Author’s note: Having written this essay just before the Artsakh War, my goal was to write about these films and stories as a way to connect our past to our future in a forward thinking way. Afterwards, I thought it a futile endeavor to present it without altering it or writing about anything other than the tragedy that befell our nation. Upon thinking about how valiantly the 18 year-old soldier responded to his or her calling, it was a resounding response to the question raised about fathers and sons in my mind. It inspired me to reconsider submitting it without changing a word. It is as it was intended to be read before the war.
When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather,
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians
When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth,
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians
This excerpt is from Diana Der Hovanessian’s poem Shifting the Sun, which features a thematic motif that repeats itself with Canadians, French, Indians, Russians, etc. Her poems often repeat themes familiar to the collective Armenian psyche which are relevant politically and existentially. The beauty in this revelation is the clarity in its structure. When read tediously, each line resonates further until it concludes with this final stanza: When your father dies, say the Armenians/your sun shifts forever/And you walk in his light.
The clichéd adage about the journey and not the destination, in form and content, is at the heart of this poem. There is a sense of carrying your baggage forward (good and bad) that comes to coexist with nostalgia for the father/child relationship. Symbolizing the patriarch as well as an entire Armenian people carrying the burden of a tragic past while living through modernity with its own share of complexities, the father’s story becomes our own in the end. This essay will focus on Henrik Malyan’s 1972 film Hayrik and compare it with several of William Saroyan’s short stories from My Name is Aram and the stand alone Pheasant Hunter. We will see through the lens of the father that we need not choose between reliving the past and completely forgetting it. To navigate through the push and pull of generations in contemporary life, this essay will look to these stories from yesteryear to show us that it is better to look to the future by nurturing the past with a critical eye.
No single generation of any group of people, including Armenians, are immune from leaving the residue of their misfortunes and missteps onto the shoulders of the generations that follow. While the world deals with the COVID crisis, many believe that there is some measurable way we can evaluate the collapse of our economy and the suffering that will undoubtedly result from it versus the immediate reality of an older population heavily affected by the virus and all of the unknown factors tethered to that reality. There is an unspoken generational conflict inherently brewing in this false dichotomy. This is in addition to an already existing narrative dominating our daily lives which says nothing is off limits from a deconstruction based on the growing generational gap; inflation, the unsteady housing market, the lack of employment and a livable wage, the widening of the wealth gap, social security, etc. We are constantly reminded of the burdens left behind from the Boomers to the GenX’ers, who carry over those issues to the Millennials, GenZ’ers, ad infinitum. It reminds one of the old mythic story and Greek King, Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to a lifetime of pushing a boulder uphill, only for it to come down again when it reached the top where he will start anew.
Although the complex father figure and his shadow roaming above us cannot be dwindled down to a mere few words, it is worth synthesizing what the father ultimately represents if not a primer on responsibility, followed by a guide towards independence and honorably maneuvering through life, and finally, the ability to pass it on to the next generation with love and humility. If we expand Der Hovanessian’s poem from the personal to the entire Armenian people and their relationship to their previous and subsequent generations and all of the baggage therein, it becomes akin to a kind of tragic pride when your “sun shifts forever and you walk in his light.” To clarify, it is not tragic at all. Similar to Camus’ version of Sisyphus where he imagines the Greek king as one who understands the absurdity and futility in his task and continues to push the boulder anyway, the kind of tragic pride I’m referring to presupposes an unapologetic hopefulness in its continuity. Saroyan’s Pheasant Hunter and Malyan’s Hayrik both share this kind of hopefulness.
Produced nearly 50 years ago, Hayrik is a gem of a movie that is just as relevant and revolutionary today as it ever was (although I suspect Malyan might not have described it that way). Hovsep Manukyan, played by the legendary actor Mher Mkrtchyan, is a construction worker stuck literally and figuratively between two generations when his father Poghos, the patriarch, arrives to live with his family. Hovsep struggles with advising his kids (six boys and one girl) and guiding them through an ever changing external world, which is itself stuck between a Soviet cronyism and a developing modernity that welcomes jazz and the sexual revolution.
It’s worth noting that there is a short and sweet adapted Armenian film version of Pheasant Hunter, where Saroyan’s Michael Maloney (Mesrop in the film version) finds himself at an impasse. He refuses to buy his trigger happy son Mayo (Hayk in the film version) a hunting rifle but also doesn’t want to stifle his coming of age desire and a possible life-gaining experience. When Michael finally concedes, his wife asks him why he had a sudden change of heart since he was against buying the rifle for so long.
In Saroyan’s version of the short story, Michael explains, “It’s because while I was preaching to him at the table, something began to happen. It was as if my own father were preaching to me 30 years ago.” He goes on to say, “…and I didn’t get the gun…until almost five years later, when it didn’t mean very much to me anymore.” He then explains that he thought perhaps he should do for his son what his father had not done for him. When Mrs. Maloney asks if he and his son are alike, he answers, “Very much alike.”
In Hayrik, Grandpa Poghos, played with the comic brilliance of Azat Sherents, berates Hovsep endlessly, reminding him repeatedly of the superiority of his generation over the subsequent younger ones. When Hovsep comes home late one day, he is greeted by his father and wife, accusing him of having an extramarital affair. Hovsep drunkenly explains that he was with his Russian friend and lost track of time. Poghos chastises him, “Don’t be too proud of your family…you are merely six kids,” insinuating his own family, and the older generation by default, was much more virile. The juxtaposition of that tension coupled with Hovsep’s own struggles as a father exists from the very first scene when Poghos Grandpa sings what he claims is a lost song from his forefathers. The scene then segues into the opening credits where a chaotic modern day Armenia with people hustling to and from work and young girls in summer dresses is showcased in a fast-paced visual montage of high rises and automobiles under the cool sounds of the saxophone and modern day jazz.
Early on, when Poghos Grandpa is transitioning into city life, he hangs a picture of his ancestors on the wall where three men with rifles wearing bullets across their chests stare back at the viewer. The entire family calmly listens as their grandfather explains how the men in the photograph were all “bandits and brave men.” It’s clear from their reaction that the story is more myth than reality. There is a sense that the entire family is in on the joke. Their grandfather has artificially ballooned his ego with an exaggerated sense of heritage and pride. Yet, they are generous enough to keep from calling him out on it, optioning to playfully tease him instead. When he sings his ancestors’ lost song, there is a magical quality in their silence, not just because the song is beautiful, but because it doesn’t matter if his sense of heritage is a figment of his imagination. In an instant, the generational gap is blown to pieces because of their willingness to appease him. In doing so, they might just be able to keep a modicum of their own heritage, even while it’s layered in half truths and exaggerated stories.
Old Country Advice to the American Traveler is a short story from Saroyan’s collection My Name is Aram, which shares a similar theme with Hayrik in that respect. Read as an allegory, the narrator tells an old story of his uncle Melik, who was about to travel cross country on a train from Fresno to New York when his uncle Garo, “paid him a visit and told him about the dangers of traveling.” Needless to say, uncles and fathers share similar roles within traditional hierarchical structures. Many Armenians might have a shared experience with Melik when Garo’s attempt at teaching independence comes with warning signs that might scare anyone from ever traveling at all. Uncle Garo advises him to tuck away his money and be wary of all people he might meet on the train who will offer him a cigarette and a game of cards. He warns of the women he will meet and tells Melik to keenly find ways to opt out of those situations because the people offering him a cigarette and a game of cards are trying to game him while women striking up conversations might be prostitutes. As Melik embarks on his journey, he discovers that there is no one offering him a cigarette or a game of cards and there are no women eager to strike up any conversations. The story takes an interesting turn when on, “The second day he himself offered another young man a cigarette and which the other young man accepted. In the diner, my uncle went out of his way to sit at a table with a young lady. He started a poker game with a smoker, and long before the train ever got to New York my uncle knew everybody aboard the train and everybody knew him…the journey was a pleasant one.” Upon returning, Garo asks him, “Did you follow my instructions? Yes sir, my uncle said. The old man looked away in peace. I am pleased that someone has profited from my experience.” It may seem as though the younger man lied to his uncle. It may also be that Melik really did profit from his uncle’s experience and learned to live life and take risks instead of living in fear like Garo. In other words, there can be a nurturing of the past experience with the future in mind.
Where Hovsep often excels is teaching his children the importance of responsibility and honor. Early in the film, one of the younger sons Meruzhan is being followed by a love interest when he turns around and rudely berates her. Upon seeing this from the balcony, Hovsep invites Meruzhan for a chat and tells him that this is no way to treat a woman that loves him. Hovsep advises that a woman should be treated like a delicate bird to which Meruzhan replies, “those times are gone. Now you must maintain distance (with the opposite sex) because if allowed to get close, she won’t love me anymore.” Here again we see the clash of generations where Hovsep angrily retorts with “You just love her like a man! Shallow people keep distance so that their emptiness is not revealed. How can anyone be afraid of intimacy?!” he exclaims rhetorically. In other words, to love completely is to take responsibility.
When Levon falls in love with Maya and impregnates her, his wily coworker Andrik, who has eyes on her himself, chastises Levon and says he should have opted to womanize her instead. “I told you not to get involved too deeply,” he tells Levon. This is Soviet Armenia and the societal pressures coupled with the burden of having a child out of wedlock is too much to bear for Levon. Hovsep finds out about Levon’s subsequent inability to act and attempts to have the obviously difficult father-son conversation at the nearby park, as is evident in the hilariously uncomfortable scene where Hovsep prefers whistling instead of asking the tough questions. Shortly after, Levon disappears and after an entire day searching for him proves to be fruitless, Hovsep arrives home extremely tired and collapses in bed. His anxiety manifests itself in a dream where he is a circus leader conducting his entire family, finally united in the middle of the ring, including an already-born baby and his son serving in the military, singing Grandpa Poghos’ lost song in unison.
Because Levon’s brothers know he loves Maya, they advise him to do what is right and not care about what Andrik, and by extension, society-at-large has to say about his predicament. Hovsep takes matters in his own hands and goes to the girls’ dormitory to try and convince Maya to come home to Levon. In one of the many wonderful scenes in the film, Hovsep stands alongside other people on the street under the window of the maternity ward, as was custom in those days, anxiously waiting until Maya looks out of the window, confirming she has delivered her baby.
In Pheasant Hunter, Michael Maloney wants to teach his son by acting on his fatherly instincts. Yet, he makes the very difficult choice of doing just the opposite and allowing Mayo to go hunting on his own. When it gets dark and he hasn’t killed a single bird, Mayo begins to worry he won’t find his way back. Luckily, he finds a small store and a gasoline pump with an older man and his son still inside. Not only do they drive him back home, but they also buy Mayo a bird from the local Chinese restaurant and shoot a few bullets in it to convince his father that his hunting trip was successful. To Mayo’s surprise, he learns that his father has helped these two men a long time ago by loaning them money when they were in dire straits and they are now returning the favor.
Where Hovsep has to act in place of Levon’s inability to do so in Hayrik, indirectly teaching Levon about fatherhood and responsibility, Michael Maloney’s decision not to act has served Mayo an important lesson on the value of experience and respect for his father. Noteworthy in both of these stories is the fact that the fathers’ individual life experiences directly impact the way they interact with their subsequent generations. Resembling Mayo’s naivety, one of Saroyan’s short stories from My Name is Aram entitled, My Cousin Dikran, the Orator, shares a similar theme with an ironic twist. The narrator tells a story of a time when oration was the highest regarded skill in this particularly small Armenian-American community. A young man’s oratory skills would bring much pride to his family. Ironically, the Garoghlanian’s grandfather was the only person in town who thought very little of orators and bookish men just as his own family had produced their own little orator, Dikran. One day, Dikran gave an amazing speech about how “World War I had not been fought in vain.” His grandfather congratulated him for the flawless speech and then said, “A statement as large and as beautiful at that deserves to only come from the lips of a boy of 11 – from one who believes what he is saying. From a grown man, I must tell you, the horror of that remark would be just a little too much for me to endure.” Like Michael Maloney, the old man would rather leave the boy independent of his own thought and ignorance because there are things that one must only learn through experience.
Of course, independence and the value of experience are not always enough. When Hovsep’s wife chastises him for failing to bribe the school official so that his son Arno gets into college, Hovsep is stuck in an ethical quandary. He has always refused to offer bribes but understands that there is no other way. Sacrificing his own values, Hovsep gathers up the courage and invites the school official to go up to the aerial tramway, where the bribe is supposed to take place. When they embark on their walk up to the tramway, he can’t bring himself to go through with it, opting to lead the official on a wild goose chase and go for miles until the official finally gives up. It might appear that fathers are often helpless when they are needed the most and it may even be true at times. As was noted early on however, generational conflicts will not go away as surely as fathers will make mistakes and leave it for their children to clean up after them. However, what is important is that there is an attempt to pass on some kind of an ethical code, whether directly like Hovsep, or indirectly like Michael Maloney.
Before Poghos Grandpa dies, he gets invited to a show on television and sings his family’s lost song, showing us once and for all that there are truths in exaggerations that are worth preserving. Now a familiar song to all Armenians, “Yeraz Im Yerkir Hayreni,” these lines in the song most clearly resonate the symbolism behind the father and child relationship for keeping the homeland itself intact.
Իմ պապերն են քեզ շահել,
Im papernen qez shahel,
My ancestors have won you
Իմ եղբայրքն են քեզ պահել,
Im yeghbayrnen qez pahel,
My brothers have held on to you
Քոնն են որդիքն իմ ջահել,
konen vortikn im jahel,
My young children are yours
In the final scene, Hovsep literally carries his youngest on his shoulder as the boy asks him, “Father, why am I sitting on your shoulder?” to which Hovsep answers, “Someone will sit on your shoulder too.” The boy wants to know why everyone was shaking hands with them at the funeral. Hovsep explains they were offering condolences because Poghos Grandpa was from their family. “Has Grandpa ever had a different family?” he asks. “Yes, when he was younger,” Hovsep affirms. “Will I have another family too?” the boy continues with his line of questioning.
It’s the perfect ending in a film about fathers and sons in which we see the small, everyday life lessons that we often neglect to remember. Just like Der Hovannesian’s poem implies there is an extension from the father to all of the Armenian people, when the boy asks Hovsep if the neighbor Vardan was part of Poghos Grandpa’s family too, Hovsep quickly answers, “yes.”
“What about the ticket seller who doesn’t like me?”
“Him too,” says Hovsep.
The camera then cuts to the many different faces in the streets as they go about their business and we hear the boy asking,
Hovsep dutifully answers yes to both of those questions in the most Sisyphean, but also, most fatherly way.