Seventy Thousand Assyrians – William Saroyan

I’m kicking off my Short Story Mondays (hosted by The Book Mine Set ) with a review of William Saroyan’s Seventy Thousand Assyrians.  William Saroyan (1908-1981) was born, and raised in California, to Armenian immigrants.

In the opening paragraph of the story, he writes :

“I hadn’t had a haircut in forty days and forty nights, and I was beginning to look like several violinists out of work. You know the look: genius gone to pot, and ready to join the Communist Party. We barbarians from Asia Minor are hairy people: when we need a haircut, we need a haircut…(I am writing a very serious story, perhaps one of the most serious I shall ever write. That is why I am being flippant. Readers of Sherwood Anderson will begin to understand what I am saying after a while; they will know that my laughter is rather sad.) …

With his self-deprecating humor, Saroyan hopes to take the edge of the tension he feels regarding the story he is about to write. He is apologetic; he lets his guard down and takes us into his confidence. In the next paragraph, Saroyan manages to convey the conditions facing both an unemployed young adult and a struggling writer in 1930s California while at the same time giving us a taste of his obsession with Hemingway’s work.

“Outside, as Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises; …) would say, haircuts were four bits… Iowa said, “I just got in from Salinas. No work in the lettuce fields. Going north now, to Portland; …” I wanted to tell him how it was with me: rejected story from Scribner’s, rejected essay from The Yale Review, no money for decent cigarettes, worn shoes, old shirts, but I was afraid to make something of my own troubles. A writer’s troubles are always boring, a bit unreal. People are apt to feel, Well, who asked you to write in the first place? A man must pretend not to be a writer. I said, “Good luck, north”… Fine boy, hope he isn’t dead, hope he hasn’t frozen, mighty cold these days.”

For the following paragraph, he continues to fix his gaze on working-class folk and immigrants working around the Fresno area. But just like that, he changes his gaze and looks squarely at his role as an author. Now, one can feel the mood of the story changing, the easy-going tone is gone, foundations begin to give way:

“I am not out to win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize or any other prize. I am out here in the far West, in San Francisco, in a small room on Carl Street, writing a letter to common people, telling them in simple language things they already know. I am merely making a record,… I see life as one life at one time, so many millions simultaneously, all over the earth.”

And then, feeling guilty about having “used all this language and beginning to feel that I have said nothing”, he rewrites the opening sentence, drops any pretense at being flippant and introduces us to Theodore Badal, the barber, of whom he asks: “Are you an Armenian?” And then the floodgates open, and all that he has bottled up about his people; their habits, their trials and tribulations, how they are obsessed with figuring out how many Armenians there are in this world, come tumbling out.  But Badal responds “I am an Assyrian”. What ensues is a conversation between the two about lost races, old worlds and countries. Badal says:

”We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. … We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it. The news comes over to us through the Associated Press, anyway.”

Saroyan has captured not just what Armenians feel about their old country but what most immigrants feel about their lost homes. This was written in 1933. But it holds true today – just substitute Facebook, or Twitter or New York Times for the Associated Press, if you prefer. Unlike the writer, Badal does not dream of an independent Assyrian state, there being only “seventy thousand Assyrians in the world”. A people who made a bad choice and took the wrong road:

“We didn’t go in for machinery and conquest and militarism. We didn’t go in for diplomacy and deceit and the invention of machine-guns and poison gases. Well, there is no use in being disappointed. We had our day, I suppose.”

These sentiments are incredibly personal and uttered publicly are also incredibly heavy and loaded. In Saroyan’s work, there is no distance between the writer and his audience, his community. No pretense. At the end of the story, he writes:

“I am thinking of Theodore Badal, himself seventy thousand Assyrians and seventy million Assyrians, himself Assyria, and man, standing in a barber shop, in San Francisco, in 1933, and being, still, himself, the whole race.”

Seventy Thousand Assyrians was written over 70 years ago and yet the issues raised are still valid today. Saroyan’s stories are timeless, intensely profound, funny and yes, explosive. I highly recommend this story.

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