We’ve all seen James Bond films, so we’re familiar with the character of the evil genius who threatens the world.
I doubt such villains really exist. The great threat to life and liberty is more likely an idiot who has acquired the trappings of authority: a title, a uniform or, God forbid, a gun.
I was reminded of this as I read My Odyssey by Antonina Mahari. It is a pain-filled account of the author’s life journey from Lithuania to Armenia by way of Siberia beginning in 1944 when she was 20 years old.
Her native land lurched between Russian and German occupations while she was a teenager. She was a law student at Vilnius University when the Russians returned with a vengeance.
Antonia was arrested on suspicion of being an anti-Soviet agitator, although how or why she had fallen under suspicion was not clear. Such things were never clear.
She endured nightly assaults by a screaming interrogator standing beneath a portrait of the ever-smiling dictator Joseph Stalin. Although beaten and humiliated, Antonina did not confess to any imaginary crimes so the interrogations continued.
All of the women who shared her airless cell experienced the same horrors.
“Every night, women who were beaten during the interrogations were thrown into our cell half dead,” she wrote. “A Polish woman died. Her kidneys were crushed. A seventeen-year-old Lithuanian girl named Genute went mad . . .”
Antonina wondered what the torturers could possibly have meant to accomplish, as prisoners knew confession would likely result in a visit to Vanya the executioner. In the years that followed, she experienced a great deal more pain and witnessed many pointless deaths.
She came to understand there was no sense in any of it.
Eventually judged incorrigible, Antonina was consigned to Siberia. There she toiled and shivered among a multitude of other suspected free thinkers from all the captive nations: artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, scientists, military officers.
Many of them had been good Communists, or thought so until they were dragged from their homes. They had the talent and intelligence to rebuild their shattered homelands but those very attributes made them a danger to their rulers.
In this topsy-turvy world, complaint was forbidden. A sigh in the company of an informer could lead to further torture. Everyone was expected to sing songs in praise of Stalin, even as his minions drained their lives of joy and purpose.
It was in this stifling atmosphere on a collective farm in 1952 that Antonina fell in love with Gurgen Mahari, who sang folks songs of his native Van as he worked. He could smile because Stalin was absent from the lyrics, and because he could sense humor in the irony of his miserable circumstances.
One of Armenia’s greatest writers, Gurgen was forced to herd pigs.
“Now, those who once raised pigs write poems, and we have taken their place with the pigs,” he told Antonina.
Mahari had been arrested in 1937. He was hardly a subversive, much less a revolutionary, but his love for Armenia showed boldly enough to make his work incompatible with Soviet internationalism.
The state prescribed 10 years of confinement to improve his exuberance for Communism. Within a year of his release, Mahari was arrested again and sentenced to life in Siberia.
But this did not keep Mahari from his work. Exhausted and bone cold, he wrote each night by the fire in his tiny log hut even though none of his poems or stories could be published.
The writer and his work might have been buried together in the tundra except for a great stroke of luck: Stalin died in March 1953, and the torments he fostered stopped along with his cold heart—for a while, at least.
Antonina and Gurgen, now married, were released in 1954 and given an apartment in Armenia’s capital. The great writer was once again celebrated not only by the public but by his fellow writers, who visited often and joined him in spirited literary dialogues.
Antonina worried that the great volume of cigarettes and vodka he consumed during these sessions would shorten his life but these excesses merely weakened him. It was his friends who finally killed him.
In 1966, Gurgen Mahari published his master work. The novel Burning Orchards was set in Van and followed events leading up to the siege of 1915 when the Armenian population was slaughtered and their homes reduced to rubble.
The author’s close friend, Paruyr Sevak, another of Armenia’s most honored writers, denounced the book. He argued that Mahari had portrayed Armenian revolutionaries in a way that blamed them for inciting the Genocide. He made a speech calling his comrade “a traitor and a servant of the Turks.”
Other writers joined Sevak, and a crowd burned the book in front of Mahari’s home. The Writers Union demanded Orchards be rewritten. Mahari complied despite his wife’s objections but his concessions did not improve his standing.
No one spoke in the author’s defense because no one dared to. Mahari became deeply depressed, and his wife kept close watch as he threatened to jump off the balcony. “Antonina, there is nothing worse than seeing your literary creation being dragged through the mud and to know that your friends, your beloved countrymen, are doing it.”
He died in 1969, broken by the unrelenting torrent of hate.
No one could blame his widow if she had moved back to Lithuania but she didn’t because her beloved Gurgen had begged her to stay in Yerevan. “You are the only person who can tell the truth about me.”
He told her to write about their cruel experience in the fool’s paradise. “Write, and have no mercy on anyone. It is very important for history.”
So she wrote, and she waited. Although Stalin was gone, obedient comrades still sang to his memory and saluted his statue. The secret police and their informers still made notes of sighs and whispers. People still disappeared into the Siberian wilderness.
So Antonina guarded her notes and the papers Gurgen left behind, and she finished My Odyssey in secret. A manuscript was smuggled out of Armenia and an abridged version published in Beirut in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Armenia was finally free, but no publisher there would touch it.
“All the publishing houses were filled with former comrades,” she wrote. “They were holding their posts and settled very comfortably.” None of these brave editors thought it would be a good idea to stir up unpleasant memories—and none thought it would be wise to point fingers.
Antonina persevered until Armenia was finally ready to read her story. Her memoir was published there in 2003. The following year, she had the good fortune to meet Ruth Bedevian while Bedevian was visiting Yerevan.
Bedevian had learned about Gurgen and Antonina Mahari while researching an article on Armenian writers. Antonina subsequently asked Bedevian to help have her memoir translated into English, and Bedevian agreed.
It was not a simple request to fulfill. Bedevian assembled an impressive group of experts who were able transcend literal translation by lending context to unfamiliar times and places.
The result is anything but a conventional memoir. The chapters don’t follow common structure or order. The book is filled with obscure references. Most striking to me is the unfamiliarity of the central subject: Have you ever read anything by Gurgen Mahari?
I haven’t, but I found his life story fascinating—inspiring, depressing, infuriating all at once. I felt privileged reading the book, and I felt ashamed thinking about how often I complain because my computer is acting up or because my den is a bit too warm or because someone’s making a racket mowing the lawn.
Now when I have such silly thoughts I will think instead about Gurgen writing by weary hand in his Siberian hut, and Antonina wrapping her manuscript in an old swim suit and folding it into the bottom of her suitcase to hide it from the secret police.
It is wonderful to live and write in America. We certainly have no shortage of idiots, but they can’t send me to Siberia for sighing deeply at the thought of them.