Aram Pachyan’s new novel “P/F” is now out. At times minimalistic, yet boasting passages of rhyming sentences at others, over a hundred pages of “P/F” remind one of a short diary and leave no doubt of the genre defined by the author. For about a decade now, Pachyan has taught his reader that a new Pachyan novel won’t surprise but will rather cause an unquenchable thirst for contemplation borne by a vague familiarity with the style and trajectory of pachyanesque writing. The first page already spells it out: the (his)story has ended without being finished,” while the main narrative is about memory. The book, therefore, won’t appeal to the aficionados of fictional prose and dense novels. The author sought here different issues altogether – memory in the absence of story, biography in the absence of plot or rather, bio and graphy separately. Published last year – a year that was a failure in all respects – the book managed to garner attention again in 2021 as a testimony to Pachyan’s successful return and an eloquent evidence of readers’ sincere interest towards “P/F.”
Pachyan’s previous three books were published at intervals of about two years․ The first collection of stories entitled “Robinson,” was published in 2010, followed by the novel “Goodbye, Bird” (2012), and then a return to the genre of stories in the form of a collection entitled “Ocean” (2014). The most anticipated was “P/F”, which was published ten years after the first book. It is fair to say that the author can no longer be called a “young prose writer.”
During the last decade, Pachyan’s texts have become popular not only in Armenia. Few of our contemporary writers, published after 2010, have been translated into several European languages and have had more than one reprint. Striving to be a keen reader in Pachyan’s case, I have always asked myself and tried to answer the question: what kind of writer is he and what kind of literature does he create? But despite my general sympathy for this young prose-writer, the answer was difficult to find. It was either because little has been written or that the texts are of extremely different textures. The only thing with which literary critics could be comforted was the title “author of short prose.” The plight of literary agents was even more complicated, especially when during yet another international book fair, they were asked a direct question that required a short and exhaustive answer.
With no intention of answering questions about style, genre, method and other similar issues, Pachyan was in front of our eyes the entire time, and continued to be one of the major names of literary Yerevan with a series of online publications of non-fiction diaries (documentary essays), a theatrical performance in Germany, talks on various art platforms ․․․
Sometimes it seems that Pachyan feels sad and lonely in the flow of contemporary Armenian literary life. He was creating his own environment by planting trees for his own literary forest, falling in love and sharing his passion with readers by revealing or returning to the Armenian reader the names of Ruben Filyan, Mkrtich Armen, Bruno Schultz, Thomas Bernhard, Patrick Modiano and others.
We kept exchanging books, while Pachyan continued to find forgotten, dusty volumes in Yerevan’s libraries, which only needed to be read out loud to remind us and shake-up our ideas about the past of literature, where, in fact, forgetting prevailed over everlasting memory. And throughout it all, the young writer’s hidden source of vitality, the current that nourished his literary forests, continued to be the French theorist and literary critic Roland Barthes with his confessional scientific experiment, which had once become the embodiment of the dreams of a whole generation – expressed in the idea of writing a post-structuralist novel. There was no doubt that Pachyan wanted to share with the readers what inspired him towards creating his own work of autofiction. He did this ten years after his debut: “P/F” has been published.
If in all previous books the reader, lacking any direct proof, could only make assumptions about the autobiographical nature of Pachyan’s writing, then “P/F” becomes a real case of autofiction, where a few pages after defining the genre as a “novel” we are told that everything apart from memory and oblivion, is an invention. A hero named Sev (Pachyan’s real name is Sevak Tamamyan) regularly appears on the pages of the novel, and in one of the episodes, the narrator addresses someone named Rub, also known as Fil, who talks about his signature, which fluctuates between Fil, Sev and Pach: Pach/Fil. We will not know for sure whether Fil is a fictional name or the abbreviated surname of Ruben Filyan, Pachyan-readers’ favourite writer, but one of the main characters is PF, who is also on the cover of the book, followed by the epigraph, “To my Zen-Buddhist teachers.” If we consider the Filyanic script and the Filyanic literary “I” as the starting point of Zen Buddhism in Armenian literature, then “P/F”, like the author’s previous books, acquires its clearly delineated epochal dimension – Filyanic escape from Soviet Yerevan and late Soviet prose, which extends to the present day. The epigraph becomes yet another gesture-appeal to the past, which corresponds to the main strategy of “P/F” – to swim in the currents of memory’s river, to yearn for the forever-departing Yerevan tramway. Traced from Pachyan to Filyan, the novel turns into a Post Factum (PF!) of that period – not a summary of the results, but something they forgot to tell us at the time and have told us only now, after it happened, causing us to feel the impossibility of turning back time. And finally, the author signs the repeated call to “return the tramway to Yerevan” in his own name, or rather in a part of his pseudonym “Sev” or simply, “Aram.” It seems that the formula set by French experimentalists in the 1970s has been implemented: the author’s name and that of the protagonist and the narrator coincide and are almost equivalent. Even if the text has something to do with the author’s “I”, it is exclusively fictional. Not an autobiography, not a novel, but the invention of oneself , or ecriture de soi – this is Armenian autofiction.
The book presentation took place on September 26, 2020, and the next day, at dawn, the war broke out, and tossed everyone and everything into the distant past. Despite the poetic writing, the fate of the book was subject to the mode of the narrative’s past: “and tomorrow was war.” The book, a red cover with the letters P and F in white, was forgotten the entire time when our reality was being flooded with a completely different, non-printed red. The blood that painted Armenian society, left no opportunity for the extremely personal book to be read. While a number of writers were dumbfounded by the catastrophe, Pachyan published a short essay in which he brought us as close as possible to determining the identity of his prose. In those days, everything was about war: it brought devastating news every second. There was only fear of the news everywhere, nothing from the past, only news. Yet here, in just a few pages, the prose-writer’s essay demonstrated to us that in reality everything that happens is a déjà vu, a war of memory. Pachyan, who did not have the experience of taking part in the First Karabakh War, shows how a whole generation of people grew up with stories shaped around it, and very often, not knowing how to talk about the war, we seek help in the memory of our forebears.
The protagonist in Pachyan’s text, a military doctor’s child, gradually forgets his father’s face, but keeps waiting for him, insisting that war cannot be general: it is extremely personal, as personal and intimate as waiting for a father’s return from the battlefield – alive, wounded or dead. But there is no return from the war․ It comes as an event on a historic scale, and occupies a significant place in our memory, remaining a part of us forever. We are witnessing how post-memory is transformed into a fictional canvas, becoming its basis, and Pachyan’s writing finds its unique place in both Armenian and world post-memory literature. Memory, together with its oceans of imperfections, traumas and oblivion, becomes the main engine of Pachyan’s prose, while “P/F” becomes a post factum of a decade of experience in creating such prose. The narrator says goodbye to his previous texts, which duplicates and strengthens the self-narrative of the novel.
The new text appears as a power factor of contemporary writing, which tries to recall its own past in our current state of post-amnesia, thereby reinforcing fragments of the present that are ever-changing and don’t give us even a second to memorize. News, incessantly! But as stated in “P/ F”, “bullets melt, war melts, everything melts – the people of Yerevan are still alive. Life is, still, life.” The war ended, and awakened from the terrible wave of collective stories, we slowly began to return to our personal memories, from the national to our small lives.
At the beginning of 2021, Pachyan returned to the people of Yerevan with his autofiction. This time he read the full text of the book in a few hours at one of the bookstore-cafes, where the gathered were initially going up to the stand and asking for the “novel” and then, listening to the author reading for two and a half hours, hearing the truest, live poetry without asking questions about genre, type and style.
The trees planted by Pachyan have yielded fruit, helping the reader better understand his experiment. And indeed, the fragmentary, seemingly unrelated images of “P/F” will become clearer if you are familiar with the atmosphere of Patrick Modiano’s urban cafes, which are significant to the author, and the impressions left by the luminous loggias, and curved streets of Walter Benjamin’s “Berlin Diary.” After reading the text, Pachyan talks about yet another part of his literary garden: James Joyce’s “Dubliners”. The reason for dividing memories into separate image-fragments was not so much the writer’s despair over the impossibility of turning the past into a complete, interconnected story, but the realization of the “social irreversibility of the past.”
In this case, the Benjaminic method of recreating a series of memories as a longing for lost time (childhood, adolescence) and space (hometown) takes us back to Yerevan, to the beginning of the 1990-2000s. The narrator performs double mapping on the pages of “P/F.” He mentions places located in the city’s artificially induced amnesia zone: the house of the Afrikyans, which fell victim to the gentrification of recent decades and forever became a trauma of turning local memory into ruins; or the tramways, which the city authorities got rid of because they were not in demand; or Alaverdyan Street, which has long since been renamed and has been swallowed up by the developers of Yerevan in the 2000s, and so on. It seems that they have not expelled the author, the proof of deportation is absent, but at the same time, our memory has been expelled from the integrity of the city. In a sense, the protagonist of the novel has been expelled, just as Yerevan’s past and that of its residents has been expelled from the city. However, alongside these places of our collective forgetfulness, the very personal topography of the memory of extant places is reproduced throughout the novel․ The urban space is represented as the fragmentary plateau of all the memories that managed to be recorded so that they could be preserved only in writing – Abovyan Street, Nalbandyan Street, the kiosk named “Rosa” at the Saryan-Pushkin intersection, Arabkir, the bridges across the Hrazdan River. And here again the influence of the Pachyan literary forest is felt, and it seems that modern Armenian literature gets its own documentary fiction thanks to “P/F.”
As before, Pachyan is interested not in the monumentality of Yerevan’s everyday life, but in the fragments, the description of the city center through everyday actions, events and happenings, which are important not to everyone, but to one person – the narrator, and perhaps someone else – the city’s common resident, who periodically chose those routes, and fell in love in those same cafes. It appears that, at one time, the novelist Mkrtich Armen – about whom Pachyan has talked and written so much – made a similar attempt to make the true Yerevan tangible. The love for urban space as a place for ordinary people, not characters from history books or celebrities, to live and cultivate memory, seems to coincide for these writers living in two different centuries, with only one difference: Mkrtich Armen’s protagonist follows in astonishment how the unowned monumental transforms the vernacular life of the eastern city into ruins, while Pachyan’s protagonist witnesses the disappearance of the memory of both monumental and ordinary, common urban space.
To those who are irritated by the lack of a great narrative arch, the author responds with the topography of the local memory. The city is fragmentary and as a result, so is the novel. The memory of the person living the collapsed mosaic is fragmentary, that is why the narrator himself becomes fragmentary in the language. “I am fragmentary,” he says, descending the gorge with a backpack in which he has collected all the rough drafts, all the published and unpublished books, and the writing that has been created throughout these ten years. The motif of flow – the river’s current – passes like a red thread throughout the book. In the Hrazdan gorge he finds that gushing current, which would have objectified the idea of nothingness: “I am not Yerevan/I am not the language/I am not the past, the present and the future/I am not me.” A Zen-Buddhist attempt to separate from the body, or a demonstration of Barthes’ concept of the author’s non-existence. The attempt to write the “you,” but not about yourself, again reminds us of Sebald’s words that writing an autobiography was boring for him; even if he wrote a biography, then only that of others, of those who cross the trajectory of the author’s own life.
But in the writing-current of this unique documentary fiction, the protagonist is not the river that flows through the gorge, on the banks of which you can surrender your rough drafts, which will help you be free of yourself and your writing. The memory of the city, as in the case of the narrator, is fragmented, as they have both lost to the incessant transformations of time. Center stage in this memory-amnesia, is the vein that passes through the center of Yerevan, but away from the eyes of the inhabitants. “They closed Getar” – Hrazdan River’s tributary. It seems they remember it, they wrote about it in official papers and in the history of the city, but the forcibly-changed river bed, covered with concrete and asphalt, no longer has a direct connection to the lives of the citizens. Only those who remember the river sometimes come to its intermittently-open banks, where the direction of the current is still audible and visible. They look at the rivulet, which has become both their own memory and that of Yerevan’s past. Pachyan’s protagonist PF/Sev/Aram, is one of the few voyagers travelling to this noctuary of memory. Getar does not exist if there is no memory. Only memory can put into motion the city’s walled-in river. Pachyan’s hero not only nostalgically remembers and shows the loss of the river, but also dives into the current and lists all the rubbish and waste with which we have polluted the grey waters of our closed artery, just as we are polluting our memory with the daily flow of news and advertisements.
Getar is locked in an underground channel, and we do not see it. We had filled it with whatever, everything. We remember Getar only as a thin ribbon stretching through the city center, about which our predecessors would tell stories. Do you remember the flooding of Yerevan, and the story of giant rats that came out of the river and swarmed the city? The narrator, Pachyan, remembers all of that, but he does not long for the past, and does not blame us. He is yet another Yerevantsi who also has thrown a dead dog into Getar, spat in it and hated it, but he knows for sure that, no matter what, Getar is still there.
The waters of Getar are the carriers of our memory and post-memory. It flows on regardless, just as our memories flow on, just as the novel of memory is written, in which the protagonist keeps swimming in the streets of the city, desperately demanding, “Return the tramway to Yerevan.”
Thanks to Dr. Rafik Santrosyan for his valuable comments and suggestions for the English translation.