The Dark Valley is the title of Aksel Bakunts’ first book of short stories and it is also the title of the first story within the collection of short stories. The title and the beginning paragraph give a hint to the reader what is awaiting them in this collection of simple stories that are bathed with great depth. The title itself is a word of nature, a word representing nature, as most of the stories are in the collection, and yet the stories themselves have the usual cast of protagonists, and antagonists, and drama. Characteristic human elements are present and it is perfectly clear what rules over them and what Bakunts esteems and propounds as being the real subject of his stories: Nature. Here is the first paragraph of the first story in this collection, and is repeated stylistically in the beginning of practically all the other stories contained within; it opens up with a description of a landscape, or a close-up of a particular detail within that landscape:
The only path leading to the Dark Valley closes off with the first snowfall- until spring not a single man sets foot in its forests. However, there are also dense forests in the Dark Valley where no foot has ever been set. Trees fall and decay. In their fallen place new ones grow. Bears dance whistling like shepherds, wolves howl pointing their snouts to the moon, boars dig the black earth with their tusks assembling last year’s rotten acorns.
After two years of absence, and exhausted from moving from one village to another, Habud laid his head next to his aging mother’s on the mat in his native hut.
In Bakunts there is eternity; the turning of time that is relentless and irrespective towards human time, human emotion, human fate. ‘Vadunts Badi’ begins with the following sentence:
Everybody in the village knew Badi and that he belonged to the Vand family tree. They knew that his house was on the road to the pasture, not quite near the water mills yet, but by the Atans’ great walnut tree.
Now to quickly paraphrase what transpires in this tragic tale. Vadunts Badi is an old father, with an old wife; they have been blessed with one son, Habud. They are very poor, yet content. Vadunts Badi takes care of the cows of the richest person in the village (Isanants), who looks down upon Badi and his family with condescension. Badi and his wife begin talking of finding a wife for their son, this talk fills them with much joy. Suddenly WWI erupts, the son is enlisted, and leaves. The mother is deathly afraid for the life of her son. The son later returns, grown up, hardened by war, and no longer a boy, he takes up the Bolshevik cause, goes away to Moscow, then comes back and speaks up against the tyranny of Isanants towards the other villagers. Isanants and his friends oppose the Bolshevik since it will make them be equal to others in the village. The son leaves again to the city for a meeting with the Bolsheviks (this is during the time when the Bolsheviks were not in power yet) promising to come back the next day, he does not return, and the family is told that he has been arrested for being a Bolshevik. The father goes to the city to find his son, he has not been to the city for ages, he is told to wait in the city, he waits with no money, nowhere to stay, and fearful, to find out the fate of his son. The next day he is told that his son has been shot. Vadunts Badi is broken, he returns home but collapses before he gets there, others carry him back, he arrives to the village and tells his wife, who in turn is equally crushed, and soon dies. Eventually the Bolsheviks take over and Isanants is kicked out, etc. but none of this matters any longer for Badi, who is simply waiting for his turn to die. The last lines of the story are:
Sometimes, when the wood he is carrying gets too heavy, he grumbles:
What am I supposed to say to you God, who has seen me and has taken him (his son) away?
In the evenings he returns home alone, throws one or two pieces of dung in the fireplace, and lies on the mat
Outside, like the old days, the Atans’ great walnut tree softly rocks its branches over Vandunts’ Badi’s ramschackle hut.
And so the wheel turns, Bakunts returns to the beginning of the story in the end, the end becomes the beginning, and yet much has happened in between these two beginnings, these two identical beginnings. Human tragedy, on a small scale, but in general, relative to all scales with its depth and honesty. But this has no effect on the trees, the branches, the wind; Mother Nature is a bystander. Bakunts was aware of the depth of the profound wisdom his simple stories about simple people were expounding because he was very much aware of the Grandness that exists around us and that we exist inside of.
There is something very Zen in Bakunts. A kind of divine non-attachment to what he is talking about, not to say the reader is not affected by the bittersweet, and tragic, and emotional moments that permeate all of these stories. Despite all that, these stories have something greater than them, perhaps its Bakunts’ gaze, like a grand veil that is telling you ‘yes this is tragic, yes this is sad, yes this is not fair, but this is life, these are the trees, and there is this light that hits these trees, and worms dig their way in and out of the earth and people die, and people mourn, but the world turns and will continue to turn and there is nothing you, or I can do about this, other than observe it and exist in it, yes THIS is life and it is AWEsome in its MYSTERY,’ while Bakunts never propounds this ‘Great Mystery,’ he is nevertheless seemingly laying it on your lap through his style of non-attachment. Bakunts is Armenian Zen.
There is also realism that goes beyond realism. How can one feel empathy for someone who has no feeling, for example, in the third short story ‘In Akar’ Bakunts describes a married couple:
There was neither love nor hate between the two. They had lived under the same roof for eight years and had become as inured to each other as a horse does to a stable.
And Nature! Nature everywhere, Nature as the material manifestation of God, nature outside of man, man existing around nature, nature as metaphor, nature as simile:
She resembled a small apple hanging from the branch of an apple tree which the sun had given a red color, but the thin branch had not been able to provide with any water for it to grow and ripen.
In mere pages of text, Bakunts is able to discribe the tragedy, loneliness, and purity of a young girl who is forced to marry, and then dies from childbirth, but he does this only in the end, after first introducing the village of Akar, then the young girl’s parents (who had no love for each other), then he moves to the girl’s story. All of this is done with detached compassion.
Human tragedy brought about through nature; a plague/sickness begins to kill off cows in a village in the story ‘On Mount Ayu’s Slope.’ This results in the slaughter of cows who are suspected of having the sickness, but it is told on two levels, from the eyes of one particular villager (Peti) whose whole livelihood rests on the family’s cow, and who we later follow to war until we reach his death.
The villagers dug large holes in the ground and the watchmen urged them to hurry.
Many people were crying. Calves were lowing in courtyards, and so were the cows. Those who were hastily digging deep holes with spades and picks felt the same amount of pain in their hearts.
What a moving scene in one grand image! The villagers crying, the calves crying because their parents have been taken, and the men digging holes where the cows are to be burned with pain in their hearts, a communal tragedy of epic proportions, of course not so epic because it is a village, and it is only cows that are being killed after all, and yet it is epic because it is honest, it is pure, and humble and has not an ounce of pretension, but simple animal and human essence.
‘The Apricot Field.’ This story is remarkable in that the subjects are two villages and the object is a piece of land that lies between them, a piece of land that has a river running through it. There are no individual characters other than some inspectors, but even they have no specific name and function more as symbols. Despite this bare structure Bakunts provides us with emotion and drama. This story in its simplicity is almost in essence the root of the deep spring where Bakunts’ creative imagination wells up from.
‘St. John the Baptist Monastery’, is the shortest story in “The Dark Vally.” The first half describes the monastery; how it was built, or more correctly, how it may have been built, how centuries passed, how it was abandoned, nature took over, the cupola came crashing down in the river below, and how one day a ‘builder’ came and decided to build a garden and plant different vegetables/fruits and to live there with his wife, and how after a short time he was made to leave because the place was considered sacred. In three pages, a simple beautiful tale. If Time were an author its pseudonym would be Aksel Bakunts. Time that is quintessentially non-judgmental and passive and yet horribly merciless in its consistency. One looks for clues as to some sort of bias in Bakunts, does he favor the sacredness of the church? Or does he sympathize more with the builder who wants to grow food? It can be said that Bakunts’ bias is more for All Pervading Nature itself, that rules the church, that rules the ‘builder,’ that rules the village, that rules everything, but without any favoritism or influence. And even in the following sentence it seems like Bakunts ever so subtly is making a case for man over church, but when considered all together it is simply Bakunts’ striking ability to penetrate into the psychology of a man whose judgments are based on the reality created by nature and not theological ideas:
It was the bell-ringer. He had come to take a bale of stacked hay from a nook of the monastery. The bell-ringer had not seen a lit candle by the door of the monastery for a long time. He blew out the candles and put them in his pocket. They would come in handy in the evening when he would be feeding the cattle hay in the barn.
‘For Gyulbahar’ begins once again with a small village: Drmbon. The village has a priest, Father Maruk, who is supposed to be celibate, and yet is not, he sleeps with a servant girl; Gyulbahar. The village people get word of this, take him to trial, but somehow the person who takes the priest to trial ends up being the one who gets found guilty. However, it being a small village where everyone is more or less in one family, he is forgiven, and everyone comes out of the courtroom having forgotten all about the incident altogether, and as the priest comes out he thinks to himself:
Only Father Maruk was pensive, contemplating where else there is a Drmbon where hourly bells are rung, hymns are sung, rites are performed, and Gyulbahar, Gyulbahar.
Of course this is heresy, and yet for some odd reason it seems saintly. Pure instinctive honesty; a priest who is completely in love, and has found his God in the form of Gyulbahar, and what is wrong with that? Of course he is supposed to be a celibate priest, a man of God, serving as an example to his congregation, which in this case are the villagers of Drmbon, of course this is all how it is supposed to be, and yet Bakunts makes all of this forgivable, because his writing is non-judgmental (which can be argued is the essence of Christianity because with that sentiment runs parallel the love that Jesus preached, the love for one’s neighbor which is impossible to achieve if one judges others), in fact one can’t argue for some ethical or even humanistic point of view that what the priest is doing is okay, no it is not okay, it is wrong, however Bakunts, by some miracle makes such a conclusion impossible, and still I wonder, how does he do it without actually taking sides?
‘Aunt Mina’, the name of the next short story is about a grandmother who lives in a village and awaits her son, and his family who are coming from the city to visit her and stay in the village for a while. However Mina Bibi soon realizes that her granddaughter has a certain contempt and dislike for her and the village in general. She doesn’t like how her grandmother and everything in general is dirty in the village, she dreams of the city and laughs at the simpleness of the village people. Although all of this is portrayed in a natural light, meaning you never really feel the child is doing anything wrong since after all it is very natural for her to be that way coming from the city to the village. At the end of the story Mina Bibi decides to take her granddaughter to the small chapel in the village to teach her to pray with the hope that her granddaughter will get emotionally tied to the village in this way, however when they enter the chapel and the grandmother admonishes her for having cursed because of the low door that bumps her in the hand, warning her that God does not like it, the granddaughter loudly claims that God does not exist, this crushes Mina Bibi, and all she is able to do is go down on her knees and pray:
The chapel’s mossy walls heard Aunt Mina’s quite sobs.
There is another incident here that is worth mentioning, as it kind of ties into the last story’s question of ethics (in regard to religion). When they reach the chapel, Mina Bibi kisses the cross-stone that stands outside of it and asks her granddaughter to do the same, but she refuses. Describing the cross-stone, Bakunts tells us that the stone was blackened from smoke and that dogs from the village would often come, lift up their leg and pee on the stone. Now again this may seem that Bakunts is indirectly expressing his views on the church/religion, as he has done in previous stories, however the next thing that happens is Mina Bibi goes over to this stone and kisses it with complete sincerity and faith. Ironically enough the description of the cross-stone’s pitiful condition heightens Mina Bibi’s faith even more by her actions.
‘Dancing Pain’ is perhaps the strangest story in The Dark Valley. Apparently in a certain village (we are never told the name), there is a certain sickness called ‘dancing pain,’ and is described as an unbearable pain that moves around the body like a ‘worm’, from the bones to the heart and so on. In this particular village there is an age-old tradition of curing this sickness, which is basically a shamanistic exorcism. The women who know how to diagnose the sickness call in zurna and dhol (flute and drum) musicians from the town. The musicians are brought into the house where the patient is staying and for the next few days they play incessantly while the other women throw the patient around, physically torturing her by pulling on her skin, hitting her, and so on; the music keeps the patient from feeling this pain and keeps her in a sort of trance, eventually either the patient is cured or dies. There are no named characters in the story, only an unnamed narrator (who could be Bakunts himself), out on an anthropological mission to find out about this strange ritual who finds out more and more about this ritual from others around town and describes it all. On a personal note, while reading this particular story I realized how a lot of these stories would make a great film, particularly this one. One could end up with a feature-length film with stories comprised from The Dark Valley, each story lasting roughly 10-30 minutes.
‘The Miser’ is the story of Zorba Osep, who is a miser living in a village. In this case he is an anti-hero, one that is looked down upon by all the other villagers for his ways. The story is more of a biography about the man without any kind of dramatic plot. Although again miraculously Bakunts does not judge.
‘Orangia’ is a name of a village where a certain Arakel lives and is jealous of another villager, a certain Manas, who is building on a plot of land that Arakel wanted to build on. Arakel is not liked by most of the village and is considered to be a treacherous, evil man. Though Arakel beats up Manas initially in the story, he then pretends Manas doesn’t exist, which makes Manas think that he is up to something, and surely he is, for by the end of the story, Manas’ house is burned down and in it are found the remains of Manas’ family, and Manas is accused of causing the fire and is sent off. Of course everyone knows who the real culprit is, but no one can prove it. The story concludes with the following Bakuntsian sentences:
But the wind brought seeds, and on the ruins of Manas’s house a rosehip bush began to grow. And each spring lots of roses bloom in Orangia: yellow and white.
‘Mrots’ is a simple tale describing a village, without any characters, except for the ‘villagers’ themselves. The story is divided into three small parts, the first two parts describe the village, its history, its people, its ways. The third part describes what happens when an automobile comes to the village, and the bewildering amazement that villagers have for the vehicle since it is their first time seeing such a machine. And that is all; very simple and very honest.
‘The Demon of the Dark Valley’ is a beautiful, heart-rending story filled with so much honesty, so much subtlety that as the story progresses you wish it were to never end. The story starts off as group of villagers are working on a roof in their village, and one of them begins to tell a tale about the evil spirit/demon in ‘The Dark Valley,’ as the men listen, a strange woman comes into the village and asks the men for directions. She has come to the village for a woman’s meeting (probably a Soviet meeting), one of the men, Sakan, gives her directions on the meeting place. He catches a small hint of the soft skin of her legs, and her neck, etc. Later Sakan is called over to his house because his cow is giving birth, after giving birth to the calf, Sakan’s wife comes home bringing with her that strange woman, whose name turns out to be Asya, that Sakan gave directions to. His wife informs him that Asya will be staying in their house for the night. Sakan tries not to stare at Asya, but still makes note of her smell and other qualities. At night as he passes by Asya’s sleeping body he notices her bare shoulder, her transparent white skin under her clothes, her lovely smell of flowers. He lies down in bed and becomes highly aware of his dirty clothes, his dirty bed cloths, his dirty body, and the bad smell of his wife’s breath, all of this affects Sakan, and in the morning he wakes up and again passes by Asya, noticing her again. Of course when I say noticing I can’t describe the beautiful language that Bakunts uses, all those subtle impressions that one senses and feels when coming across a beautiful woman. That morning Asya leaves, Sakan helps her onto her horse, and thinks to himself how his fingers felt like they were pressing into soft dough as he helped her up on the horse. Asya leaves. That night Sakan sleeps on the same pillow that Asya slept on, he takes deep breaths from the pillow, which still has the smell of Asya. When his wife lies next to him, he turns and presses against her body imagining she is Asya, and at night he dreams:
In his dream he saw the Dark Valley. A woman wearing a white dress was running after him in the valley. He moved closer to catch her. The woman stopped for a moment, and then ran off laughing in the valley again.
‘The Modest Girl’ is another stunningly beautiful story. Two are friends riding horseback through a dense forest on a beautiful spring day. One of them recalls a day in his life, a very special day that he will never forget, that took place around the area where they are passing. The rest of the story is him recalling his memory as they make their way through the forest. Memory, loss, and yet how can one lose something they don’t even have? The scent and subtlety of love is expressed so exquisitely by Bakunts, the slightest, seemingly most trivial of gestures, a look, a hand (also very Bressonian i.e. Robert Bresson), all of this carries so much weight, so much worth, as the friend recalls a girl he saw when he came to work as a teacher for one season in a village nearby, and all that transpired between him and the girl. In essence all that transpired were thoughts, gestures, looks, but all of that is bursting with love, filled to the brink, of unrequited love. It is a tragic story, a bittersweet story. I will quote one line, it takes place during one of the intermittent moments in the story when we are brought back to the present of the two friends riding in the forest together:
My friend fell silent. He rubbed his brow and eyes with his hand and said he wanted to distance himself from the face that smiled so brightly all those years ago.
Across the clear spring sky a white cloud drifted proudly as if it wanted to boast to the whole world that it was swimming at an unreachable height in the rays of the sun.
This description suddenly of a cloud, appearing in the story just like the cloud does, is astounding and for some reason full of great emotion. But how?
‘Tall Margar’ is the story of an old man, who is forced to move from his village with his old wife, and their grandson. Soon after the old wife dies in their new surroundings, Margar, the old man, steals a huge piece of stone from the pile of stones that the villagers have been using to build a road, he does this to use it for his wife’s grave-stone, and he gets beat up for it. I do not mention this as though it is an important narrative element, in fact it is presented in the same line as everything else. Eventually Margar leaves and goes back to Armenia (we are never told where exactly he was before but it’s probably somewhere very close to Armenia) taking with him nothing but his grandson, Torosik, and a bunch of apricot seeds that his late wife collected so she could plant them around their home one day. Here is one beautiful sentence from the story:
At sunrise, the stars melt like snowballs, the sun reddens, and the first rays of sun play with the clouds, as if an invisible hand was drawing patterns with countless rays on the white puffs of a cloud to erase it all a little later with the sane rays, draw another, endlessly, until the sun would set.
‘Sabu’ is a small tale of a village deep in the forests by the name of Sabu, very close to the border of Iran, it’s population is Turkish and they still maintain many pagan rites, and their own legends. One day a sheik comes from Iran and upon seeing one of the local village girls working on a carpet he proclaims to the village, (his words are received as though he is a prophet) that he will take the rug and the girl with him. Again this is only a small part of the story and in no way is it some sort of climactic plot point as is usual in the neutrality of Bakunts. Here is the first sentence from the story:
They live in the forest, and because the village has been in the dense forest since time immemorial, the child of the village of Sabu thinks that the world is one endless forest in whose clearing man sows millet and bears gather fallen acorns, break tree branches, and lie down satisfied in the millet field.
‘Alpine Violet’ is the last story in The Dark Valley bringing Bakunts’ first book of short stories to a fitting end. (It was dedicated to Arpenik Charents the beloved first wife of his good friend Yeghishe Charents). Three riders come to a remote place where the ancient remains of a fortress (Kaqavaberd) stand. One of them is a historian, the other a painter, and the third their guide. After looking at the remains of the castle, the historian with his historical interests, and the painter with his sketch book and pencil, they return to one of the houses that is built below the castle, where they are served tea and food by a woman; this woman strikes the painter as looking very much like someone he once was enamored with long ago. The painter sketches her, they eat, and leave. Later the woman’s husband returns home from work, (not to mention that earlier in the day when the husband had enquired the guide as to why the two men were there, the guide said they were looking for treasure that was supposed to be in the castle; this had already made the husband quite jealous), when the husband finds out that the two men had rested in his home and that one of the men had drawn his wife (this he finds out from their little son), he gets even more incensed and beats his wife, and that is the crux of the plot in this story, although all of these characters and happenings are told as though they are leaves floating in the wind amongst thousands of other leaves. Oh, and as to what an ‘Alpiakan Manushak’ is (the title of the story), it is a flower that that grows in that region, particularly around the castle. Here is the last paragraph/sentence of the story, and thus bringing the entire book to a fitting end:
The beetle, intoxicated by the fragrance, slept among the stamens and it seemed to it as if the world was one big scented flower garden, one big Alpine violet…
All translations have been taken from ‘The Dark Valley’ translated by Nairi Hakverdi. London: Taderon Press, 2009 ISBN 978-1-903656-90-7
The only short story in The Dark Valley that was not commented upon was ‘Pheasant’ which was made into a short film along with two other short films that were inspired by the same story. They can be seen here Pheasant.
All photos were taken in the forests of Goris, Armenia. The birthplace of Aksel Bakunts.