Siamanto’s Bloody News
This piece was submitted by Peter Balakian as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Peter Balakian’s event: Armenian Genocide: A Dark Paradigm
More than my house I need the truth.
But I need my house too.
My grandfather died more than a decade before I was born. But when conversation turned to him, there was sometimes mention of a book of poems with which he had something to do. It was in Armenian literature an important—what one might call a flammable—book, written by his friend Adom Yarjanian, whose pen name was Siamanto. Siamanto and my grandfather, Diran Balakian, were born in 1878 in Akn and Tokat, respectively, provincial cities of Turkey. As progressive, outward-looking Armenians, they went to Europe to complete their educations, my grandfather to medical school in Leipzig, Siamanto to Paris to study literature and philosophy.
After graduating from medical school in 1905, my grandfather returned to Constantinople and, shortly thereafter in the spring of 1909, went with a group of Armenian physicians and relief workers to Adana in southern Turkey—a part of historic Armenia in the medieval period known as Cilicia—to do relief work for the Armenian survivors of the massacres of that region. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Armenians were killed, mostly in the month of April, as a result of ethnic backlash in a time of political turmoil in Turkey. A new government had emerged from the Young Turk revolution of 1908 that had toppled the Sultan Abdulhammit II, permanently terminating the political authority of the sultanate. By 1909, the new regime was waged in civil conflict with the Sultan’s counterrevolutionary army, and the Armenians, in the Adana region in particular, were being mass-killed and their businesses looted and burned by the local population and counterrevolutionaries who were reacting with more than hostility to reforms for Christians that had accompanied the Young Turk revolution. Before it was over, the new Young Turk army that came to the region to quell the violence also engaged in the mass killing of the Armenian population. In short, Armenians were being scapegoated by both the new, secular, and purportedly liberal Young Turk government and the embittered forces of the recently dethroned Sultan, whom the Young Turks had driven from power.
In various ways, it was a sign that the new Young Turk era reforms for minorities were not going to work, and it was also a harbinger of the full-scale genocide of 1915 that would result in the death of more than a million Armenians and the erasure of almost all of Armenian life and culture in Turkey, where Armenians were among the indigenous peoples of Anatolia for more than 2,000 years. In one sense, the Adana massacres of 1909 were part of a “continuum of destruction” to use Irvin Staub’s phrase, which had begun with Sultan Abdulhammit’s Armenian massacres in the 1890s, when more than 100,000 Armenians were killed and thousands of others ruined and displaced.
In Adana in 1909, my grandfather worked as a physician aiding the survivors. He became a witness to atrocities and destruction the way a physician might be. He was single during these years (not marrying my grandmother until 1913), and he wrote letters home regularly to his parents in Constantinople. The letters, which have not survived, were filled with details and narratives about the atrocities. Siamanto was a close friend of the Balakian family and lived near my great-grandparents in the Scutari section of Constantinople (today Istanbul). Not only did he read the letters my grandfather sent from Adana, but he used them as his source for a book of poems.
When my father wrote his father Diran Balakian’s obituary for the National Cyclopaeida of American Biography, he noted this: “During 1909–11 he served with a group of Armenian doctors in Adana, Turkey, aiding stricken refugees of the Turkish massacres of those years. During that time he wrote a series of letters to his friend, the poet Siamanto, describing the conditions in Adana and the plight of the refugees, and these were published by the poet in 1911 [sic] under the name Sanguineous [sic] News from My Friend.” My father’s statement about his father’s letters home from Adana has one inaccuracy: Siamanto didn’t publish my grandfather’s letters verbatim. But I suppose in some way my father was acknowledging how deeply a joint venture this book of poems was—a physician and a poet collaborating to articulate some harsh realities. As for my father’s translation of the title, I remember, after this history had ceased to be taboo in my family, my father and his sisters Anna and Nona, who were literary critics and scholars, discussing it. Should it be Red News from My Friend, Sanguinous News from My Friend, or perhaps Bloody News from My Friend? My father’s translation—“Sanguinous”—seems to me too diffuse and even euphemistic. Garmeer in Armenian is “red,” and in the context of these poems clearly means “bloody.”
Siamanto was arrested on April 24, 1915, in Constantinople/Istanbul along with the famous group of about 250 Armenian cultural leaders; he, along with one segment of that group, was sent to Ayash near Ankara, where he and most of the others were killed by the Turkish gendarmes in the summer of 1915, somewhere outside of Ankara. He was a poet whose identity and writing were an important part of an Armenian cultural renaissance in the first decade of the twentieth century and part of what was the beginning of Armenian literary modernism. He was a central voice in articulating poetry’s role in reclaiming history and myth in order to make a new language and a richer culture. In this sense, he is a poet whose cultural situation bears some resemblance to that of Yeats in Ireland, Neruda in Chile, or Whitman in the United States, especially during the Civil War. Although he wasn’t a polemical writer, he believed that poetry could not be entirely separated from the social sphere and, in this case, that meant the pressing conditions of the Armenian people under Ottoman rule. He would have agreed with Whitman’s insistence that “a bard is to be commensurate with a people.” And Siamanto was a poet of bardic affinities. He was a public poet who declaimed his poems before audiences and crowds and was popular in the café culture of Constantinople in those years before 1915.
For the reader unfamiliar with Armenian literary history, it is worth noting the context from which Siamanto emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. In the second half of the nineteenth century, both Eastern Armenia (in the Russian Empire) and Western Armenia (in the Ottoman Empire) were in the midst of a cultural revival. From the second half of the eighteenth century on, both Eastern and Western Armenia had absorbed different dimensions of intellectual tradition from Europe and Russia. The European Enlightenment and Romantic movements had impacts on Armenian writers and thinkers. Voltaire, Racine, Rousseau, and Hugo, for example, embodied ideas about civil liberties and human egalitarianism, and Armenian writers appropriated these ideas to help them address Armenia’s deplorable social and political conditions under Ottoman rule.
Although the impact of French culture on Armenian writers and thinkers seems to have been primary, Byron and Shelley, Swift, Milton, and Shakespeare also contributed their share to the Armenian cultural revival, as did the Italian Risorgimento by way of the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice. There, Mekhitarist monks—who had taken in Byron in 1816 for his year of studying classical Armenian—had been a bridge between Armenia and Italy since 1717. Dante, Manzoni, and Leopardi were translated into Armenian from the middle of the nineteenth century. To Armenians, the democratic revolutions in France, Germany, and Italy in the middle and later parts of the nineteenth century were also signposts of progress and the ideals for liberty.
While nineteenth-century European influences helped shape Siamanto, so did a revival of interest among Armenians in their art and culture. Like various European cultures, Armenia in the late nineteenth century was involved in its own Romantic movement, and Armenian writers and artists were rediscovering their pre- and early-Christian poetry, such as the epic of David of Sassoun and the inventive mystical poems of Gregory of Nareg, as well as the ballad tradition of Sayat Nova and village folk music, which the priest and composer Gomidas Vartabed was collecting, arranging, and composing. There was also new excitement about the extraordinary medieval manuscript painters such as Toros Roslin and Sarkis Pidzak and the pioneering architectural achievements of early Christian and medieval Armenian churches, exemplified most dramatically by the uncovering of the lost medieval Armenian city of Ani by the Russian archeologist Nikolas Marr in the 1890s.
In this milieu, Siamanto came of age with a kind of cosmopolitanism that was new for Armenian intellectuals. Like other modern Western Armenian writers of his generation—Daniel Varoujan, Vahan Tekeyan, Zabel Yessayan, and Krikor Zhorab, to name a few—Siamanto absorbed European traditions into Armenian traditions. Looking back from the twenty-first century, the loss is hard to comprehend: an entire generation of Western Armenian writers were extinguished by the Ottoman government just at a moment when they were emerging into a generation that was bringing Armenian literature into modernism and into an international light. Fortunately, a solid body of their works survive, among them numerous fine translations of poetry into English, many of them done by the poet Diana Der Hovanessian, which has given them another audience.
There is nothing like Bloody News from My Friend that I know of in twentieth-century poetry. It is a book that was forged from certain salient late-nineteenth century literary modes, but somehow along the way turned into something startling and new. The Bloody News poems undermine traditional norms of genre and poetics that defined late-nineteenth-century poetry in Armenian literature as well as those in the Anglo-American tradition. Although Siamanto assumes certain late-nineteenth-century Armenian conventions in creating dramatic monologues and narrative mimetic lines, the harsh violence that he sought to represent drew him into a language of such a raw, blunt, and stark nature that it subverted anything that might evoke, hint of, or imply a genteel aesthetic, or a pursuit of inspirational nature, or the sublime that much of fin-de-siècle poetry was defined by in American and British poetry.
In making a rougher language and a vernacular voice, Siamanto often dispensed with traditional notions of metaphor. His blunt realism strikes me as owing more to Whitman’s Civil War poems than to l’art pour l’art poetics of Malarmé or the preRaphaelites that defined much of the of the fin-de-siècle. As the British World War I poets would, Siamanto found that the impact of mass violence veered him away from the more romantic aesthetic that had driven his earlier poems, in which he sought to reclaim a sublime Armenian past, to reinvent Armenian myth, and to capture transcendent forces.
Because the Bloody News poems wrestle with “raw evil,” to use his phrase, Siamanto is obsessed with Turkish Islamic culture and its modes and capacities to demonize the other. What happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1909, and then in 1915, also happened in different forms to the Greeks of western Turkey and the Pontus and the Assyrians of southeast Anatolia during this period of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Christians from 1915 through the burning of Smyrna in 1922. Thus, the texture of these poems has broad implications about the dynamics of power and the demonizing of the other. In this sense, the Bloody News poems have an increasingly visible place in the ongoing interest in the dynamics of poetry in relation to situations of mass violence. The popularity of poems like “The Dance,” “The Cross,” and “Grief,” since their first appearance in Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, and then in English translation of Bloody News from My Friend in 1996, strikes me as a barometer of a certain broadening of poetics in our current literary culture.
Although poems like “The Bath,” “The Dagger,” “The Atonement,” and “The Cross” may be shocking in their graphic depictions, they avoid the sentimental. Siamanto is interested in depicting the ways the perpetrators conceived of “the Armenian” as other—that stereotyped personage who had been denigrated by the hegemonic culture as gavur (infidel). Bloodthirsty is a word that Siamanto uses again and again, and I suspect it was a word my grandfather used in his letters. What Armenians experienced during the massacre and genocide period was inseparable from what psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton has called “death saturation,” in which the bloody mess of killing and the phenomenon of mass corpses comes to define the survivor’s traumatic aftermath or, in the case of my grandfather, medical witnessing in those weeks and months after the massacre. Perhaps the intensity of gore and bodily pain of the mass killing is hinted at in U.S. Ambassador to Turkey (1913–1916) Henry Morgenthau’s defining memoir about the Armenian genocide, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, published in 1918:
I have by no means told the most terrible details, for a complete narration of the sadistic orgies of which these Armenian men and women were the victims can never be printed in an American publication. Whatever crimes the most perverted instincts of the human mind can devise, and whatever refinements of persecution and injustice the most debased imagination can conceive, became the daily misfortunes of this devoted people. I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.
It is that kind of “sadistic orgy” that Siamanto tries to depict in Bloody News from My Friend. “The Bath,” “The Dance,” and “The Cross,” for example, raise ethical and philosophical questions about the relationship between religious ideologies and political power. Whether we are encountering Turkish Muslims torturing, killing, or raping Armenians, or the Nazis’ mass incineration of European Jews in concentration camps in the 1940s, or Serbian Christians massacring Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica in 1994, we are always forced to ask questions about ethnic and religious ideologies in relation to extreme nationalism.
In assessing aspects of literary representation, one finds these poems remarkably modern in their imagistic concreteness, their unromantic depictions of human suffering, their daring use of vernacular, and their ways of moving discursively with epistolary episode and eyewitness-like reportage. Ezra Pound and the modernist movement would extol some of these qualities in the ensuing decades in his new credos. In certain peculiar ways, Siamanto found some prevailing elements of modernism by virtue of his sensibility and his historical and cultural predicament. It seems to me that we are much better prepared to read these poems today than we might have been when they were written. Not only in the wake of modernism, but in light of a new historicism, which, in part, shaped the poetry of the second half of the twentieth century.
This piece is excerpted from a longer essay of the same name in Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture by Peter Balakian, The University of Chicago Press (2015).