Monday, October 20, 2008

Chekhov on Armenians

I was reading a collection of Anton Chekhov short stories in a publication called The Fiancée and Other Stories when I came across a story called Beauties. In the first paragraph, Chekhov unleashes quite a vicious description of what seems to be a prototypical Armenian:

“Never in my life have I seen anything more grotesque than that Armenian. Imagine a small, close-cropped head with thick, beetling eyebrows, a bird-like nose, long grey whiskers and a wide mouth with a long, cherrywood chibouk sticking out of it. This small head was clumsily stuck on to a scraggy, hunchbacked torso garbed in fantastic costume: a short red jacket with sky-blue, baggy trousers. This person walked around with legs wide apart, shuffling his slippers, speaking with the pipe still in his mouth – but at the same time bearing himself with typical Armenian dignity, never smiling, goggling his eyes and trying his hardest to ignore his visitors.”

Wow. Very flattering, Anton. Actually, I don’t take it personally. Why would I? In hindsight, I tend to agree with Anton: while Armenian men are not the most aesthetically pleasing, the women are the polar opposite (for the most part…when you can get beyond all that makeup). Chekhov did not miss a beat on this. A few pages later, the short’s protagonist encounters the old Armenian man’s daughter, Masha:

“An artist would have termed the Armenian girl’s beauty classical and severe. The contemplation of just this type of beauty, God knows why, thoroughly convinces you that the features before you are regular, that hair, eyes, nose, mouth, neck, bosom and all the movements of this young body have been fused by nature into perfect harmony and she had not erred, not even in the most minute detail. Somehow you imagine that the ideally beautiful woman should have a nose just like Masha’s, straight but slightly aquiline, the same large, dark eyes, the same long lashes and the same languid glance. Her curly black hair and eyebrows are the perfect match for the delicate whit color of her forehead and cheeks, just as green reeds suit a quiet stream. Masha’s white neck and young bosom are not fully developed, but feel that only a great artist could sculpt them. Looking at her you are gradually filled with the desire to tell the girl something particularly pleasant, sincere and beautiful, something as beautiful as herself.”

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