BY KHACHIG TÖLÖLYAN
My friendship with Yervant Kotchounian spans nearly 40 years. I met him in 1982, during a visit to the offices of the weekly Nor Hye, edited by Sarkis Majarian. I spent a week in Los Angeles and passed an unexpectedly large amount of that time with Yervant, his closest friend Levon Kasbarian, and the writers Boghos Kupelian and Khosrov Asoyan, a posse of companions who cared about Armenian writing and talked together about every aspect of Armenian life in LA, Beirut, and elsewhere. I had not expected to spend so much time with them, especially with Yervant and Levon, but I did.
Soon after our encounter, we met again in Middletown, CT. The university where I taught, Wesleyan, is located there. Yervant called, saying he and Levon would like to come visit. I thought he was joking; he wasn’t. He had taken an extended leave from his workplace and they had driven across the country. They stayed with me for only a day and night, then moved on to Boston and Canada.
When I asked what motivated them to drive across the country, Yervant said: “We come as immigrants from the Middle East, get off a plane at LA airport and settle down in Southern California. Most of the people we know think the western border of the US is the Pacific Ocean, the northern border runs up through San Francisco, and the eastern border through the casinos of Las Vegas.” Levon added, “and they think the southern border runs through Tijuana and its vulgar night life.” Yervant noted that they both wanted to do better, to know the US, and also the Armenian communities of North America. This curiosity about both the greater Armenian community and the nation at large remained a characteristic of both.
But in Yervant it was also supplemented by his active and disciplined reading of contemporary American literature and criticism. He would surprise me by quoting from journals like The Antioch Review, The Hudson Review and The New York Review of Books. He wasn’t showing off — he wanted to know America and its distinctive intellectual culture, and did.
During the rest of the 1980s, I was a frequent visitor to LA, and I often stayed in a spare room in Yervant’s apartment. Very often we sat up late into the night talking about our personal lives and the life of the Armenian diaspora in LA and elsewhere. It became clear to me that Yervant attributed his considerable knowledge of Armenian life and literature to the influence of Simon Simonian. As a young man he had come to know other young writers, like Vehanoush Tekian and Boghos Kupelian, who frequented Simonian’s publishing house in Beirut and read and wrote for the weekly he edited, Spurk. We shared the conviction that Armenian writing was importantly shaped by two rival weeklies, Simonian’s Spyurk and Antranig Dzarougian’s Nayiri. Much later in life, Yervant, reviewing one of Marzbed Margossian’s books, reflected again on that environment in Beirut’s golden years.
One of the things that set Yervant apart from other cerebral, book-loving diaspora Armenians was his commitment to translation. He read them thoughtfully and critically, he translated extensively, sometimes for money but also and often because he loved the linguistic and intellectual challenges of translation. Fairly recently, he astonished me by asking if I knew Rafael Sabatini’s historical novel, “Scaramouche,” published in 1921. Upon finding out that I had read the now outdated historical novelist, he told me he was translating it into Armenian. I asked if it was a paid commission, and for whom? “For no one,” he said, “I liked it and I thought translating its, by now, slightly archaic English would be interesting.” He loved the challenges of translation.
It’s difficult, in an English language account like this, to convey the pleasures of talking to him as we always did, in Western Armenian. He was witty in both languages, and memorably so in Armenian. And on rare occasions, something he had said in conversation would re-appear in emails and other writings. One of my favorites was his dismissal of a somewhat pretentious, quite prosperous Beirutahye in LA who offered pompous analyses and final-judgements on Armenian political life. Yervant said, “Կեանքի էն հետաքրքրական մասը մարդոց ականջներուն միջև պատահածն է, և իր պարագային այդ է որ չկայ, պարապ տարածք է:”) “The most interesting aspect of life happens between a person’s two ears, and that space is empty in his case.” Perhaps a year later, in one of his rare long letters, Yervant paraphrased that observation almost verbatim.
We did not always agree, of course, but when the Hamazkayine, encouraged by the late Yetvart Missirlian of San Francisco, inaugurated in honor of my parents the Minas and Kohar Tololyan Prize for Armenian authors writing and translating in North America, I did not hesitate to recruit Yervant to serve on the jury that selected the winner. He served on that committee many years more than I did, and every year I anticipated his private comments to me on works submitted; they were perceptive, often wise and witty, on rare occasions harsh, but never unjust. He cared, he read closely, he shared views with discretion. I recall one of his crisp formulations about translation — Փոխադրութի՞ւն թէ փոփոխութիւն է թարգմանութիւնը: “Is translation transportation of a text from one language to another, or is it necessarily a transformation?” He always struggled with that.
At a time like this, weighed down by Yervant’s loss, I find it very difficult to convey the way his mind and heart and abilities and concerns came together to make him the exceptional person and friend he was, that made him mean so much to me. It’s customary to end remarks like this with sustained, elevated praise, rich in adjectives. I am not disposed to pile up adjectives here and now. What I most deeply admired, loved and valued about Yervant was his care and attention to our life and behavior as individuals in friendship or rivalry, and to our collective existence as a diaspora people. He cared memorably about our diasporic public sphere. So I will end with a passage from a letter he wrote in 2009, when he was explaining how much he had valued the issues of the Paris newspaper Haratch that I used to mail to him. Referring to its late Editor, Arpik Missakian, and to the assistant editor, Arpi Totoyan, for whose columns he had often expressed special praise, he said about the passing of that wonderful newspaper. «Նոր յառաջ»ի կամ համացանցային պարբերականի կարելիութիւնները խանդավառող են։ Իմ ափսոսացածս այն ինքնայատուկ դիրքորոշումն ու կեցուածքն էին որ Արփիները, իւրաքանչիւրը իր ձեւով, կը բերէին մեր հանրային մտահոգութիւններուն եւ իրադարձութիւններուն։ “(30 May 2009). “The appearance of Nor Haratch and new Armenian periodical publications on the internet make me enthusiastic. But I lament the absence of those distinctive positions and attitudes with which the two Arpis, each in her own style, turned their attention to our collective realities and concerns.”
I miss Yervant. I shall always miss his knowledgeable concern for our communal life and its realities, but above all I will miss his distinctive, sometimes idiosyncratic, always thoughtful, caring, perceptive and witty engagement in our shared lives as Armenian friends.
Khachig Tölölyan is an author and former Wesleyan University professor. He is the founder and editor of the academic journal Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies.