Modern Armenian literature had three major enemies: tuberculosis, Turkish genocide, and Stalinist repression. The so-called “second April 24” harvested the lives of many remarkable Armenian intellectuals and public figures between 1936 and 1938, who were shot, died in prison, or in exile. Many others suffered short or long years in prison, labor camps, internal exile, and were fortunate enough to survive until the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin when they returned.
Poet and novelist Gurgen Mahari (Ajemian) was born in Van. His father, Krikor Ajemian, was an important member of the Armenagan Party (the first Armenian political party, founded in Van in 1885). Mahari became an orphan in 1907, when his father was shot by his brother-in-law, an A.R.F. member, in a confusing incident. In 1915, after the heroic self-defense of Van during the genocide, the future writer migrated to Eastern Armenia with his family. They lost each other on the road of exile, and Mahari lived in orphanages in Dilijan and Yerevan until he found his family again.
He published his first poems in the press during the first republic, and later, in the Soviet period, he studied at Yerevan State University. He published five collections of poetry and short stories between 1924 and 1931, but his fame in the 1930s was cemented by the first two books of his biographical trilogy, “Childhood” and “Adolescence” (1930). Meanwhile, he had married and had a son. He became a member of the Writers Union of Armenia in 1934.
The wave of repression unleashed in Armenia after the assassination of Aghasi Khanjian in 1936 reached Mahari too. Trumped-up charges were brought against him and he was condemned to a ten-year exile from 1936-1946 in Siberia. After returning to Yerevan, in 1948 he was condemned, through new trumped-up charges, to life exile. In Siberia, he met Lithuanian student Antonina Povilaitite, who had also been condemned to life exile. They married and lived with the hope of change. Stalin died in 1953, and Mahari and his wife, together with their newly-born daughter, managed to return to Yerevan in 1954. Their daughter would die shortly thereafter, and they would later have a son.
After seventeen years of exile, the writer returned to his homeland in bad health, but with the inner strength to continue his writing. He became one of the leading voices in the literary life of Armenia during the 1950s and 1960s. He published the third part of his trilogy, “On the Eve of Youth” (1956), a volume of poetry in 1959 and a collection of short stories, “The Voice of Silence” (1962), where he reflected the Siberian years. Another Siberian memoir, “Barbed Wire in Flower,” was first published posthumously in the weekly “Nayiri” of Beirut (1971); it was published in Yerevan only in 1988. He received the title of Emeritus Cultural Activist of Armenia in 1965.
Mahari published his most important book, the novel “Burning Orchards,” in 1966 (there is a translation in English), an account of Armenian life in Van before World War I, during the self-defense of the city, and afterwards. It created a lively controversy because of some of his views, and he was forced to rewrite it; the second version was published in 1979 in a curtailed form. The final edition was only published in 2004, edited by Grigor Achemyan, Mahari’s eldest son, who has published several unpublished volumes and has prepared an edition of unpublished works in thirteen volumes.
Gurgen Mahari passed away in Palanga (Lithuania), on June 17, 1969, and was buried in Yerevan. He concluded one of his autobiographical works with a characteristic paragraph: “[If] the terrible and omnipotent Jehovah entered this moment, sat in front of me, lit a cigarette and said: ‘I’m giving you a second life; trace the path of your second life from cradle to tomb, as you wish, and your wish will be accomplished . . . How would you like to live?,’ I would answer him, without hesitation: 'Exactly as I lived it.'