A conversation with writer Levon Khechoyan
Levon Khechoyan, a novelist and short story writer, was born in 1955 in the village of Baralet in the Akhalkalak. His forefathers came from Erzurum, Western Armenia. Since 1987 has lived in the town of Hrazdan in the Kotayk province of Armenia. His first short story collection, The Frankincense Trees, was published in 1991. His short stories have been translated into Russian, Ukrainian, English, Spanish and German. In 1999 his novel Black Book, Weighty Bug was awarded the State Grand Prix (Golden Style) for Literature.
-Why don’t we see changes happening in Armenia? What are the reasons behind this?
-I believe that for significant changes to occur first the individual, and then the people and the nation must be ready. Any given individual, political party or government operates to the extent that it perceives the core of the national construct. The level of a people’s maturity, the ability to gaze at the complexities of the future, an analysis of past experience; these are the things that decide and define the borders of the history of nations. Many do not even know whether they in fact love their country or simply just live there. The word “homeland” has very deep connotations and is terribly solemn in its power.
There are such reminders in our midst about treasured losses from olden times till today, that I fear just to look back, no matter how much they cry out, in order not to be turned into stone like the well-known hero in fables. These beloved, absent reminders, burn our insides like heavy honey jam. After all this, the attempt, even if it is just a guess, should have taught us something. You know, right, what happens at the end of our ancient, polite tales? “Three apples fell from heaven; one for the teller, one for the listener, and one for the one who gives heed/ear.”
There is a great difference between the listener and one who gives heed. In other words, the one who gives heed learns the wisdom of the tale, the person who advances the values won by human experience. However, the giver of wisdom is one of the apples but it is from the harmonious unity of all three that the wisdom of the fable’s apple turns into the golden apple. It’s something similar to a national defect, falling down before a series of events, not walking straight but in a crooked fashion with developments.
The authorities also don’t lag behind. They really like to use those clubs against those who propose change. For example, there was such uproar about prices going up – gas, water electricity. And I’m not even talking about the hard life of the villagers in the border communities whose plight is getting worse by the day and who are losing their land.
The land doesn’t speak to the villagers anymore. Thus, we have villagers who have lost wisdom. And if democracy is in this state of affairs, where the heck will change come from? Both change and expectation are products of freedom.
-Are you saying that the system is the reason? How then can there be change in such a system?
-If I rely on historical examples of the past, in such cases where the country is in a crisis, the country convenes national councils. It’s the same today; there is a need for elections from bottom to the top. But here the question arises if the people and government are ready for such elections. I think not. All around us, nations are flourishing, green-red suns are rising anew, but we are spinning around in our own space. Our behavior is similar to a pepper – green, dark green long and narrow. However much it burns your tongue you struggle with yourself to take another bite.
-Can radical change come from above? Why not? Such a thing is possible.
-There are countries that have passed through similar stages as ours. Here too things are changing, but only to the extent that the ruling pyramid isn’t threatened. Significant change is almost impossible.
-Do you agree that certain groups, through their actions can impact on the authorities and demand change? Does it work like this?
-Periodically, a large segment of the population if not all, participates in developments of national import. They protest and hold demonstrations whether in favor of renovating the summer amphitheater at Moscow Cinema or against media slander and defamation draft legislation in the parliament aimed at restricting reporters. Look at the public reaction regarding the proposed changes to the “Radio and TV Law” or the idea of foreign language schools.
When the public is united and of one purpose, victories can be achieved. But the most important of all these issues is the language question. All of us, from babes to seniors, must understand one sacred thing – whoever isn’t a priest, whoever doesn’t know the ritual of language, will be branded taboo.
One will never dare approach them, especially those who come to the fore as a result of the initiative to open foreign language schools. They measure the Armenian language according to the level of Armenian they know. The greatest names of international linguistics, Armenian language specialists Markvart, Heinrich Hübschman and others, state that the Armenian language, in its translation capacities, is not inferior to the original.
The 5th century translation of the Bible of Mashtots, Sahak Partev and their students is testament to this. Do we need further proof? We did not conceive our language. It existed before it took on a written form; it was given to us by God. The institutions of the church and government were created by the nation as a form of self-defense. It is the language that, flowing through the blood of the people, brightly blazes as their soul.
-What, in your opinion, would spur a public rebellion? Is such a scenario possible?
-I am no politician; I see things from a writer’s perspective. I speak more from a position of conscience. A great segment of the populace goes hungry. The government should step inside the kitchens of everyday folk. The government must help. The chain of revolt has been severed. Are the people in fact ready? Do they want to be liberated or are they cowered? The question has another side to it. Will the nation withstand another such disturbance? The souls of ten people killed on March 1st haven’t found peace and still roam the streets of Yerevan.
-I have always thought that the reason for all this is the outward migration of people. The most active segments of the populace are leaving Armenia. The core energy is dissipating and change cannot occur in a country so emptied.
-I believe it’s the totality of the nation-state that gives birth to the national psychology, political attitudes and direction. The exodus is emaciating the country, especially the emigration of the young intellectuals and women. What has always horrified and stung me is the fact that the motherhood gene pool of our women and the strength of our male intellectuals’ matrix goes to the service of our enemy.
These two extremely important values aren’t protected on a state level. It is possible to think that this too is policy. There is no work here. The number of the poor, those who need clothes and food, those who protest, is great. The more people leave, the easier it will be to control those who stay behind.
Then too, those who leave will be sending back remittances in foreign currency to those left behind. Such an approach is equivalent to turning a blind eye on the important question of national security.
One of my friends says that an Armenian in the homeland cannot live peacefully; that Armenians have always left Armenia. We also have a philosophy where those who leave subconsciously try to assuage their feeling of guilt. However close to reality it is, I can never justify such a concept. It’s sick and vain when you think about it. “It’s always been like this.
They have always left the country. You have no place here.” I am convinced that a person flourishes in the homeland; they fill the oil jars and granaries, have kids, and spur the economy on. Make your homeland flourish and see if you have a place here or not. Then see if your countrymen weeping on foreign shores will return or not. T
o state that an Armenian cannot live in the homeland is akin to blasphemy, and sacrilege. It’s a call to suicide. So tell me where can an Armenian live? Wasn’t it in the depths of these mountains, from ancient times, that Armenians as masters of wisdom, lived and survived? The key to this doesn’t lie in our intellect but in our instinct. How is it that the Turk and Georgian can happily live in their countries, but not us in ours? It’s up to the government to work with a sense of conscience so that all have a place here.
How is it that 6-7% live in the lap of luxury while the rest survive on bread and water. To our shame, there are those who must comb through garbage cans for a scrap of food. How is it that the Jews do all in their power to see to it that the nation doesn’t spawn a shoe-maker, a cleaning attendant or a beggar?
-It seems to me that Armenians, as a people, are not willing to fight for their rights.
-No, I disagree. I saw how they fought in the war and how they fell in defense of their homeland, hearth and children. How they fought to liberate the land of their ancestors. Let me again mention the name of political prisoner Sasun Mikayelyan and how he headed the unit through the hell of battle in the name of the homeland. It’s easy to speak of war but it’s another thing to go into battle against modern military equipment and not piss blood. The significance of the land is given to those who understand. Sasun’s case hasn’t been resolved. I don’t care how many years he was sentenced to – 8, 10 or for life. There will always be someone today, and two tomorrow, that will demand accountability.
-We have again started to talk of war, of returning lands. Where are the guys you speak of?
-That’s right. No matter how much the OSCE, U.S., Russia and the rest try to avert warfare, the threat always exists. What I most fear is the age-old Turkish tradition of breaking promises rather than believing in any optimistic hopes. For the people to be ready for war, first, all 15 political prisoners should be released. Then we must address the downtrodden people who have no sense of inner pride. Such people have never been the creators of victory.
Only people with a sense of identity and conscience and an honorable government can wage war in the name of the homeland. As to the question of returning lands, one must ask the people, for it was the sacrifice of their best and brightest children that these lands were liberated. Do the people agree or not? A veritable miracle happened at the end of the 20th century. A small but important part of Armenia, Artsakh, where the people still clung to their identity, was liberated from the Azeri yoke.
-What about the state of the youth? What role models do they need?
-The answer to this question is complex and assumes a degree of responsibility. Each epoch brings with it its values to be extolled. Looking into the depths of history, I would say that the concept of the ‘homeland’ remains the most virtuous ideal for humanity as a whole. The young people and the government are linked by the umbilical cord. Any disturbance experienced by the government reverberates with the youth.
On my infrequent trips to various meetings, I have witnessed that young people feel the pain of the nation. I believe that, first of all, we must be able to create professional employment for them with steady wages and to assist them with housing. All the basic things their European counterparts enjoy. Let me tell you of something amazing I witnessed in the German city of Hanover. On the train, a German girl wanted to rest her feet on the opposite bench.
She first took off her jacket and placed it on the bench before resting her feet. This is what’s desirable, a sense of patriotism and love of country - When you value the train, a symbol of your homeland, more than the jacket on your back.