Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 01/21/2013


Why we should read...

    `Family, Honour, Morality' by Yervant Odian
    (Selected Works, 796pp, pp5-233, 1956, Armenia) 

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 21, 2013

by Eddie Arnavoudian


Yervant Odian more famous for his satire 'Comrade Panchooni' wrote
`Family, Honour, Morality', more than one hundred years ago. It
remains today both enjoyable and instructive. A reconstruction of
Armenian life in Istanbul during the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, it is a brutally forthright critique of the corrupt and
dissolute Armenian elite that exercised tyranny over the Ottoman
capital's large Armenian community. This elite of wealthy merchants,
arm-in-arm with the Church hierarchy, both sunk in a moral marsh,
finds its typical representatives in Ghugas Effendi and Father Mikias,
unquestionably two enduring characters of modern Armenian fiction.

Like many novels in the realist tradition, `Family, Honour, Morality'
is a stark exposure of the ugly power of money in a society devoid of
egalitarian or democratic structures. In Armenian literature, this
novel has another welcome merit, ironically one born of a certain
flawed narrowness of focus. Depictions of the degenerate elites are
not uncommon in the modern Armenian novel. But Odian's almost
exclusive focus on scenes of immoral and criminal personal and
domestic lives, disregarding the wider social sphere, proves unusually
illuminating.

`Family, Honour, Morality' has telling resonance, backwards and
forwards. With this and his other novels of Istanbul life Odian
provides a link in an illustrious tradition - the bold telling of
truths about the Armenian privileged classes - secular and
religious. Then and now they cloak themselves in an aura of virtue and
saintliness only so as to better conceal their misappropriations and
their dissoluteness, and as a means also of retaining the moral high
ground from where to cajole and bully the people into silent
obedience. It is a critical tradition that originates with the 5th
century founders of Armenian historiography and one that is in
desperate need of recovery.

Odian's is not however just an acute socio-historic denunciation. The
force of his presentation is sustained by artistic merit that he is
often charged with lacking. A facility for story-telling, simple and
lucid language, a capacity for generating authentic social relations
and characters combined with wit and humour in description, bring
alive Armenian Istanbul along with many a personality, among them the
chief protagonist Ghugas Effendi, a wealthy businessman and sexual
predator who ceaselessly proclaims the virtues of family, honour and
morality, contemptuously tramples upon them all. Even if elsewhere
equalled in modern Armenian literature, Odian's exposure of the
establishment's putrid core has certainly not been bettered.


				  I.

The contours of elite decadence are visible at the novel's outset when
we encounter the intolerably arrogant and presumptuous Ghugas Effendi
preparing to conduct a vicious vendetta against Satenig, a powerless
and impoverished widow, who had the temerity to detain him on his way
home from chairing a weekly Charity Association meeting. Run together
with this plotline is a constellation of sub-plots, each a window on
Armenian Istanbul's mores, its daily life and most critically on the
immoral physiognomy of its leading lights.

Ghugas Effendi is no accidental or isolated figure. Of lowly
beginnings, and a murky past, he is now an influential member of the
Armenian establishment integrated in addition into the highest
echelons of Ottoman society. Mingling with high priest and senior
state officials he is, like them, rotten and crooked to a bone. He is
`wealthy and held ostensibly in great respect' but: `Terrible,
sickening stories circulated about the tragedy of those who had fallen
into the claws of a businessman who had commenced his career as a
usurer and driven by unrestrained greed for wealth had resorted to the
worst possible deeds, especially when dealing with the defenceless,
weak and innocent (p27)'.

Having by such means accumulated sufficient capital, `to advance his
banditry' by more legitimate means Ghugas Effendi sets himself up as a
merchant in Istanbul where in a final leap he secures himself the role
of an official supplier to the Ottoman state. In this capacity he
participates enthusiastically in a well-oiled system of corruption and
in `cahoots with dodgy ministers', `begins robbing the state
treasury'. But instead of punishment Ghugas Effendi is repeatedly
decorated for his `honoured services to the state'. Having thus joined
the mainstream:

    `Parallel to his wealth, his reputation as a clever and honourable
    man also rose. Dirty deeds from old times were forgotten, covered
    over; no more would the curse of his victims reach the heights of
    his honour...' (p27)

Eager for a share of the secular elite's plunder, the Church
hierarchy, with one hand holding tight to the merchant's coat tails,
reached shamelessly for his wallet with the other. The merchant elite
was not altogether displeased, for in exchange, the men of god,
abandoning all moral qualm, happily legitimised standing and authority
of the Ghugas Effendis that had taken up leading posts in the
community. Typical among such miscreants is Father Mikias a `senior
priest' `then nearly 60' who has successfully transformed `the
business of chaplaincy to the rich into a personal monopoly'
(p12). `Of course, he expects the full rewards for his services in the
other world' but nevertheless `whilst awaiting heavenly remuneration'
he obtains such material benefits here on earth that `ensure him quite
a luxurious and comfortable life (p12).'

Father Mikias is a grisly figure of gross misconduct stalking the
homes of the rich with mind and body ready to leap at profitable
opportunity. Knowing which side his bread is buttered, while `arrogant
and bold towards his inferiors' he is `a hypocrite and crawler' before
the rich and `for this he was loved and respected.' (p12) Ever
calculating profit and loss he has no loyalties. Denied the lucrative
role of intermediary in Ghugas Effendi's plan to marry off his
daughter to the rich Paris-based Armenian jeweller Levon, the slighted
Mikias without compunction turns tables on his former patron. In
expectation of a purse he proceeds to offer his services to the
Samsaryan family also eager to marry their daughter to the same Levon.

Thereafter between Ghugas Effendi and Father Mikias tension,
contradiction and animosity surfaces in a silent battle of grasp and
gain. Knowledge of each other's crimes and misdeeds are accumulated as
arsenals of threat and blackmail that produce between the warring
factions of merchant and priest a sort of balance, a peace shame and
fear of exposure that enabled both to better rob everyone else.

Protected by contacts in high office and by the hired media happy to
blind public opinion to Ghugas Effendi's crimes and misdeeds and with
wealth and status according him power that `can drown opponents in a
single drop of water', he enjoys virtual immunity when indulging his
depraved sexual criminality. His victims, Satenig, Shushanig, a young
girl he rapes, and Yeranig, his sister-in-law that he abuses, appear to
have no means of redress.


				 II.

As incident is piled upon incident and revelation follows revelation
in a complex of expertly balanced plot and sub plot, Odian lays bare
the power of money that transforms vice into virtue.

Haji Toumig, a charismatic, honest but deceived bar owner in a working
class district together with young and educated Serkis, an energetic
doer and fixer, set about seeking compensation for Satenig whose
reputation Ghugas Effendi has smeared and whose eviction from her home
he has also engineered. Their systematic investigation unearths the
evidence of Ghugas Effendi's rape of Shushanig. Failing to obtain
justice for either, one Sunday morning in a Church courtyard crammed
with worshippers they subject Ghugas Effendi to a humiliating public
denunciation that also brings to light the underbelly of Istanbul's
brothels, pimps and prostitutes that serviced the elite's degenerate
pleasures.

Ghugas Effendi however, is only momentarily unbalanced. He has
complete confidence that `money will help cover everything up and
exonerate him'. Indeed as his wife remarks, this would not be the
first time he has `cloaked misdeed with money or influence' (p220). A
short while later we meet him relaxed and content: `I have once again
fallen on my feet, he thought to himself. So here and there they will
eat us up, for a few weeks they will gossip about us. Let them bark as
much as they want as soon as I dispose of a few hundred pounds as a
gift to some orphanage, some hospital or charity, a few pounds to the
newspapers too, I shall then once again become, and even more so, the
honourable Ghugas Effendi (p137)'.

Sprawling plot and narrative, conditioned in part by requirements of
serialisation, do frequently test the reader's patience. Thinned out
development, often bowing under the weight of immaterial detail
endangers flow and continuity, while characters do not always stand on
their own two feet, often lacking emotional or psychological
completeness. Shushanig and Satenig, for example, the two main female
characters, are shadows, almost faceless, serving only as highlighters
of Ghugas Effendi's criminal monstrosity.

Nevertheless within the terms of the plot, though possessed of a
pronounced limp, characters remain upright and so plot and sub-plots
keep turning, at moments driven by genuine dramatic tension, by
gripping immediacy, biting satire and many a turn of phrase or comment
that captures something revealing not just about the decadent elite
but about the daily life of the common people who contrary to their
elites do live lives of honour and morality; about the position of
mother-in-laws fearful that a son's new wife will undermine their
power and authority; about the transformation of marriage into a
financial transaction where profit and loss account for everything and
love nothing.

`Family, Honour, Morality' is additionally generous with the images of
Istanbul life, its coffee and wine bars, its Armenian café owners and
artisans and its white collar workers - accountants, clerks and
secretaries. Interestingly, the manual working class however - the
porters, fire fighters, fishermen, carpenters and others who appear in
numbers in Yeroukhan's short stories - are largely absent.

Two thirds into the novel, in a series of twists, turns and secret
negotiations all the plot's knots appear to have been cut, albeit in
somewhat romantic fashion. Ghugas Effendi has once again escaped
justice having paid out a private settlement to Shushanig. Satenig is
a widow no more, happily married to her one time lodger Karekin, while
Shushanig ties the knot with Serkis who has become her champion. Levon,
and Ghugas Effendi's daughter, Rozig rush off to marry in Paris where
they are later joined by Levon's mother.


				 III.

At this point the reader cannot but fear that the remainder of the
novel will be intolerably dull. But not so! Out of the blue, as if he
has suddenly remembered an important omission, Odian turns now to a
dramatic account of Ghugas Effendi's entrapment and sexual abuse of
his sister in law Yeranig, an account that not only completes the
picture of the man's utter depravity but additionally underlines the
barbarism of women's oppression within the highest reaches of society
too.

Yeranig is a significant contrast to Ghugas Effendi's other two female
victims. Whilst Satenig and Shushanig do eventually escape Ghugas
Effendi's grasp, it is only through the efforts of men, of Serkis,
Karekin and Haji Toumik. Yeranig however is no passive victim. A
powerful woman caught in impossible economic straits, when driven to
the edge she summons the will to resist the man who has planned `to
keep her as an object for his pleasures.' (p203) Her self-driven
revolt is a fine affirmation of human independence and dignity even at
the precipice of total disintegration.

Demonstrating ability, and not for the first or last time, to delve
into emotional and psychological depths, Odian movingly communicates
that `unusual energy and will power' that Yeranig feels once having
determined to assert her dignity. (p207). Soon after her `decisive
arrangements' to break from her tormentor `a sort of spiritual ease
and joy' descends upon her. Touched by a sense of exhilaration and
pride she thinks it `impossible that anything in the world could
possibly stop her from carrying out her decisions (p215).' In these
same passages Odian offers us some sharp images of Ghugas Effendi's
impotent rage when his rich man's sense of entitlement is thwarted by
challenge and disobedience of those occupying a lower social station
than his own. A fine reflection indeed of the arrogance and
presumption of the privileged.

`Family, Honour, Morality' reaches an entirely satisfactory conclusion
when Ghugas Effendi dies, days after a night of debauchery during
which he is stabbed in a dispute, maybe with a pimp, at one of his
favourite brothels. Despite previous public exposure, despite the
sordid circumstances of his life and death, in an act of
self-preservation the entire Armenian establishment with an outpouring
of false grief and sickening glorification, coalesce and solidify
around Ghugas Effendi.

Ghugas Effendi's crimes are but the tip of an iceberg of establishment
degeneration. To protect itself, to preserve its moral mask and to
fend off criticism or challenge from society, Ghugas Effendi's life
must once again be whitewashed, refurbished and wall-papered. So his
funeral became a celebration of collective hypocrisy and deceit with:

    `All well-known merchants and capitalists, as well as foreigners
    holding important positions in the commercial world present. The
    ceremony was led by the Patriarch, together with six Bishops, 14
    reverends and 30 parish priests. The oration was given by the
    Patriarch, who as his theme opened with the Biblical phrase `A man
    after the heart of God.' (p230)

Engraved upon Ghugas Effendi's tombstone was an encomium in verse
written by none other than Father Mikias who was rewarded handsomely
so for the privilege.

The entire affair is parcelled and wrapped up by the press that
enthusiastically fills column upon column with encomiums to a man
`whose passing' it is claimed `represents an irrecoverable loss' for
the community, to one who though a `modest man' was of `high
intellect', to a `model husband and father' who `brought up two
beautiful daughters' who can proudly `decorate the Armenian nation.'


				 IV.

`Family, Honour, Morality' is a fine novel, as literary work and
social history. It is marked however besides its artistic limits - the
incompleteness of character, the frequently insubstantial plot and a
damaging generality, that we need not turn to here - by too many other
troubling issues to earn space on the same shelf as Yeroukhan's
classic novel of Armenian Istanbul `The Amira's Daughter'.

Throughout there is a deeply inauthentic chord, a constant
undercurrent of contempt for the poor, a persistent misrepresentation
that depicts them repeatedly, and with little or no qualification, as
an undeserving, parasitic class lacking any pride or ambition, and in
which benefit cheats and fraudsters form a substantial percentage.
Were these the views of Ghugas Effendi alone one would not bat an
eyelid. But they are presented as those of the common people too and
seep in addition into authorial commentary. Yet the one poor person we
actually meet defies such representation.

The widowed Satenig is `poor' but she is `at the same time proud.' `Oh
my god, can such incongruity really be imagined?' asks Odian.
Evidently not by Odian himself! So much so that he presents Satenig as
an exceptional figure, as one who proves the rule as it were. Satenig
is poor. But she is `an extraordinary poor person' (p47), one so
unusual that even `the other poor did not look upon (her) with a
friendly eye.' She is even set apart in her social status, not one of
the mass, but a teacher's wife. Perhaps these Victorian prejudices
that swarm through the volume tainted the more privileged Armenian
middle and higher classes of Istanbul into which Odian was born. It
bears future pondering.

The most eye catching pothole however is the narrowness in the
depiction of Ghugas Effendi and the Armenian community in which he
lives. Indubitably a powerfully ugly, arrogant, vice-ridden presence,
Ghugas Effendi's portrait is limited to his private life and to his
relations within an isolated and almost ghetto-like Armenian
community. Both are as a result left lop-sided. In the Ottoman capital
the Ghugas Effendis and indeed the wider Armenian community co-existed
with Turks, Greeks, Jews and others. Abstracted from this wider
context, neither community and nor more specifically elite can be
adequately comprehended, especially in the era the novel is set.

Through the Ottoman Empire and in Istanbul particularly, the Armenian
business class existed alongside and was indeed critically fashioned
and defined by competitive war with representatives of other national
economic units. Yet we never see Ghugas Effendi in his relations with
his Turkish, Greek or Jewish business counterparts. Indeed we even
have no idea of the concrete nature of his own business. Nor do we see
him in those bent and subservient political relations to the Ottoman
state that Armenian merchant capital largely adopted, even as the
Armenian nation was being systematically destroyed and Armenian
capital undermined. As significant is the silence on the Armenian
elite's complicated relations to the Armenian National Liberation
Movement.

Odian is not of course required to reconstruct the merchant elite in
its totality. Indeed his preferred ambit is suggested in the novel's
very title `Family, Honour, Morality'. But set in an age of
accentuated nationalist ambitions and economic antagonisms that were
to lead to the Armenian genocide and the confiscation of Armenian
capital, narrowing its scope to private lives leaves us in the dark
about the manner in which the wider and more decisive tides and forces
shaped the fate of Armenian capital and its Ghugas Effendis. Perhaps
for the finality of the genocide, Ghugas Effendi's portrayal would
have been completed in a sequel.

In his private persona however Ghugas Effendi has been caught well as
the wealthy but intemperate, egotistical, vengeful, smirking,
self-satisfied, scheming monster possessed of a decisive, quick and
sharp mind but at the same time morally degenerate and almost
psychopathic. Here a parvenu representative of the elite possessed of
deepest contempt for the common people who resents rubbing shoulders
with them even in Church where all are supposedly equal before their
God.

A significant literary work despite shortcomings and lacunae, `Family,
Honour, Morality', as an exposure of moral decay does not fail to
remind us of our own shameless businessmen, politicians and public
figures who also bray on about the sanctity of family, virtue and
morality whilst mocking them in their own lives. A story of money and
status protecting sexual predators beyond the very grave, the novel
can hardly fail to additionally remind us of the countless moral
scandals that surface from among the rich and wealthy in every age.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.
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