The Golden Rooster

The Golden Rooster

translated from Armenian by Donald Abcarian
London: Taderon Press, 2008,
142 pp,
ISBN 978-1-903656-77-8, paperback,
UK£12.00 / US$20.00
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In Tbilisi, Georgia, 1856, with just one year left to complete his academic preparation for admission to a Russian university, Raffi received word from his ailing father that he must drop his studies and return home immediately to help run the family business. With this news his bright prospects of some day going on to a career in medicine or diplomacy came to an abrupt end and a pivotal new decade in his life began.

Raffi returned home to Salmast a new man, a young intellectual who had been deeply immersed in the classics of western literature and brought back with him as one of the most treasured accomplishments of his Tbilisi years the first novel he had ever written. He returned with the determination that whatever the burden of workaday responsibilities in the years to come he would never sacrifice his intellectual life or lay aside his pen. He never wavered in that determination. In pursuit of his egalitarian ideals he soon founded the first school for boys and girls in his native Salmast. A short time later he paid his first visit to Western Armenia (Van, Bitlis, Moush) and there gathered a wealth of material that he would soon draw upon to write the works that brought him his earliest recognition as an author.

But in 1865 tragedy struck. Raffi’s father perished in the great cholera epidemic that swept over Salmast in that year. Overnight, Raffi’s large family – once distinguished and wealthy – fell on very hard times. His father’s numerous business rivals immediately descended on the family estate to pick it apart with a host of fraudulent claims, and Raffi was forced to rush from one place to another to try salvaging enough of it to sustain his family. Despite all his efforts he failed. He and his family were reduced to abject poverty, and Raffi was compelled to take a lowly job as an accountant for a clothing shop in Tbilisi to support them. These are the experiences that lie at the core of The Golden Rooster.

The Golden Rooster is the second and most popular in a trilogy of short novels focusing on the ethos and social significance of the traditional Armenian merchant class of the Caucasus. With this trilogy Raffi sought to ‘tear away the mask of gold’ covering the faces of these powerful merchants and lay bare for all to see the trickery and moral bankruptcy that was at the heart of their success. At the same time, he sought to suggest a more honorable course for a new generation of merchants, young men willing and able to make a genuine contribution to the larger interests of Armenian society.

The Golden Rooster was first published serially in Tbilisi in the newspaper Mshak [The Cultivator] from August to September 1879. It saw its first publication as a separate book in November 1882. Although it was thus put into final form and published after Jalaleddin and The Fool, its inception and essential character belong to the previous phase of Raffi’s career, the relatively secure period that preceded the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. Despite the gravity of its purpose, this is what accounts for the novel’s prevailing airiness and optimism and the charming representation it offers of everyday life in an Armenian town - its comings and goings, its marketplace and relations with village life, its festivities and diversions, all of which distinguishes it markedly from the stern tenor of his later works. This is a large part of its special interest. Taking these contrasting aspects of the novel into consideration, one of its most notable achievements can be seen in the remarkable balance it strikes between darkness and light.

As is usually the case with Raffi’s novels, this one takes us to a completely new locale, a fictional market town deep in eastern Armenia near the western shores of Lake Sevan. Most of the story unfolds at the home and store of ‘the agha’, Bedros Masisian, characterized by Raffi as a ‘holdover’ from the wily Armenian merchants of a previous age. With probing realism Masisian’s every move and thought are followed relentlessly from one end of the story to the other, from church to marketplace, from crowded store to the sweltering and unkempt solitude of his room. In describing Masisian’s household, style of dress and values, Raffi brings the very flux of history before our eyes, a new era nudging the old one aside. Masisian’s son, Stepan, is a representative of that future with his longing for education and liberation and the tender concern he shows for Kalo, the young apprentice whose plight is so poignantly depicted, stirring as it does with the almost palpable shadows of Oliver Twist.

This translation is taken from volume 3 of the 1984 edition of The Collected Works of Raffi published by "Sovedagan Krogh" [‘The Soviet Writer’] in Yerevan, supervised, edited, and richly annotated by Dr. Khachik Samvelyan to whom much is owed.

The notation system for the story works as follows: an asterisk follows a word or term to be explained; that word or term will be found in alphabetic order at the back of the book in the section entitled "ENDNOTES". The reader should also know that the chapters titles have been added by me for dramatic focus and were not part of the original.

My heartfelt thanks go to my entire family for the gracious support and encouragement they have given me in the course of this translation.

In closing, I wish to express my sincere appreciation to Ara Sarafian and Gomidas Institute without whose steadfast presence and dedication this translation of "The Golden Rooster" would never have seen the light of day.

Donald Abcarian
Berkeley, California
February 2008

About the author
Raffi (né Hakob Melik-Hakobian) was born in 1835 in Bayajuk, near Salmas, in northwestern Persia. He died in Tiflis in 1888. He was a prolific and popular writer who contributed to Krikor Ardzrouni’s Tiflis-based liberal periodical, Mshak (Cultivator). Among his other principal works of fiction are Jalaleddin, Gharib Mshetsi (The exile from Moush), Khachagoghi Hishatakarane (The diary of a cross-stealer), Kaitzer (Sparks), Davit Bek, and Samuel.

About the translator
Donald Abcarian was born and raised in Fresno, California, where his family was part of the extensive Armenian-American community that has settled there since the turn of the century. His earliest influences, including the Armenian language, derived from that milieu. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in philosophy, and has pursued a lifelong interest in languages and world literature.

Having studied several European languages over the years, Abcarian in 1996 took up the challenge of learning to decipher the written language of his ancestors. This translation is a result of that process.

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