The Armenian novelist, literary critic, dramatist, and historian of literature Hagop Oshagan (1883-1948) stands at the juncture where Western Armenian culture ends and that of the Armenian diaspora begins. His life and literary output straddle the rural world of his native village in the Western Anatolian region of Bursa; the 1915 Catastrophe that annihilated the Ottoman-Armenian population; and the dispersion that followed.
This rupture shaped Oshagan’s entire cultural project: the literary reconstruction of the lost Western Armenian world. It also propelled Oshagan to forge a demanding, complex role for himself: as a writer of short stories, novels and plays; a critic of book-length studies and essays; a literary historian of the ten-volume classic Panorama of Western Armenian Literature; and a charismatic and influential teacher of literature in various urban centers of the Armenian diaspora.
Hagop Oshagan (who is my maternal grandfather) was born on December 9, 1883. I am posting the very brief essay I wrote for the on-line magazine of international writing, Words Without Borders in December, 2008. The essay is by way of an introduction to G.M. Goshgarian’s translations from Oshagan’s magnum opus, Mnatsortats, an excerpt of which was published in that issue of Words Without Borders. In 2009, Goshgarian received a PEN Award for his translation of Oshagan.
After Mnatsortats, Oshagan did not write any fiction, devoting himself entirely to literary criticism and teaching. Oshagan died four years after the completion of Panorama of Western Armenian Literature, on the night of February 17, 1948, in Aleppo where a jubilee had been organized in his honor. The following morning, Oshagan and a group of literary colleagues were to leave on a pilgrimage to Der Zor where thousands of Armenians who had survived the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians had died on the hot sands of the Syrian desert. Oshagan’s funeral in Aleppo was attended by an estimated 20,000 persons.
A towering figure in modern Western Armenian literature, Hagop Oshagan casts a long shadow as a prolific novelist, literary critic and historian, short-story writer, and dramatist. He was born in Bursa (Western Anatolia) in 1883, and died in Aleppo (Syria) in 1948.
Oshagan’s life was shaped by turbulent events in the Ottoman realm and beyond: the decline of the empire; World War I; and the 1915 genocide of the Armenians—the massacres, deportations, and dispersion. Between 1915-1918, he was a fugitive in Istanbul and narrowly escaped arrest and certain death several times, seven by his own account. He fled across the border to Bulgaria in 1918, disguised as a German officer and returned to Istanbul a year later, only to leave again, this time for good. After 1924, Oshagan lived in Egypt, Cyprus, and for the last fourteen years of his life in Jerusalem, producing a prodigious body of writing—often deemed controversial, subversive, even pornographic—and gaining an enduring reputation as a demanding and charismatic teacher of Armenian literature.
An unfinished, eighteen hundred-page work written between 1928 and 1934 in Cyprus, Oshagan’s Mnatsortats (The Remnants) is his magnum opus and the culmination of a series of powerful, innovative novels that have as their theme Muslim-Christian, and especially Turkish-Armenian, relations in the Ottoman Empire. Mnatsortats is a literary reconstruction of the pre-genocide world of the Armenians told through the horrific collapse of a family—the Nalbandians. The author intended the novel to be divided into three parts (Part I: The Way of the Womb; Part II: The Way of Blood; Part III: Hell) but was unable to write the third part, which was to be devoted to the extermination of the Armenians, depicting the twenty-four hours during which the Armenian population of Bursa was annihilated..
Set in an unnamed Armenian village in the Bursa region of Turkey, the novel spins a story of sex and murder; spans several generations of Nalbandians; gathers into its sphere an array of memorable characters and an inventory of habits and customs; describes the region’s religious, political, spiritual and material culture; and delineates the relationship between the Turkish authorities and their Armenian subjects—all this projected against the background of a disintegrating empire. The selection presented here is from Part I. It describes the early life of Hajji Anna, the wife of one of the Nalbandian sons, and the mother of five daughters, and one illegitimate son, perhaps.
We first meet Anna at the very beginning of the novel, when she is scheming with the mother of her daughter-in-law to couple the young woman with the family’s hired hand, so that the family line will be continued. The son, the last scion of the renowned family whose origins Oshagan grounds in the story of Hajji Artin, the legendary progenitor of the Nalbandians, is either impotent or homosexual. Such conniving is not as unusual at it would seem: Anna’s mother-in-law Sara is rumored to have produced her son in the same way, and Anna herself had her son either by “weakening” her husband to death or through the help of another hired hand. In this context, the “melancholy air” that hangs about Anna’s wedding is suggestive not only of the “twin curses” that the story mentions but the entire silent, scheming system which, in a manner of speaking, produce and reproduce Anna.
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.—Taline Voskeritchian