An excerpt from

Retreat without Song

by Shahan Shahnour (1903-1974)

Translated by Shant Norashkharian from the original Armenian which was reprinted in Beirut, Lebanon, by Sevan Publishing House in 1981. The original was written from November 1927 to January 1929, and published in the Parisian Haratch daily newspaper from May 28 to September 3, 1929.


Excerpt No.1 pages (98-106)

Time separated them from each other. In the first few months after the calamity, these young men, still mostly children, who were thrown on the sidewalks of Paris, squeezed against each other and huddled together with great love and caring. These Armenian boys who had been snatched from their birthplaces, families, futures, had in those days leaned against each other, having lost their way, until some time passed for them to start taking some steps, until the moustaches grew. The rolling years, however, gradually separated them from each other. The characters which were being formed got farther apart from the blowing winds of dividing roads, and the difficulty of earning a living, the demands of life, and specially that fast-moving life which blew on this weak group and scattered them; the feathers flew. Marianne with her irresistible charm approached every single one of them, and by attracting them took them here and there. Here or there, the victor was always the same; always the same Nenette, the grand daughter of the Manons, Ninons, Nanans. Some married, many lived with girlfriends, the Armenian church became empty, the number of letters which were sent became less, and of course, far away, mothers cried.

Now only small groups are left, composed of true, sincere friends, in the union of whose souls glimmers the Armenianness, discolored from the downward vortex of fading away. It glimmers until it dies.

So it was that kind of a group that these five had formed, whose meeting today was almost certainly the last. The last, because Misak will leave. Even while earning his daily living, he attended with great sacrifices the classes of the dental school and was finally able to receive his diploma. And now he was leaving to Marseilles to work with his uncle who was a shoemaker there. Also Peter was leaving. When, where, to do what? Not one explanation. Peter of course could not lower himself by confessing, even to his friends, that he was running after Nenette. Yes, from the day after the event Peter had been waiting, with gradually increasing impatience, Nenette's approaching footsteps, Nenette's approaching fragrance. He waited, waited throbbing, suffering, with love, but she did not come, she did not return. And gradually his missing her, which in the absence of that blonde head was taking more form, color and fragrance, easily spread defenseless thoughts. Therefore, the enlarged and exaggerated contemplations, by getting farther to serve a second purpose, left the young man alone with himself, with his love, with his beloved Nenette. Now his energy is exhausted, his pride is exhausted, and he will run after her increasing warmth. What would they do? Hratch knows how to cook Eastern dishes very well, with a lot of grease, a few franks, silly jokes. Really, in this two-room apartment of his everything shouts the absence of a woman, but being a man, he had been unusually tidy in preparing the dinner table which now had the appearance of a pile of ruins. Dishes, leftover foods, desserts mixed together, half-full glasses, torn pieces of bread and on the floor, bottles of wine rolling under the feet.

They ate, became full, drank, became satiated. The bodies were already poised around the table, the chairs rumbled and the cigarette smoke was rising. Every time when they gathered together like that in Hratch's room, first they talked about letters received from home, and about work, they told each other stories about girls, love affairs, and then argued for a long time about the latest crimes and trials which had taken place in Paris, to end them all with songs. The song which followed the first glasses of wine was: 'I loved a pair of eyes', and that muffled chorus ended with 'Her Yer Karanlek'. Now they are silent. It's Souren who will speak. His eyes which had become smaller were shining in an unusual way, and the way he had his fingers buried in his hair betrayed his state. Among the five he was the young man with the highest intellect. His friends had a certain awe and admiration for his large intellectual supply, which seemed to rule over those boys' eyes with its hidden knowledge. He was destined to become a perfect writer, but one who does not write because he reads and he smiles. He very rarely expresses himself in this company, where he comes to satisfy a neighborly feeling different from intellectual relations. But the wine seemed to have made him weaker and it gave a surprising sincerity to his voice. He let his thoughts out freely, unbridled, gave them thrust, accelerated them and let them become more powerful and accented by the heat. Souren stared at Peter in an oblique way and said:

"And you didn't turn out to be a man, pooh...! Photographer, photographer...! Not worth a dime. We have had photographers in every country and we have good photographers, masters of forms, but where is the essential, the highest, the beautiful? You are the perfect embodiment of the Armenian nation. The Armenians have good painters, but no art; good actors but no playwriting; passengers who don't know about getting tired, never a captain; The Armenians have splendid poets, but no literature; gods, but no mythology. saintly revolutionaries, but no revolution; the Armenians have had freedoms, but never independence."

Then after emptying the wine glass with one gulp he continued quickly without drying his lips:

"The Armenian is sterile, infertile, fruitless. The Armenian is hollow, rotten, empty, vain.

He has no right to live, because he was not born.

Beoh! One day perhaps he will be born, and with a different color than what we had expected; red, yellow or black. But we, this arm of the Armenian nation, are condemned to be lost.

We are not born. Boy, a cocktail!"

They filled the glass and it got empty.

"I tell you, I am sure I will be understood, because you all have had an unfortunate love in the past.

A lover, specially an unfortunate and sensitive lover, will unavoidably think of death at least once. He will want to roll under the feet of his lover, to fall struck by death in her arms, to become vitalized. He will want to see and enjoy that indifferent girl's sorrow and grief. With what satisfaction he will follow her crying, begging, efforts of salvation...! But useless, useless; it is late now and the youth will die, his eyes will gradually close, he will go, will leave. And of course after his death as well he will enjoy the lover's pain. Of course.

And we, and I, have the same cruel delight; a limitless delight which is like rust-smelling drunkenness concocted with poisons. To settle a revenge, a most barbarian twisted desire to steal from another's pain a certain pleasure. Let her now cry, gnaw her teeth, twirl her hands, her, our nation, the Armenian! Let our leaders write, speak, shout at gatherings, scream, useless, useless. We shall assimilate, all of us, we shall be lost, all of us.

Like others we also abandoned our religion and faith during the war. The hope of an independence melted away, became lost with the surrendered city-fortress. And now our greatest and most fundamental pillar is under attack, the family. The Armenian girl who was essential to our blood, in spite of her ugliness, her dry pride and her reluctance of immediately mothering and becoming old, remained far away, remained abandoned. These are advantages for others, while a young man...

That young man saw the French girl, the German, the Italian, the Greek, the Russian, one day he sucked the fragrance of one, another day another's, one night he stayed at one hotel, another morning he came down different stairs, he was loved a few times until one day he loved as well, by closing a door behind him.

Now the Armenian girl appears in his memory only with two thick legs and a little mustache.

What's the use! What's the use!

It is better to assimilate, rather than to live without the seal of identity.

They are eunuchs, all our fathers; they have been unable to carve anything on the flesh, they have been unable to carve anything with flesh. There is a great lack in us that they must have known how to fill. We have not lived in Armenia; its land and air is unfamiliar to us; its traditions and customs have not forged us and it is natural that we would only love our birthplace, that is a foreign sky. The successive endless generations of our ancestors were not able to save us, to give us that great love. All pontification evaporates; true patriotism is longing - specially in our case - for a past, for a greatness, for examples.

I said, the idea of a homeland is most often a seal of identity.

The idea of a homeland is most often a hero.

The idea of a homeland is most often an epic.

In place of that big lie we have placed hypocrisy - our whole history is evidence.

In place of the hero we have placed cultivators - our empty nails are evidence.

In place of collective effort we have placed combatants - all our monasteries are evidence.

In place of the scream of the intestines we have placed tears - all our poets are evidence.

In place of the lust for gods we have placed brides - all our evangelists are evidence.

Instead of ideals we have placed molds - all our books are evidence.

Instead of struggle we have placed quarreling - all our parties are evidence.

Instead of that we have placed this! Our souls are evidence.

Assimilate, assimilate, assimilate! Boy, cocktail!"

They filled up and he drank. Misak said:

"It's good that you don't say those words to others; they would immediately call you a traitor, one who denies his nation, one who is badly influenced by foreign things. But that's not your fault; it is the wine's. I think it was a little too much..."

"Don't worry, he is not drunk", answered Peter with his best seriousness; "these are not the words of a drunk or a traitor. On the contrary, I wish that our boys understood all that was said and instead of barking or cursing, that they would finally comprehend the gravity of the ruling environment, would comprehend the calamity and think about its cure, if there is a way...if there is a way..."

Hratch, who by his nature was against making matters which were a little more elevated than usual any deeper, and was incapable of comprehending an exaggerated truth, started becoming upset. Being an Armenian he must have been used to such highly-accented sentences, black pessimism and the habit of judging a nation with a few sentences, but started getting upset and wanted to change the subject, reciting like a child:

"It's the pic-ture of Ar-men-ia, give some-thing and look, it's the pic-ture of Ar-men-ia, give some-thing and look, give some-thing and look; it's the pic-ture of Ar-men-ia..."

They made him shut up and Souren continued:

"It's the picture of Armenia, oh, look, give all you have, but look because none of you have seen it and will not see...how many, how many times have I had the temptation to form that great picture, just as it needs to be, just as I feel the need to do...to start our history from the edge, even just for me, even just for those like me.

As far back as I go with my thought, I see the Armenians always as they are today. Small, midget, deformed. Each has the irresistible adoration of his own leather, his own skin! Self-centered, selfish, ununited, shopkeeper...as far back as that day, when I don't know at which wedding, gold, silver, pearl poured down from the sky the whole day and the whole night; Boy, cocktail!

Wherever there is plenty of wealth, there is extreme destitution.

In whatever country there is deep destitution, there comes freedom.

And it became free, and it became free!

That king of ours who was called Apkar, Kakig or Khosrov, collected all the people in his country about whom it was said that they were intelligent, wise, clear-sighted and enlightened. He collected all and massacred them. The Armenians had many wise men; that's why he massacred them for days and days and days! Cocktail! Then he demanded that a National Song be composed. Everyone came and sang his song; he didn't like any of them, because being deaf he had the best understanding. Then he started endless wars, and he made his nation destitute, tormenting, bleeding for long, long years, until one day the great Song burst out of their mouths with the same magnificent, noblest syllables. That is with one syllable - 'WE'.

The next king who was called Apkar, Kakig or Khosrov, was blind. He used to live in our palace which was built on a high hill, in front of which the capital sank in the valley between the two mountain ranges. When dawn spread its apricot colors over the silhouette of the mountains, the valley became full of fog, a white, thick, impenetrable fog as if it was a sea of cotton. After coming down the marble stairs of the palace, the king hooked up the plow and entered that field. He opened long, long furrows through the fog, and with his forehead against the light of dawn, he sowed handful after handful in the snow furrows, inner voices and silence... for his children still sleeping below, handfuls of voices, inner voices and silence.

I said that he was blind; and in order to see well, during his whole reign he wore a little bird's pair of wings on his ears.

But his son who was called Apkar, Kakig or Khosrov, loved the Beautiful. He ordered his men to enter into every house, every place with a hearth to kill that family's most loved person, father, mother or son. The whole country was in mourning, splendid, sublime and noble. Cleanness, cleanness! Geniuses were born, people were born. That's how someone forgot the Armenian letters and that's how someone bit the queen's garter off with his teeth.

The king did not like his cities, their thumbs, the surrounding glances - he ordered that they immediately start repairs over the clouds.

He ordered that everyone shout his daily prayer into women's socks only.

He ordered that the caravans start moving faster as they approached a stop, so that no traveler may reach them.

He ordered that none of his subjects look at the butt of joyfulness.

He ordered that the ships travel from here to there by only opening the sail of the masts.

He ordered that people walk around with cork-screws and to never sit on stairs.

He ordered that women give birth to children, but the children not to fall on the mothers' knees when entering the world.

He ordered that no one start counting numbers from one hundred and one.

He ordered that no one place a cloud around the moon and no one cry or laugh.

But only, but only...boy, boy...!

You, Armenian bastard! You are the quickest to change to an animal if you were left without sorrow even for one day!"

...Boy, boy, cocktail!"

After a long period of contemplation, Misak said:

"Souren, you must write the things you said; you must seriously work and produce. A little while ago you were blaming Peter, but you are also of the same blood. Don't remain 'infertile, fruitless'. Why do you continue thinking like others that the effort you invest will not serve anything, it is useless and it will only be a simple waste. Don't be so sensitive and don't be drained of your energy because of the opinion of a few fools, don't be hopeless! Don't look for the opinions of the Armenians, specially in the papers and think that perhaps some day..."

He fell silent, however, understanding from the glance Souren was throwing at him that his thinking was wrong. And Hratch, who had not understood, yelled happily:

"Eh, that will be wonderful! And we shall name it "How our nation's crown was lost"...

"Keep quiet! When the subject is not on lovemaking, you have no opinion."

"What did you say, my dear?"

"Of course, don't you understand that he wants to say the opposite? That nothing will be lost anymore, because there is woman and love, and nakedness and silence..."

Souren who had started to smile with that dark smile, to push the subject aside, said:

"The ship on which there is the adoration of the woman does not get lost even if it sank."

Encouraged by this statement, Hratch started his refrain again, with the same kindergarten accent:

"It's the pic-ture of Ar-men-ia, give some-thing and look, it's the pic-ture of Ar-men-ia, give some-thing and look..."

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