Balian's Novel Holds a Mirror to Immigrants Posted by Contributor
By Ara Caprielian
Author Hagop Balian is highly respected in literary circles as an intellectual, journalist, and editor. Recently he was awarded a much-coveted medal by the government of Armenia for being an ardent champion and tireless promoter of the Armenian language, particularly Western Armenian and classical orthography.
Balian, the current editor of the prestigious literary periodical `Pakine,' is a prolific writer of insightful, thought-provoking, and sometimes controversial articles covering such diverse subjects as the pursuit of the Armenian Question (Hai Tahd), the current state of national awareness (or lack thereof) throughout the world-wide diaspora, the challenge of survival faced by Armenian culture and language, as well as issues involving different facets of life in Armenian communities. Balian's thoughtful writings regularly appear in various Armenian periodicals all over the globe.
The novel under review, `America, America...Yeraz yev Khordagman Lkoumner,' is a logical outcome of the keen observations the author has made over the years regarding the immigration of Armenians from Armenia and the Middle East to the United States, resulting, for many, in the loss of their ethnic/national identity and culture, inevitably leading to assimilation. To be sure, such developments leave indelible imprints both on the lives of the individuals and the nation as a whole.
The story begins with the death of an apparently lonely gentleman in Glendale, Calif., followed by a brief description of his funeral, the execution of his will, and the subsequent publication of his diary, which spans many decades of his eventful life. The narrative, based on his diary, commences with protagonist Levon Arisian's boyhood and life in a typical Middle Eastern city. His dreams and ambitions unfold, and the reader learns about a promise made to his first love.
We follow Arisian to Alabama, where he achieves his paramount goal of getting a higher education and the success he so eagerly sought. The following chapters describe his adventurous life, including the many voluntary adjustments he makes to become a quintessential American, which inexorably lead to his alienation from all things Armenian. This bright, self-disciplined student soon becomes a highly successful engineer, ultimately reaching the highest level of the corporate ladder. In this promised land of limitless opportunity, his enviable success and reputation open many doors, which countless aspiring immigrants could only dream about.
In time, he marries an American woman from a well-established family, raises three children, and becomes a bonafide member of America's consumer society. The first incident that brings home the point that he is `outsider,' after all, occurs when he vainly tries to name his firstborn son after his father over the adamant objections of his wife.
After an absence of many years, and out of a sense of filial obligation, he returns to his birthplace with his family to visit his mother and siblings. Another disappointment occurs when he sees his American family's inability to connect with his warm and gracious family.
Two major events awaken within him a dormant feeling of identification with his people: the spate of assassinations of Turkish diplomats in the 1970's as a desperate measure to resurrect the yet-unresolved Armenian Question (Hai Tahd) and the devastating 1988 earthquake in Armenia.
Ultimately, his divorce, alienation from his children, and the loss of women in his life by virtue of tragic circumstances shatter his dreams and the very purpose of his life. But I should tell no more before I risk spoiling the pleasure of reading this novel.
Like many good novels, underneath a seemingly simple story lie philosophical problems, constituting food for thought, soul searching, and introspection by the readers. Indeed, many Armenians who immigrated to the United States from various countries - seeking refuge, safety, freedom, or the opportunity to realize the American dream - have lost many values inherited from their background. Others, on the other hand, have simply refused to succumb to the temptation of making achieving fame and fortune, and have succeeded in making significant contributions to their Armenian communities.
The reader can determine in which category Levon Arisian belongs.
One of the many positive attributes of the novel is the author's perceptive observation of life in the United States, despite his all too brief, occasional visits to this country. The other is his meticulous use of Western Armenian, the future of which as a viable, living language is an abiding concern, considering the present trends.
It is regrettable that because of the language, the novel is not easily accessible to a larger reading public. Presumably, some Armenians will be able to identify with the very same problems, dilemmas, successes, and failures faced by the protagonist. In any event, Hagop Balian's novel is a welcome contribution to the rich treasury of Armenian literature.