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Regarded by literary historians as the father of modern Armenian literature, Khachatur Abovian authored the first Armenian novel in ashkharapar, Verk Hayastani (The Wounds of Armenia), which, after Narek, is probably the most critically acclaimed and widely discussed and admired work in Armenian literature.
Abovian's life reads like a novel with an adventure-store beginning and a myserious as well as tragic ending. Of peasant stock, he was brought up in the village of Kanaker, not far from Yerevan. At the age of eighteen he entered the service of the Catholicos at Etchmiadzin. The turning point in his life was the arrival there of Dr. Friedrich Parrot, a professor of natural philosophy from the University of Dorpat (Tartu) in Estonia. With Abovian’s help Dr. Parrot became the first explorer in modern times to reach the summit of Ararat in 1829. The two men became fast friends. From 1830 to 1836 Abovian studied philosophy, languages (German, French, English, Latin), music, history, and the sciences at the University of Dorpat. From 1836 to 1848 he devoted his life to writing, translating (among others: Homer, Goethe, Schiller, Karamzin) and teaching.
Shortly after he began to teach in Tiflis, Abovian observed that his pupils preferred to read Russian, because Armenian books (mostly about kings, princes, saints, or biblical personages) were written in a nearly incomprehensible krapar or classical Armenian. The idea of writing a novel that could be read and enjoyed by anyone familiar with the Armenian alphabet excited him so much that he spent many feverish, sleepless nights buried in books and papers studying the language of the ashughs (minstrels) together with the most recent technical innovations in the art of fiction. Abovian’s merit however goes beyond matters concering technicque and the use of the spoken idiom. Abovian wrote about heroes with whom the people could easily identify – Aghasi, the protagonist of his novel, is a common peasant – stressing not so much obedience to authority (the predominant “message” in the literature of all authoritarian regimes) but love for parents, friends and country (subversive themes and ultimately, in the eyes of the establishment, revolutionary concepts).
Abovian was an intensely committed writer – and committed in the Sartrian sense – a writer who saw the “angularity” of his time and the options that the historic moment presented: obedience to the Asiatic tyrant and eventual assimilation on the one hand, and on the other, self-determination and the adoption of the best ideological and technological elements of the West. Writes Rouben Zarian, the author of an excellent biography: “Abovian was a man of great culture, a profoundly erudite man with a wide range of interests. Fluent in seven or eight languages, he was interested in everything – philosophy, psychology, economy, history, pedagogy ….” As a pedagogue, Abovian was greatly influenced by the doctrines of Rousseau and Pestalozzi and believed that every person, even the lowest, has inherent power capable of development. These liberal views, together with his persistent efforts to reform the educational system, alienated him from the Armenian establishment – the clergy and the wealthy merchants: an alliance that has always been on the side of reaction rather than progress. As a result, he may have committed suicide, or, as a thinker impossible to muzzle, he may have been secretly assassinated by agents of the Czar.
Abovian was a revolutionary with the temperament of a martyr. “All I wan,” he once declared, “is to give my life to my beloved country; to serve her as long as there is breath in my mouth.” He had none of the ruthless cunning of first-rate revolutionaries like Marx and Lenin. Perhaps for that reason, as a man, he is a much more attractive figure. It is impossible not to be touched by his youthful enthusiasm, energy, and idealism, even when he went to extremes. As a student in Dorpat (Estonia) for instance, in addition to mastering a wide range of disciplines within the university walls, he also tried to learn how to bake bread and manufacture glass. He already saw himself as the educator of an entire subcontinent, a man through whom not only the culture of the West, but its technology as well would be introduced into the Caucusus. Abovian’s intense dedication to his people thus transcended all forms of narrow nationalism; it was instead an expression of humanism at its purest and best.
From Ara Baliozian's "The Armenians: Their History & Culture" - Reproduced here with his permission.