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Baliozian reviewed

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  • Baliozian reviewed

    Ara Baliozian reads the Armenians, yo’
    by Christopher Atamian

    Published: Saturday April 18, 2009

    Ara Baliozian (file photo).

    "Lying is done with words and also silence."

    -Adrienne Rich

    The poetic genre known as the aphorism goes back at least to Hippocrates, in 5th-century B.C.E. Greece. The word aphorism derives from the Greek aphorismos and denotes an original and easily remembered thought, expression, or witticism. Popular aphorists of the past include Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and Erasmus. Armenians have a practitioner of this rarefied art as well, and he goes by the name of Ara Baliozian.

    The author of some 20 books of prose, poetry, and plays, as well as translations of Armenian writers such as Zabel Yessayan and Kostan Zarian, Baliozian was born in Athens, attended the now-xdefunct College Moorat-Raphael in Venice, and currently resides in Kitchener, Ontario. His newest work, a slim volume (56 pages) titled Pertinentes Impertinences, is a series of reflections and aphorisms in French translated from English by Denis Donikian, Mireille xBesnilian, and Dalita Roger, and published last year by Arvesd Aysor in Yerevan.

    Baliozian writes about a wide range of topics and people, though he seems particularly at home when perhaps justifiably lambasting Armenian politicians and leaders. Baliozian takes no prisoners - intellectual or otherwise. This hasn't necessarily made him the most popular writer in the Armenian diaspora, though an increasing number of people now read his work with passion and a deep-seated sense of appreciation for his daring to say what so many others think. Whether Baliozian's views represent those of an enlightened minority or of a silent majority, his work should be read by every Armenian, especially when they are young and in their formative stages, as a means of opening their minds to different ideas and ways of thinking about their culture.

    In a sense, Baliozian is heir to the Armenian writers before him who dared to analyze and constructively criticize Armenian society. The Armenian mind that Baliozian deconstructs so ably is a direct descendant of the mentality that Hagop Oshagan describes in novels such as Mnatsortats and Haji Murad and that Constantinopolitan writers such as Krikor Zohrab wrote about before the Catastrophe of 1915. "If you want to understand Armenians," Baliozian writes, "don't read their nationalist historians; read instead a history of Armenian literature. The only reason we don't burn writers the way Indians burn widows is that we prefer to ignore them, which amounts to burying them alive." Baliozian on the sacred cows of Armenian culture: "Because I refuse to share their obsession with massacres and money, they call me negative. One way to be positive in their eyes is to adopt ‘Yes, sir!' as a mantra.'" (Both quoted from All quotes that follow are from Pertinentes Impertinences.)

    Baliozian's oeuvre is in point of fact rather subversive. He uses repetition to his advantage and hammers away at his iconoclastic thoughts and ideas in the same way that the Armenian press and powers that be have drilled their own propaganda into Armenian minds and hearts for centuries now. It's a welcome counterbalance. While no one would deny, for example, the terrible suffering that successive Ottoman and Turkish governments have inflicted on Armenians and on the Armenian psyche, Baliozian is quick to confront the type of knee-jerk anti-Turkism that portrays Turks as somehow more cruel or barbaric by nature than others: "Our magazines regularly publish so many anti-Turkish commentaries that if our editors were to define what it means to be Armenian, I would imagine they would define it as hating Turks. And to think that these are the exact same people who criticize me under the pretext that I am a repetitive pessimist." (p. 18)

    Baliozian's writing is also an intelligent and sometimes humorous call to introspection and societal self-criticism: "An Armenian-American composer admitted to me one day: ‘I hope that Armenians won't support me. I'd be grateful if they spared me their hostility.'" (p. 49) When analyzing the current Armenian craze for all things Gorky, Baliozian recalls the following: "Speaking of Arshile Gorky, one of our elder statesmen once told me: ‘Not a single Armenian bought a painting from Gorky while he was alive.'?" (p. 49)

    The author is at his most incisive when taking on taboos in Armenian intellectual history and commenting on the behavior of certain contemporary leaders: "Our charlatans tell us that our patrons, bishops, and do-gooders know better than we do because they speak in the name of God and Capital. And when God and Capital speak, the scribblers are meant to shut their mouths and listen. Otherwise their mouths must be shut for them, that is to say, cut their tongues cut out, in good old Ottoman fashion." (p. 27)

    There is isn't much to criticize about Pertinentes Impertinences apart from the fact that Baliozian, perhaps weary of repeating the same mantras that go unheeded, may indeed at times begin to sound repetitive. Baliozian's observations, however, are about as close as any contemporary Armenian writer comes to getting at the truth of things. And as the commonplace aphorism states, the truth will set you free. A fitting coda to this piece and to Baliozian's work comes from Kingsley Amis, whom the author quotes as saying: "If you don't disturb anybody with what you write, then I think there's no point in writing." (p. 47)
    Between childhood, boyhood,
    & manhood (maturity) there
    should be sharp lines drawn w/
    Tests, deaths, feats, rites
    stories, songs & judgements

    - Morrison, Jim. Wilderness, vol. 1, p. 22