‘The Godless Movie Theater’ Collection

This is the second book published by Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, an Armenian prose writer born in 1964. His first short story was published in 1980, at age 16. Since then, he has written in many genres and has worked across many locales and countries. His first collection of prose, ‘Square Cellar’, was published in 2012. The work comprises stories, essays and translations authored during the period from 1981 to 1992. In 2018, two of Ter-Gabrielyan’s books were published: ‘The Godless Movie Theater’ and ‘Hrant’. ‘Hrant’ is a fictionalized novel-memoir about the major Armenian prose writer Hrant Matevosyan, and revolves around Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan’s interactions with him in the 1980s and 1990s. ‘Hrant’ is set against the backdrop of Armenia and its culture during the times of ‘zastoy’ (stagnation), from the 1960s to the 1980s, and is presented from the perspective of a young aspiring author.

The Godless Movie Theater’ presents prose written by Ter-Gabrielyan between 2012 and 2017. It is a collection of short and long fiction stories and essays, and includes one ‘written film’ (as the author names it): a movie script, ‘The Godless Movie Theater’, the title of which is also that of the collection. Two of the works, the film script and a short story, ‘The Yatagan Syndrome’, are available on-line in English and in Russian.

Many of Ter-Gabrielyan’s stories contain elements of fantasy or science fiction, although they fit exclusively in neither genre. His topics include Armenia of the 20th century, the Soviet past, and the Armenia of today. Some of the works may be classified as ‘memory writing’, although they are fictionalized. His language is rich and at the same time picturesque. Many readers appreciate his dialogues, while others note the visual detail in his writing that lend his works a cinematic quality. His stories evolve in a dynamic manner; reflecting the dynamism of the plot, and of the inner psychological evolution of the heroes, presented through language that often resembles stream of consciousness. Ter-Gabrielyan invokes Hrant Matevossyan and William Faulkner as major influences, particularly in their narrative experimentations.

A leading Armenian esthetics and art specialist, Vardan Jaloyan, has characterized Ter-Gabrielan’s first book as pursuing ‘вненаходимость’ (‘absent-presentness’). This is a term invented by Mikhail Bakhtin to explain the phenomenon of an author’s need to self-define against the influence of the ‘Soviet condition’, and to transform literary work into an esthetic phenomenon. Being present and at the same time aloof, observing and not participating, according to Jaloyan, despite the difficulties of life in such a condition, is what Ter-Gabrielyan’s heroes do in their Soviet settings. They seek a justification for the Soviet system, to make their life tolerable, and are in search of examples and role models toward explaining how one stays human within an inhumane system. Clearly, that is what fostered Ter-Gabrielyan’s interest in the figure of Matevossyan. The ‘written film’, ‘The ‘Godless’ Movie Theater’, also can be characterized as the author’s search for such role models and justifications: exploring the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of maintaining humanity amid the inhumane conditions of the Stalinist era, by delving into stories of the author’s own family members.

In her analysis of ‘The ‘Godless’ Movie Theater’, a leading Armenian semiologist, Nouneh Dilanyan, notes the need for the reader to ‘go back and forth’ to follow the author’s complex style of combining past and present, and symbols from one episode with those in another. At the same time, she mentions that, due to this writing construct, the reader stays intimately with the author during her entire journey through the text. She also emphasizes the role of the ‘trace’ as a constituent symbol of Ter-Gabrielyan’s approach to the material that he presents in his prose. Indeed, the disappearing memory of the Stalinist past, that of Yerevan of the 1930s-1950s and the way its inhabitants either succumbed to the purges or resisted them, makes finding traces of the past crucial for today’s Armenia.

In a similar vein, discussing another of Ter-Gabrielyan’s stories from the same collection, ‘Inspection As It Is’, the philologist, editor and journalist Anjela Avagyan remarks on the author’s capacity to lead the reader to empathize with the hero. The reader walks alongside our hero through Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a city being ruined by corruption, and searches for traces of the past beauty and glory that are fast becoming victims of human greed and illiteracy. The reviewer characterizes the story as ‘tragic’, ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘heartfelt’. She praises the portrait of the main hero, Varos, as a reflective and ruminating personality, feeling totally desolate, immersed in endless monologue about ruination and loss.

In 2013, when the main Armenian on-line literary portal ‘Granish’ asked for permission to republish the first version of ‘Inspection As It Is’, it appeared under the ‘Poetry’ category, perhaps because of its unusual style: most of its sentences are separate paragraphs. A. Avagyan dwells on this quality of the narrative as well, trying to define it in opposition to the genius of the Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents’s long poem ‘The Dante-esque Myth’ which was written in 1918 and is a narration of Charents’s impressions from the First World War and the Genocide of the Armenians. According to Avagyan, ‘Inspection As It Is’ is not a ‘Dante-esque Myth’, but is ‘as tragic as that poem’.

Ter-Gabrielyan directly addresses the Armenian Genocide in ‘The Yatagan Syndrome’, whose title, in provocatively ‘in-your-face’, cavalier-like style, makes the reader wonder whether the usually nuanced author has decided to compose a story in a slogan-like mode. But, of course, the title is a ruse to catch the attention of the reader. In fact, as characterized by Tom de Waal, a non-fiction writer, journalist and researcher of the Caucasus, ‘The Yatagan Syndrome’, with its elements of science fiction, presents a ‘different and extraordinary’ view on the Genocide issue and is a ‘great read’.

Readers and reviewers also remark upon another distinctive quality of Ter-Gabrielyan’s prose: the synthesis of social-political minutiae of the ‘here-and-now’ with fiction that could have been written, seemingly, during any time period. This yields stories larger in scope and breadth than is typical for the short story genre. Tigran Paskevichyan, a poet and documentary film director, noted this quality when he suggested that ‘The Yatagan Syndrome’ could readily be expanded into a full-length novel from its original 15-page length.

Some readers and reviewers call this a ‘publicist’ thread within the writing of Ter-Gabrielyan. They note that much of the time this is done masterfully and enables the reader’s natural entry into the prose, as if into a daily news stream, with the reader suddenly happening upon a completely distinct world of artful fiction. Even works of apparently pure ‘magical realism’, such as the story ‘The Windy Cheese—the Yogurt Cheese’, have a clear, easily discernible reference to the realities of today, which in that work is the ruthless and ‘never-ending’ Nagorny Karabakh conflict. While that conflict is not directly discussed in the story, by depicting a hidden world in one of the conflict zones the author imagines an alternative view of a world without conflict. He upends the historical narrative and writes in a style approaching mockery about the ethnic and national self-identifications of the conflicting sides; these sides too easily accept the stereotypes that have been handed down to them, stereotypes intended to freeze the conflict in a state of hatred and animosity and in a seemingly antagonistic and unchangeable, rigidly crystallized structure of ‘two sides’.

Another defining feature of this collection of fiction is the hidden, and not-so-hidden, references to other literature, or what is termed ‘intertextuality’. When asked to give examples of this during a radio interview, the author pointed to the very first title and first phrase in the collection, and continued enumerating many such cases abundant in the work. Indeed, the title of the first story, ‘The Whirlwind of Hamlet’s Father’, contains an obvious Shakespearean allusion. There is indeed a Hamlet in the story, and a father, and a clear reason to invoke a whirlwind instead of a specter. The story, meanwhile, is about a little boy’s perception of his mother’s abortion, and is written against the backdrop of contemporary Armenia’s high rates of gender-based selective abortion.

When asked what ‘makes him tick’ and what his primary motives for prose writing have been, Ter-Gabrielyan has two answers: the reach and splendor of the Armenian language with which he has fallen in love since birth, and a very special approach to thinking and acting called the Methodology of Systemic Thought Activity—a framework that he has worked within since the late 1980s.

“Writing prose is the best way of feeling in charge and, at the same time, believing that one contributes to one’s culture and the world’s development,” says Ter-Gabrielyan. “When I write I get healthier, cleaner. But it is also a very complex task, particularly today, when there are so many accessible texts, the entire world of creativity is available both to the author and to the reader. So, it takes a special effort to decide what to write and what not to write, though it may happen that this effort is a simulacrum, and one can write only that which one’s organism and genes have predetermined. But using the Methodology of Systemic Thought Activity allows me to build an effect that I haven’t seen anywhere else done consciously – to have the issue looked upon from a variety of different angles, sometimes situated within the same phrase, and often in conflict, the angles denying or negating each other. Thus, if Brodsky would characterize Platonov’s prose as one which opens up absurdity in the very grammar of the human language, in my case I accept that absurdity not as a tragedy or the end of the world, but as a constructive condition, which may lead to discoveries. I believe myself as somebody who has overcome ‘the postmodern condition’. I am not extremely prolific, and I have yet an entire lifeworld surrounding me which should become prose, modified and cleansed by the treasures of the Armenian language. I will be thankful to God or destiny for a chance to produce more texts that would be loved by those who share with me my sanctifying attitude to the genre of prose.”


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15:22 April 17, 2019