I’ve been working on this post for months. I’ve written and re-written it dozens of times. I just couldn’t figure out how to write about Malkhas’s Zartonk in an appropriate way. I long ago scrapped my “Knock knock. Who’s there? Malkhas. Malkhas who? Malkhas’s 4-volume story about Armenian national awakening!” introduction. I intended to give up altogether with a self-satisfying “I tried,” but then I realized that not enough people were talking about this book and I have feeble hopes that this little post could spur on more reading and discussion. (WordPress analytics tells me there’s one person in Germany who reads this blog, so maybe it’ll help them.) Fingers crossed.

Malkhas’s 4-volume “Zartonk” is an amazing feat of writing that should be obligatory for anyone interested in modern Armenian history or badass people who took their fate into their own hands. Thankfully, due to the tireless efforts of the Sosé and Allen Foundation and their team, the work has been translated to English. So now you, my dear reader, have no excuse.

Clocking in at 1691 pages, the books cover the Zartonk period (wait a second, that’s also the name of the book…), what led to it and what came as a result of it. And if you’re thinking, hey, what’s this Zartonk thing you keep talking about? I’ll explain. The Zartonk period is considered the time of the “awakening” of Armenian national consciousness (literally, “zartonk” translates to “awakening.”) See, after years and years of living under oppressive foreign rule, many Armenians had grown used to it. There was a whole big keep your head low, don’t make too much noise and stay out of trouble type thing going on. Problem was, this didn’t help anything and Armenians were still getting oppressed/killed in their own homes. Just the youzh. Then a bunch of young people went to school abroad and got crazy notions of egalitarianism and liberty stuck in their heads. They brought it back to their hometowns and started spreading the idea that Armenians should defend themselves and you know, not be killed in their own homes. These ideas were spread by rockstar intellectuals and literary figures like Khachatur Abovian and Raffi. It slowly trickled down and people started catching on. This was a big deal. (I cannot exaggerate that. Or else I would. Because I love exaggerations.)

But Zartonk is no history book. Malkhas gives the reader an invaluable look at what was going on in various Armenian communities, through a gripping story; a story filled with dozens of characters that, I warn you, you will get inordinately attached to. Therein lies the beauty of this book: its characters. You find yourself constantly amazed at Levon’s bravery, charmed by Vaheh’s everything and taken with Sonya’s dignity. And then there’s Lion Kevo, sweet, beautiful Lion Kevo. In summary, there is no dearth of characters to become attached to. And I will also warn you that no one is safe. This story takes place, after all, during a time of pogroms, revolution and genocide. (This is pretty much the original Game of Thrones, but less incesty.) I lost track of how many times I laid in the fetal position crying whilst reading. It’s just that good.

The story starts with the rumblings of revolutionary thought permeating throughout the Armenian communities. You see the different types of Armenians and their relationships with their identity. There are the young people who are just discovering these revolutionary thoughts and writings and the all but assimilated Armenians with altered last names who are too comfortable to be bothered by pesky notions of defense. The first volume was my personal fave. Not because the rest aren’t ridiculously good as well, but because you see so many parallels to contemporary diasporan communities and you wonder if we have learned anything really. (And then you get sad thinking about that. And then you eat Tamara ice cream in hopes that you won’t be sad again. But delicious made-in-Armenia marojni can only get you so far.)

As the story progresses and you follow these characters, you also see just how utterly insane every act of rebellion was. Like, really insane. Like, these people had no hopes but they fought anyway type of insane. (I read some guy throw around the word khent. Seems appropriate.)  And then once you realize that these stories are based on real events (the author himself took part) you begin to slowly understand how what you are reading is truly amazing. The author does not stick to feel-good stereotypes either. The people are complex. They commit acts based off fear, courage, love, dedication, self-interest and deceit. (At 1691 pages, you bet it runs the gamut of human behavior.)

Do not be daunted by the number of pages. I guarantee you will speed through it. Everyone I know who has read it has had the same experience. This book is meant to be read by anyone who:

  • Wants to get a glimpse of how Armenians lived prior to the Genocide
  • Wants a better understanding of Armenian communities
  • Wants to know the mentality of different types of fedayees/azadamardeegs
  • Wants insight as to why Armenians are they way that they are today
  • Wants me to stop using simplistic lists to get my point across

In toto, I highly recommend this read to anyone looking for a better understanding of the time as well as a source of infinite and beautiful inspiration. I’ll just leave this right here:

(For all my Yerevan peoples, the book is also sold at Art Bridge.)