A Book, Untitled
By Shushan Avagyan
Translated by Deanna Cachoian-Schanz
AWST Press, 2023
When one opens A Book, Untitled—Deanna Cachoian-Schanz’s English-language translation of «Գիրք-անվերնագիր» (Keerk-ahnvehrnahkeer), Shushan Avagyan’s 2006 experimental novel written in Eastern Armenian—one enters a wonderfully disorienting world populated by various fictional, literary, historical and contemporary figures who speak through postcards, poems, letters, conversations, drafts, redactions and dreams. Akin to what one character calls the “familiar, strange” experience of a diasporan hearing and seeing Yerevan and its residents, A Book, Untitled challenges us to revisit and reinvigorate the suppressed, forgotten or sanitized past. In Avagyan’s novel, lovingly rendered into English by Cachoian-Schanz, there are many benefits to uncomfortably encountering the past anew: figures from history are revived, multiple genres are reinterpreted, and language itself is re-formed.
In 26.5 chapters, Avagyan’s ambitious novel moves nonlinearly through the multiple timeframes of the novel’s four “authors”: a pair of historical figures (the early 20th-century Armenian writers, Shushanik Kurghinian and Zabel Yessayan) and a pair of contemporary figures (two 21st-century researchers discussing their efforts to find Kurghinian and Yessayan in the archive library of the Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan). Avagyan’s narrator, the “typist/writer/translator,” has been translating Kurghinian’s poems (as did Avagyan herself for I Want to Live: Poems of Shushanik Kurghinian, published in 2005 by AIWA Press), and her friend Lara has been researching Yessayan (as did Lara Aharonian for her and Talin Suciyan’s 2009 film Finding Zabel Yesayan). The contemporary pair discuss their difficulties in finding materials about either historical figure in the archive library, where what they encounter are “pages that have been torn out, burned, and destroyed by the critics.” As Cachoian-Schanz summarizes in her explanatory foreword to the novel, both historical figures were cruelly dismissed by their detractors: “Kurghinian is derided and forgotten; Yesayan is killed,” and their archival legacy is a censored mess. To counter this lacuna in the archive, Avagyan stages an imaginary meeting between Kurghinian and Yessayan in 1926. Rescuing this pair of historical figures from archival purgatory was revolutionary in 2006, the year that Avagyan wrote and distributed Keerk-Ahnvehrnahkeer. At that time, both Kurghinian and Yessayan were not as well known as they are today. Thanks to books like Avagyan’s, movies like Finding Zabel Yesayan and AIWA Press’ English-language translations of a book of Kurghinian’s poetry and a trio of Yessayan’s books, both Kurghinian and Yessayan are no longer unknown, unread and untranslated. And now, with Cachoian-Schanz’s translation of Avagyan’s novel for English-language contemporary fiction readers and scholars, Avagyan’s rescued historical figures can join their literary kin mentioned in A Book, Untitled: Virginia Woolf as reimagined by Michael Cunningham in The Hours and Bertha of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as reimagined by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea.
As Avagyan rescues historical figures in A Book, Untitled, she also frees genres from their calcified conventions. The novel that Avagyan writes is one that cuts, pastes and transforms letters from literary scholars, unsent postcards, biographies, song titles, odes to urban spaces, archival documents rife with redactions, and poetry and prose from Kurghinian and Yessayan. In bringing all these genres together in her novel and simultaneously mimicking their forms in her own prose, Avagyan does what her narrator surmises is the point of writing: “In literature, new ideas emerge mainly when old and familiar concepts are (trans)ferried from one form to another.” Avagyan’s transformations of genres and their conventions help us realize how texts are edited, censored, redacted and modified by writers, translators, editors, critics, archivists and even government officials. Further, in choosing to address the reader and admitting that “the typist/writer forgets to put quotation marks around cited words or sentences,” Avagyan’s narrator urges readers to realize that “quotation marks privatize words and make them someone else’s property. [. . .] The words belong neither to the typist/writer nor to you, reader.”
In Avagyan’s book, words are invitations to experiment and interpret; one of Avagyan’s major contributions to contemporary Armenian literature is her innovative use of language. She invents neologisms and breaks apart words to arrive at an essential meaning. In the hands of a less capable translator than Cachoian-Schanz, Avagyan’s innovations would have gone unnoticed. But with Cachoian-Schanz’s skillful and careful interpretation of the text, A Book, Untitled gains another writer, who modifies the Armenian-language original of four authors with the following line: “The book has four—or five?—authors who are as different as the seasons of the year.”
Readers seeking a challenging book worth the effort will love A Book, Untitled, Cachoian-Schanz’s translation of Avagyan’s first novel, Keerk-ahnvehrnahkeer.
Avagyan’s Eastern Armenian novel «Գիրք-անվերնագիր» (Keerk-ahnvehrnahkeer) can be purchased from Abril Books.
You can read excerpts from A Book, Untitled in Asymptote and WORDS without BORDERS before the entire volume is published in April 2023. A Book, Untitled is available for pre-order from AWST Press (US) and Tilted Axis Press (UK and worldwide).
Readers in the northeast can listen to a conversation between the reviewer and Deanna Cachoian-Schanz in person on March 29, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern at the Guild Hall of the Diocesan Center in New York City. The event is part of the “Literary Lights” series organized by the International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA), the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center.