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Vahan Totovents, Life on the Old Roman Road

Vahan Totovents, Life on the Old Roman Road

"When I began to study the history of Greece and Rome, when I first read about the invasions of the Hellenes to the East, about the Persian wars, about Xerxes, Alexander and Julius Caesar, about the roads laid by the Romans I got to like our street even more.  It seemed to me that I saw the Greek and Roman legions, Persian troops passing in front of our house…"

"Life on the Old Roman Road" is the childhood picture of the Armenian writer Vahan Totovents, which was written not using brushes but words that somehow incredibly depict images in one’s mind.  The reader not only sees everything that is happening there but also feels the senses and the sounds of the described stories through the printed text.   Owing to the story one may not only get to know the fates of the characters, worry and laugh, but also get acquainted with the style of life of Armenians in XIX-XX centuries in the Ottoman Empire.

This is an autobiographic novel about the life of one street in Mezira, Kharberd province in Western Armenia (Ottoman Empire) located on the crossroads: «The street that we lived on was also a road connecting our town with other towns and villages». The book is written on behalf of a young man around which act the characters and the events are unfold. 

"My mother went to the cowshed to milk the cow and did not return for a long time.

— Where is the daughter-in-law? — asked my aunt. They went to the cowshed.  They saw my mother sitting by the cow holding a blue-eyed baby.  That was me."

"My father was a landowner and an important official body in our province.  But I must begin from his death.  He got ready for his death as the groom would get ready for his wedding.   A month before that (back then he was on his feet and felt quite cheerful, but he knew that the death was approaching him), he called the carpenter and chose long walnut boards with him.— It won’t do, —said my father and  throwing the knotted board aside, replaced it with another one. Then he straightened up on the floor, on the Persian Kirmanshah carpet and the carpenter took his measurements."

"My mother was a healthy, energetic and beautiful woman. (...) Only half an hour before giving birth she left her chores around the house.   The expression of pain hardly appearing on her face was replaced by a calm, soft smile, she secluded and…one of us was born. (...) My mother had a lot of milk.  Women, who did not have enough milk, sometimes brought their infants so that my mother breastfed them.  I remember very well, how I sat on my mother’s knees and pressed my lips on her warm nipples. (...) and I puffed and sniffed from pleasure filling myself with warm and thick milk… Mother, I remember your joy, your happiness when my brothers and I were drinking your milk, were drinking from the sunny profundity of your body! (...)A heavy feeling is oppressing me now when I remember the tears of my mother shed because of me (...)."

"The German Herr Eiman  who opened a college in our town and vigorously advocated the citizens to convert to Evangelism liked paron Mambre very much, hired him and gave him a good salary. One day Mambre went out in a European suit (Eiman’s gift). Had he appeared in a Roman toga, he would not look so funny. The hanging mustache did not fit in with the new suit. He shaved it. However paron Mambre did not remain complacent. He decided something strange. (...) So, on Sunday, after the praying paron Mambre went into Herr Eiman’s office with an idiotic expression on his face (this expression was the sign of independence for the Protestants) and said with a depressed voice:

— Herr Eiman, I regret deeply for being an Armenian.

In response Herr Eiman spat in paron Mambre’s face and the next morning terminated his employment. The carpenter backed the wrong horse: he was sure that to cheer him up Herr Eiman would give him a promotion but it turned out…He continued to pray intensely a few more weeks without missing a meeting. But Herr Eiman was implacable.  Then he realized that there is no use from the Protestants. Throwing away the new clothes, he put on the old garments of the artisan and returned to the bosom of the Gregorian church.  His first appearance in the church was quite remarkable: throughout the whole service he was praying loudly and heart-rending, was crying and kissing the carpet with the following words:

 O Lord, please forgive me!"

Life on the old Roman road was full of odd parts, and strange were the Armenians returning to our town from America.  They brought with themselves nothing but external sleek, English words and crooked mouths: they were twisting their mouths when speaking Armenian or English."

Totovents lived between 1894-1938 and over this period, during World War I the horrible events of the genocide took place in the Ottoman Empire.   He heard about these events while living in New York where he studied at the University of Wisconsin.  He left his studies and returned to homeland as a volunteer to fight against the Turks on the Caucasus front line.   During the war events Totovents became the personal secretary and the bodyguard of General Andranik Ozanyan, the national hero of Armenia.

"The blood streams will soon flood the native town of Totovents, Kharberd, he will lose his relatives and ancestral home. Everything that was a reality not long ago will become only as a memory" — wrote A. Makintsyan. The writer wrote the novel “Life on the Old Roman Road” several years later after those events.  In this novel he recreated the events that are lost forever: the native street, life, and people with their lifestyle.

"…On that day at dawn the sultan tyranny beheaded two revolutionaries. One was beheaded here and the second one on the Upper square. For the first time I saw the face of malicious despotism, a hideous face. I feel miserable, I am sick at heart. I want to go home and suddenly I hear screams, footsteps, noise. It is the crowd. I run — Fuad bey! Fuad bey! Fuad bey…. Fuad bey is a Turk. He has a beautiful head, dreamy eyes, open forehead, and has a Chokha on. Fuad Bey is one of those brave men sent from Constantinople who protested against the brutal massacre of revolutionaries. He climbed on the step stone of a shop and started to talk addressing the crowd."


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