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Review: Requiem, by Razmik Davoyan

Naneh Hovhannisyan, The North, number 62, Summer 2019.

Yerevan, Armenia: 24 April, 1965. Tens of thousands of demonstrators gather, demanding that the Moscow government recognise the atrocities committed against Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as genocide.

Actually, the repressions, deportations and killings of the minority Christian Armenian population in the Muslim Ottoman Empire had been going on for a while, since the 1894-96 Massacres during the reign of sultan Abdul Hamid. However, that date, April 24, had come to symbolise a 'decapitation' of the nation, left leaderless and voiceless, to be exterminated according to a plan of execution comprised by the Young Turk elites. On that fateful night fifty years prior, under the cover of darkness thousands of prominent Armenian intellectuals were arrested — members of parliament, doctors, writers and clergymen — the great majority of whom would meet torture and death shortly after.

Razmik Davoyan, then 25-year-old editor of the poetry and prose section of the Literary Weekly, would have remembered that day in 1965 - the largest protest action in the USSR up until then. Many of the activists involved went on to lead the awakening of Armenian national identity in 1980s, which ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent state. A state where Davoyan, by then a well-recognised poet, would lead the Writers' Union.

In the meantime he wrote Requiem, a poem of mourning and hope. Though it honours the more than a million victims of the atrocity, which is now recognised by many countries around the world as genocide, it is deliberately vague and does not mention the word 'genocide', embracing instead all victims of inhumanity. Despite this, the poem was banned by Soviet authorities at the time. Arc's bilingual edition of Requiem, translated into English by Davoyan's wife Armine Tamrazian, is an extremely welcome addition to the body of Armenian translated literature.

It is a heavy but quick read. It flows more than it stutters, and it captures the hopeful energy of Davoyan's plea to the heavens, punctuated by grim details. Pain and pathos swap appearances as the poem crescendos towards the end. It begins:

We are bored with life
Yet when we meet
We speak of the wonders of life.

This paradox of existence echoes throughout, a narrator torn between the will to live and surrendering to destiny's destruction.

The sense of dreams amidst carnage comes back, strength to be mustered for one last try:

While we,
Our heads hanging from the blue sky
Through sleepless nights,
Seek in coffee cups,
A tortured,
Abandoned ray of light
On which to weave
Our delicate dreams

Before long, surreal pictures fill the reader with horror:

Our ribs
The shattered keyboard
Of an old organ,
On which a Mass of love
Was never played


With the clouds in our hands
We sprinkled water over burning spirits,
Our eyes became deep caves
Of vaporizing mist...

And then again, in:

Our delicate lips,
Refined by words,
With a constantly exploding silence,
Long for you
And the destitution of the race
Rages in the songs again;
Unstructured, unrhymed.

Talking of rhyming, it's a shame the start of the chapter entitled 'Message' or the opening three stanzas of 'Epilogue' (my favourite passage) don't rhyme as in the original Armenian. Some creative license has been used by the translator, for example:

And bit by bit they drove black nails
Into the Tower of Hope,
Just as the wood cutter drives his nails
Into the heart of the oak to split the wood.

In the original, the woodcutter drives the nails into the 'spine' of the oak rather than the 'heart'. A spine-damaged oak (read 'creature') in English reads as 'betrayed', whereas for Armenian readers, it is deprived of dignity, strength and agency. 'Into the heart' is no less deliberately destructive, but it is more emotive.

Here is another example of translator's choice:

And in the void,
In the tragic unsheltered void,
A new world of legends
Was rising
Barefoot, the crippled myth of songs,
Like the ghost of a tormented woman,
Is seeking itself in the chaos.

The woman could have been 'tortured' or even 'raped' rather than 'tormented' — something that happens with depressing frequency in conflict, and certainly befell Armenian victims during the Genocide.

The highlights of the translation for me are these two gems of lines:

Inside our bodies, like smoke in the dark,
Our individual hearts vaporized...

Also the following, rhythmic stanza:

And the half-faced people
Cut that bird in half,
They halved it again
And again,
Repeatedly halving the halves
As far as they could see with their single eye,
They turned the pillar of our faith to dust.

Apart from 'Epilogue', my other favourite passage is 'Give Me My Eyes', a sterling translation, as well as the lingering

We die a long, slow death,
And thus we live forever.

As with individuals, there are certain formative events in the history of a nation which mark a watershed moment and remain in the memory forever, informing their sense of identity. The Genocide is one such event for the 3 million Armenians in today's Republic and the many more millions abroad. To have such an epic dedication to it translated must have been a huge undertaking. It must have been a huge undertaking to take on the translation of such an epic. And though that translation might occasionally have benefited from more input from a native English speaker, I recommend this book as an example of modern Armenian poetry and an introduction to Armenian history.