Bridges: Remembering Axel Bakunts
By Vahan Ishkhanyan
ArmeniaNow reporterThis year marks the 70th anniversary of the peak of Stalin’s repressions, the year of 1937, when numerous intellectuals, among them writers Axel Bakunts, Yeghishe Charents, Vahan Totovents, were killed in prisons. During the year ArmeniaNow will refer to that violence. The feature that follows is dedicated to Axel Bakunts, who was the first among Armenian writers to be arrested (1936) and executed by shooting a year later.
Zangezur and Ohio. Opposite sides of the globe. Different worlds. Different people.
I felt the connection, though, of two elderly men in writers’ texts, which almost identically repeat each other.
Uncle Dilan and Francesca, at the decline of their lives, one in the 20s of last century, in the village of Zeyva of the Kapan region (a literary critic supposes), the other 80 years later, in 1987, on a farm near Winterset, revisit the only moment of their life that they lived, the love instant that imparted sense to life and catch the eyes of the two writers among millions.
Dilan is the character in Axel Bakunts’ “Pheasant”. Francesca is the character in Robert James Waller’s novel “The Bridges of Madison County” whose role in the screened version of the novel is played by Meryl Streep. Both are not fictional characters. One is a six-page story that is known only to Armenian readers and the other is a 190-page bestseller that due to the movie got a wider international reputation. The author of one ended up executed for his stories, and to the other the novel brought wealth and fame.
The characters are alike, the fates of the authors are different.
On her birthday, in the autumn of 1987, 67-year-old Francesca approached the gate of her house and recollected four summer days of 1965, 22 years before, when National Geographic photographer Robert visited their area to photograph covered bridges. The setting has not changed, now, like on that day, “the old fence still surrounds the pasture”. Those were hot summer days, her husband and children had gone to the fair, she was at home alone, sitting on the stairs and suddenly a car pulled over and he, Robert, went out and asked for directions to the bridge. A love story began and for four days they lived the happiest days of their lives and never met again:
“She takes brandy to the kitchen and stands near the doors, looking at the place where they used to stand for some time… her memories came back and she had such a strong feeling that even now, so many years later, she could not release it more often than once a year.”
Old uncle Dilan, too, on an autumn day, when “a bright sadness descended upon desolate ravines, yellow-red forest and mowed fields”, sitting under the wall of a wine-press, on a dry walnut tree branch re-lives the happiest day of his life – the situations repeat themselves, it was a hot summer day, in the wine-press he was stamping grapes with his feet, when a creaking door to the garden opened and his love, Sona, went in.
They used to be childhood friends and loved each other, but “one day Sona entered the large house of the neighbor” as a bride. After marriage Sona suddenly visited Dilan in the wine-press where “as a reed her young body was shaken and her back was bent.”
The dull village life, and an episode giving value to that life, “a butterfly’s life”.
Francesca remembers Robert’s sweaty shirt that would stick to his back, uncle Dilan remembers how Sona was sweating in the sun and “from the sweat her shirt stuck to her breast.”
After Robert’s death, Francesca received his letter in which Robert compared himself with a Canadian gander constantly seeking a mate.
Uncle Dilan compares Sona with a pheasant which he shoots during a hunt and cannot catch: “Sona was like a pheasant, her eyes were black grapes… Sona flew like a pheasant, leaving sorrow and bitter memories in her wake.”
Is that really so? Do love moments happen in summer, are remembered in autumn and are like a bird?
Robert’s ashes were scattered near the pink bridge of Madison where Francesca helped him to install his photography equipment. A year after the incident in the wine-press Sona died during child labor. In front of uncle Dilan’s wine-press is a cemetery where “on Sona’s tombstone there is moss, the letters long ago were filled with earth.”
Uncle Dilan revisits the only day of his life in his probably last autumn: “Winter will set in soon and who knows will he still be opening the door of the garden next spring, or someone else will?”
Francesca died a year later and her ashes, according to her will, were scattered on the pink bridge of Madison.
Years ago I saw “The Bridges of Madison County” movie and commonality with Bakunts’ “Pheasant” brought to another commonality – between Bakunts and Meryl Streep, who both, one writer, the other an actress, mainly embodied ordinary people not distinguished with anything in life. Uncle Dilan and Francesca are ordinary villagers, people discovered by Bakunts and Streep. They are not heroes like many, they sacrifice their happiness in the name of others. It is a sacrifice that does not turn into heroism and only leaves sadness. Isn’t a world based on sacrificed happiness sad?
I was looking for a film to watch it again; I was looking for it at rental points in Yerevan, in film shops. It was good that I didn’t find it, because I found the 190-page book on the internet. I read it within a day. Although it was impossible to express in the novel the smile of Meryl Streep after four days spent with Robert when she greets her husband and children, in which there is both the loss of love and dedication to family, nevertheless, as often, the film yields to the richer and more moving novel.
In 1994, I worked at the “Yerkir Nairi” newspaper, an Armenian intellectual from St. Petersburg, an expert in literature, came. He said there were no valuable works in Armenian literature. I gave the name of Bakunts. He is old-fashioned, he said, who did not have a value in his time either. He was a second-class writer. A year later the Bridges of Madison County movie went on screens. When I saw it, I at once remembered “Pheasant” and our conversation.
Why is it old-fashioned?
If we bluntly divide Armenian writers and art critics into two groups, we will get two armies of “truth”: one part is the “nationals” who deny the penetration of western and eastern cultures, as they consider that they threaten our national culture. The other part lives only by the reality of the west and cannot notice the reality surrounding them and create art under the influence of “foreign reality”, which becomes the “second hand” of the western one.
Doesn’t the dependence on the achievements of the western creative thought deprive artists or art students of the ability to notice, will the filtered view allow to see the diversity of life, inner conflicts of an unknown non-European? And Bakunts becomes old-fashioned for them (what’s of it that an old man had a love affair when he was young, so what?), the morals and manners described by him seem to be overcome by a “European” living in a western reality. And suddenly it turns out that the book written 70 years later than Bakunts’ “Pheasant” on the same “old-fashioned” theme in the prestigious west had millions of readers.
Perhaps many social obstacles that kept a person in family chains have disappeared or become mitigated in the West now (Waller writers that 24 years later morals of life in Ohio became milder). But wasn’t the feeling of love subjected to inflation along with the removal of obstacles, which is being accentuated and becomes noticeable when it confronts obstacles? Maybe thanks to the liberated morality the perception of love changes as well, revalued? But this is a different subject. Waller writes at the beginning of his book that after getting acquainted with the material of the novel he began to treat with less cynicism what is called human relations.
Social obstacles (truths) do not allow uncle Dilan and Francesca to be with their loved ones.
Francesca fails to overcome the sense of responsibility and leave with Robert: “I bear damned responsibility before Richard (husband) and my children: my departure, my leaving would be a heavy blow for Richard.”
Dilan cannot either continue or legitimize his love affair, in the wine-press Sona constantly warns him: “Someone will come to the orchard, Dilan.” They are once and forever separated by their family bonds.
In both works the characters are victims of social power. But in Bakunts’ story there is also the second power (truth) – the state. Dilan cannot catch his game bird, the pheasant: “His fingers touched yellow quills, but the wounded pheasant flapped and flew up.” The dog of the forester interfered. The forester also shot at the pheasant, and became angry that uncle Dilan stole his hit game and beat him with a whip: “Cutting the air, the whip hit uncle Dilan’s shoulder.” The forester symbolizes the state power.
The society takes Sona away from him, and the state takes the pheasant. In many works by Bakunts the state invades the village and disturbs the village peace, destroys a villager’s peace, sometimes taking his belongings, sometimes his close relative, and sometimes even his life.
And so it was one day in 1937 when the state invaded Bakunts’ life. Cheka (special commission, predecessor of KGB) took him and executed by shooting. Bakunts’ fans ask: why didn’t he write novels? From his house among other things Cheka confiscated his three novels, which according to the art critic, were completed. They took it and destroyed. Only bits and pieces remain from the novels. They were published in the third volume of Bakunts’ “Complete Works”.
Doesn’t the pheasant bird become the symbol of creative target the writer was not “supposed” to notice and the state power bereaved him of?
One military man told that before being gunned down in the Zangu ravine, Bakunts asked the firing squad for a cigarette, he smoked it to the end, holding the remaining part with sticks to smoke it too, to prolong his half-lived life with a puff.
Memories repeat in both works, the fates of their authors are different. One was free from any pressure of state authorities and censorship and in 1992, at the age of 52, published “The Bridges of Madison County” that brought him fame and riches. The other, at the age of 28, in 1927, published “Pheasant”, a work never allowed to become of a novel size, and became a victim of the “truth” at the age of 38 - shot dead, getting only the opportunity of the last cigarette puff.