of Armenia, and conducted translation workshops at Palestinian universities.
The Spring 2022 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review features a portfolio of photographs by Ara Oshagan, and an introduction by Christopher Millis and myself. The photographs are from Oshagan’s recently published book of image and text, displaced/հատում (Kehrer Verlag, Berlin). The text is by the preeminent writer of Western Armenian Krikor Beledian, in the original Armenian and in translation by the Voskeritchian-Millis team.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the VQR feature:
For many Armenians of Bourj Hammoud, displacement means starting new lives on foreign shores, setting up habitation in improvised homes and hastily drawn neighborhoods whose very names are themselves displacements: Nor Sis, Nor Adana, and Nor Marash all combine the word nor (Armenian for “new”) with the Ottoman place names Sis, Adana, and Marash—all part of the region of Giligia from which these refugees had fled.
Below is the press release of the Gulbenkian Foundation, which circulated on September 10:
The entire oeuvre of Hagop Oshagan, one of the giants of Western Armenian Literature, is now online and easily accessible to all, free of charge. The digitized materials can be found on the website of the Digital Library of Classical Armenian Literature (Digilib) of the American University of Armenia. The project was supported by the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
Thanks to this initiative, some 30 books from the author, including all the volumes of the Panorama of Western Armenian Literature, The Humble Ones, Remnants, and many more difficult to find texts have been fully digitized and are available in a searchable format.
Vahe Oshagan once said, “Be careful and ready! You enter Hagop Oshagan’s word as one kind of person and you come out another person.” Those who have entered that world know, I think, the import of these words. And now, it is possible to go there, to that world–terrifying, dangerous, and complete.
The AUA Digilib has done a marvelous job in bringing to the Armenian reading world literary criticism, novels, plays and other writings of one of the most prolific writers of the past century.
Some years ago, an excerpt from Oshagan’s “Remnants” (Englished by the translator extraordinaire G.M. Goshgarian) was published on Words Without Borders, the website of international writing in translation. At the time I wrote in the introduction:
Oshagan poses huge challenges for his Armenian-language reader as well as his translator. This is one reason why Oshagan’s novels, which are in the tradition of Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Proust and Joyce, are not more widely known. In addition to his formal complexity, Oshagan often seems deliberately ambiguous, the sequence of words pointing in several, often contradictory directions at the same time. The translator is tempted to make Oshagan accessible by standardizing his language, making it seem natural, in short, by domesticating its semantic multiplicities and harnessing its torrential energy.
In G. M. Goshgarian’s groundbreaking English rendition of Mnastortats, Oshagan’s novel has found its translator. Goshgarian has translated into English more Oshagan than anyone else, most of it as yet unpublished. He says: “Oshagan’s Armenian is not at all natural but barbarously beautiful.” Being faithful to Oshagan, therefore, can appear to be bad translation until the reader begins to understand the author’s logic, deliberate puzzlers, and snares. The meanings begin to multiply, and, to paraphrase Oshagan, the reader is home—in literature.
Now that the entirety of Oshagan’s known work is available, the challenge is real: The work must be read. It must be read against its difficulties, its snares, twists and turns, and equally important, its sometimes horrifying and horrific content (at least in the novels and the plays) and its always laser-sharp critical spirit. As Goshgarian says, the task is difficult and full of pitfalls which the translator knows well. But so does the reader, who is also a translator of sorts, from the conventional to the innovative, to a language that burns and lacerates and renews–barbarous and beautiful.
Arpi Dadoyan has died.In the unwritten annals of the culture of the Armenian diaspora, Arpi holds a place which is as unique as it is legendary.
No one who has been fortunate to have seen her in Varoujan Khedeshian’s 1971 production of Theatre 67’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” can forget her ferociously intense performance of Martha. Martha is at least twice Arpi’s age as Edward Albee, the playwright, had written her. Martha is also a foul-mouthed drunk, a character of immense physical presence, in body, voice, and speech–a life force turned against itself, as it were.
Arpi was 23 when she performed this role, dominating the stage with an unbridled energy and audacity which no Armenian actress had shown before, at least not on the stages of the Armenian community of Beirut. I was in the audience, as a theater critic for “Ahegan,” the short-lived, groundbreaking review of literature and culture.
Beyond the understanding that Arpi displayed in that role, what was also significant was that she was a completely home-grown talent (taking her first theatrical steps on the tiny stage of Nshan Palandjian College (Djemaran) as an elementary school student), but lots of daring at a time of great creative energy, innovation, and freedom in pre-civil war Beirut. Arpi’s presence on the stage in “Virginia Woolf” and later in other productions of Theatre 67, was a testament to that collective spirit, which, alas, was as fragile as it was incendiary. If for no other reason, Arpi’s gesture was for the generations.
Arpi belonged to that generation of talented young men and women who by choice or force of circumstance had to leave Beirut. That passage, too, had neither been written nor acknowledged. Arpi continued her theatrical work in the US, performing with community groups, doing stand-up comedy, writing songs, but, truth be told, for many of us, our memory of her is seared in that fiery Martha who spoke Armenian in a voice as clear today as it was then, enriching the culture, yes, but also our native language.
To get to Jerusalem from Amman, you would have to get to the Jordanian security checkpoint at King Husseyn (Allenby) Bridge, cross the bridge itself (a mere few minutes of a bus ride the last time I did it!), pass the Israeli security which is as detailed a process as it is humiliating, and then walk onto a clearing of taxis and more buses. You’re in the desert now; the air is thick and the sun is shameless. The negotiation is fast, and you’re on your way, a bit relieved and ready to talk to the driver in the Arabic you thought you had forgotten. He is jovial, and nicotine-voiced, and the surroundings are as sallow and lusterless, the desert cradling you as it were, time suspended almost, and not a living creature around you except you, the driver, and the anticipation. And on like this for half and hour through winding roads and hazy skies.
It takes a split second. The taxi swerves; the silence breaks;and in the distance, far from the noise and the hustle and bustle of life is a beautiful sight. The day is warm, the sky is clear, and in the distance is Qubbat al-Sakhra, known as the Dome of the Rock. It is a majestic site towering over the Old City, the dome itself a deep gold, which takes on an intense, other-worldly shine under the mid-day sun.
Set against the intense blue of Jerusalem’s sky, the dome looks as if it did actually descend from heaven, that it is of this wretched world but also of another. And beneath it, the Old City itself, village-town of faith and madness, its cobblestone streets sites of beauty and zeal, tension and tenderness—a place like no other, even now.
That’s the entrance to Jerusalem that I know, have known all the times I have been in the city. Things may have changed from the time I was there a decade ago, but that’s not important. Jerusalem is also of the imagination. And the news that snow is falling in the Old City today is as unsettling as it is exciting, exciting to imagine my Jerusalem transformed like that, the dome holding layers of snow on its radiant curve, from the distance of the taxi , the brick roofs carpets of white, and the religious sites–the mosques, the synagogues, the churches—made small and modest, all part of climate and geography.
And because Jerusalem is also of the imagination, in my mind’s eye this snow-clad Jerusalem finds a place near the sun-soaked one, as its double, or other, or prodigal variant, the two living together not so much in harmony (that would be boring for a mad place like Jerusalem) but in some arrangement yet-undefined. But for today, nothing seems more joyful than the sight of people making snow figures in the open expanse of the Dome of the Rock, joyful and so unexpected.
Oh, Jerusalem, chart and destination, golden and white, pious and mercurial, heavenly and profane, place of birth and of longing—for all.
Glenda Jackson: I watched her again this weekend, this time as the very old, mentally and physically depleted Maud in the Masterpiece Theatre production of “Elizabeth is Missing.” Her voice and her face filled the screen again– that combination of determination and vulnerability, frailty and tenacity. As a victim of dementia, Maud is a character that eviscerates the heart, and a remarkable creation that only Jackson could have pulled off at the age of 85.
But what was more exhilarating was to see in Maud the young Glenda Jackson, in Ken Russell’s 1969 production of “Women in Love.” There, she plays Gudrun, the woman made eternally memorable for her intelligence, erotic energy, and her forthrightness. It was that year–1969–the floodgates were about to open, and there was Gudrun taunting us, challenging us. She was guide and icon, destination and chart, and she was like no other character we had seen on the screen
Between Gudrun and Maud, between the promise of youth and the twilight of old age, is the tumble of the decades, experiences, twists and turns of living. And it is all on Glenda Jackson’s face, the wrinkles and cracks, and in her unsteady gait and limping shuffle. All the things that make up Maud, but not quite, not quite. Because old age always whispers (or weeps) its youth, longs for it but also is freed by it. And Glenda Jackson –in life and in her magisterial acting career– holds all these truths tight, holds both Gudrun and Maud in equal measure. To grow old this well…
Over more than a quarter century, all those politicians, armchair analysts, academics, party hacks, activists, and celebrities who spoke only when the truth was self-evident and did not need the courage of one’s convictions are now standing in line to say their word–in language at once melodramatic and preachy. Their words often sound hollow, disingenuous, and opportunistic.
After such defeat, perhaps it is better to stand back in self-imposed restraint for a while, turn inward in reflection, ask the honest questions: How did we get here? What are the imperatives of the moment? What kind of future can we imagine for Armenia and also for the diaspora, together and separate from each other? “They became what they beheld,” wrote William Blake. The present moment also demands an act of the imagination.
A new vocabulary is necessary for this moment, and a new way of telling this narrative, one which is modern, critical, and realistic; one which does not fall back on the hackneyed verbiage of Hay Thad and genocide recognition; one which imposes the grid of the present and future over the burden of the past (and not the other way around as we have done for so long, so long).
But first, some quiet, introspection, and tenderness, so that we can mourn the ones who died so valiantly on the battlefield, those who left home and hearth, for their bravery and dignity. A wise friend once wrote: “To be remembered is to die; to be thought of is to be born.”
None of this, though, is meant to suggest that Pashinyan or his foreign minister was a victim of anti-Armenian bias, or that “Hard Talk” is in the pocket of the Azerbaijanis. The program approaches all its guests with a Thatcher-like swagger, and it offers equal opportunity in the small mounds of rubble it leaves behind. From Pashinyan to Lavrov to Gwyneth Paltrow, “Hard Talk” is just that—hard and talk, rather, hardly talk and more interruption! If by some miracle, “Hard Talk” managed to get Ilham Aliyev on the show, the end result would be the same–Azerbaijanis would claim that Sackur is pro-Armenian.
Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” is film about a neglected subject–the experiences of African Americans in the Viet Nam war. And as such it is a corrective and timely.
Beyond that, the film has a beautiful surface which spans the ink dark of the jungle to the vibrant buzz of Ho Chi Minh City; an unusual film score which integrates Marvin Gaye, R and B, with big orchestral score, and solo laments bordering on New Age. The story, too, has a strong synthesizing impulse: to integrate several genres– the heist genre, the war movie, the documentary, even the tourist postcard. The result is a unusual work, expertly edited I thought, into which Lee has thrown a dozen characters, three related stories, a historic perspective, at least two psychological themes, and a lot of blood and gore and body parts.
Lee goes for excess here, and tries to couple that with the narrow confines of the heist as narrative. In the first half– the better half, actually the first half is riveting–I was seized by awe and deep emotion as the nascent theme began to take shape. In the second half he changes course, expands the story with digressions, and tries to turn the film into something huge, all-encompassing which is meant to assault the senses from all directions in a macabre dance of beauty and extreme violence. Sometimes that assault achieves its intent, at other times it confuses and alienates, so much so that all the emotional buildup of the first half slowly begin to slip away. The first half asks: What did the Viet Nam war mean for the Bloods who fought under the slogan of freedom but were themselves and their ancestors denied such freedom in their home county? The second half returns to this questions only sporadically; it is distracted by other things.
I think this is a movie primarily for younger audiences who are nurtured on big Hollywood productions, and abundance of technological wizardry and lots of sound and fury. But the story is a throwback to “our time,” the sixties and the early seventies. I am curious what younger viewers will think of it because Lee seems to have an educational and moral intent in mind, which is the only way to explain the rather quaint and positive ending. After so much violence and horror, what is the place of love and collective action and charity–virtues on which the film comes to its conclusion and silence.