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Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian November 14, 2006 I. HAGOP BARONIAN'S `THE HONOURABLE BEGGARS' ALIVE AND PRACTICING TODAY Whatever any final judgement critics may make on the artistic quality of Hagop Baronian's (1843-1891) `The Honourable Beggars' (Selected Works, pp5-104, 1987, Yerevan, Armenia), they must still account for the immense and long-standing popularity of this story of social parasites, hypocrites, poseurs and cheats flocking around wealthy Abisoghom Agha to relieve him of the contents of his wallet. `The Honourable Beggars' is hugely enjoyable satire and slapstick. But it is satire and slapstick that is raised to the level of art by one of the finer minds of the 19th century Armenian intelligentsia. In mocking the pathetic pretensions of its leadership, its intellectuals and aspiring politicians, Baronian has given an indefinite lease on life to middle-class 19th Armenian-Istanbul. Armenian Istanbul is now remote but its characters cast long shadows that fit perfectly the cheats and charlatans in our own editorial offices, political HQs, publishing houses, artists' cafes and medical institutions. The clash between selfish individualism and the principles of a nobler public service that constitutes the core of `The Honourable Beggars' also gives it a spectacular contemporary relevance. Then as now all revolves round money and personal gain. Public professions and services are corrupted and everything hallowed, art, culture, faith is transformed into a means of private profit at society's expense. As soon as Trabzon resident Abisoghom Agha sets foot in Istanbul in search of a wife they rush to him like moths to a light - the local editor, the priest, the poet, the photographer, the matchmaker, the lawyer, the doctor, the teacher and Manoug Agha with whom Abisoghom will lodge. Each professes singular concern for and absolute dedication to Abisoghom's interests while having an actual interest only for his money. Manoug Agha bores his guest with his ambitions to drink from the trough of a venal local politics (p18). An aspiring poet flaunts his lack of talent with bombastic words and simultaneously exposes the transformation of art into moneymaking artifice (p37). A visit from a teacher underlines the dreadful poverty of education with the failure of the well off to support its institutions or pay teachers adequate salaries. An encounter with matchmaker Shushan takes us into the sordid marketplace to which marriage is reduced, a marketplace where girls are `commodities for sale' (p65) to be purchased by men looking for servants in a transaction that is expected to make the agent a handsome profit. The narrative comes to a dramatic end in hilarious but still shocking scenes of the local barber and priest conspiring to fleece Abisoghom (p97), of the unseemly clash between the grubby matchmaker and the priest squabbling over lucrative rights to arrange Abisoghom's marriage (p98) and a horrifying episode of the clergyman's grasping greed. Something of the latter's lurid presence is communicated in the pathological descriptions of him pressing snuff into his nose while elsewhere Baronian takes a swipe at priestly privilege when describing Abisoghom's satisfaction after `having filled his stomach like a priest. (p48) As he goes about his business Baronian reconstructs something of the social, economic and political framework for Armenian-Istanbul. He shows the unstable, crisis ridden petty-trading, artisan character of the Armenian community. Though enjoying a degree of internal social autonomy the community is ceaselessly reminded of imperial Ottoman authority by the sound of tramping soldiers always audible above the bustle or in the silence of the city. From a distance, one also sees the silent majority, the masses, or what Baronian terms the `multiplying poor', who have to suffer the leadership and the public servants who gather around Abisoghom. Besides Abisoghom himself, the other characters are caricatures that, standing alone, would perhaps collapse ineffectively, become rather dull and lifeless, incapable of communicating any truth. But they are held firm and upright as they orbit around the more or less fully drawn flesh and blood character of Abisoghom. Abisoghom is himself vain, vulgar, conceited philistine and bullying. He has no vision and no concerns for anything or anyone beyond his own. A provincial with airs, he does not speak Turkish, French, English or German. Still, the local newspaper editor intent on getting a subscription from him will describe Abisoghom not just as a dedicated community member but a linguist too. Abisoghom is also however painfully gullible for which quality he becomes something of a legend as social impostors yearn for the return of such easy prey. In this gullibility, as well as in his moods, annoyances, exasperations and in his obsessive preoccupation with his food as he is driven to despair by his predators Baronian confers upon Abisoghom a real humanity. It is in this humanity that we can associate and even empathise with him. It is in the feeling for him as a human being that Abisoghom comes to represent not just himself, or even his class but all victims of Istanbul's middle class parasites. From the opening Baronian secures our trust explaining why unlike many a novel of the day, his does not open with any dramatic scenes. Simply, because there were none on the day Abisoghom arrived in Istanbul. The story is told clearly, in a matter of fact style, intimately, as if a close relative, but one with insider knowledge. He does not resort to declamation, bombast or flights of moral indignation. His narrative is also marked by geniality and good spirit. Relentless in his criticism, uncompromising in his exposure, sharp in his ridicule, Baronian is never malicious or personally offensive. Jesting and joking, he targets social relations and social institutions to show that the Armenian people need and deserve a better intelligentsia and a better leadership. Baronian's characters were alive and kicking in the Istanbul of his day. They survived the Genocide and reappeared in the Diaspora to prosper in the Armenian Middle East at least to the 1980s and even 1990s and beyond. Who knows perhaps they also exercise their skills in Glendale USA today and more significantly in Armenia itself. In this aspect `The Honourable Beggars' has become an integral component of the Armenian literary canon and part of the national tradition, a reminder of a moment in Armenian history, a stage in the development of an aspect of Armenian social identity and a mirror for life today too. But the social relations and characters that are lampooned also have a decided universality. They are marked by a limitation noted in an unduly exaggerated form by Hagop Oshagan, who comments on characters brilliantly conceived but ending one measure short of universality. The particular and contingent are sometimes depicted in a dominating detail that can hide the essential. But adapted to stage by creative and imaginative directors `The Honourable Beggars' is a story for today. Everything has changed but everything also remains the same. Except that today the corruption of the professions and decay of the ethic of public service are on a greater and grosser scale. We hardly need to remind ourselves of the huge and daily scandals in every sphere of public life that afflict the USA and Europe and of course our own Armenia too. Baronian's primary concern in the substantial body of work he has left was the defence of the public interest defined in precise manner - that which benefits the nation and its people. It is to them that he demands the dedication and commitment of the intelligentsia and the wealthy elite. In his day he witnessed only a useless baggage, a parasitic disease that was stunting and even threatening the Armenian revival and progress. With his satirical expose of social decay and his enunciation of the primacy of the social good and social welfare Baronian's critique is as pertinent as ever and as funny. II. HAGOP BARONIAN'S `BAGHDASSAR AGHBAR' AND THE DRAMAS OF DOMESTIC DECEIT As he pulls aside the façade of respectable private middle-class life in 19th century Armenian Istanbul, Hagop Baronian's outrageously and energetically surreal sense of the comic and the absurd unfailingly reminds one of the Marx Brothers. `Baghdassar Aghbar' (Selected Works, pp241-369, 1987, Yerevan, Armenia), a drama of domestic deceits and the legal farce that follows, is slapstick with a mission to expose the degradation of family relations and family law in a world where love, loyalty, duty and dedication are professed loudly by men and by women who possess none and who in the name of a high moral ground conspire, deceive and cheat. A well to do Baghdassar Aghbar hopes to divorce his unfaithful wife Anoush who in turn plans to marry her lover Gibar. Baghdassar hires lawyer Oksen to prepare his case that will be heard by a family tribunal that has power to decide on disputed issues. Comic farce momentarily holds in check a full realisation of the extent of the grim reality. But there is no avoiding shock on witnessing the readiness with which all resort to perjury and bribery (p299, 295, 300, 249) as they work to bend social institutions to their needs. Anoush and Gibar with the aid of their servants and neighbours plot to defame Baghdassar as an immoral womaniser. Osken, a self-serving profiteer, displays haughty disregard for principle and plays fast and loose with the law one moment proclaiming dedication to Baghdassar, the next threatening to abandon him unless promptly paid. Baronian uses side splitting farce to hold together the whole (p266, 276, 305) and keep the audience focused. As in `The Honourable Beggars' here too the protagonist easily falls prey to the ruses of experienced predators. Baghdassar is a plaything and instrument of private and social venality and bribery. But he himself, as Abisoghom Agha in `The Honourable Beggars' is no angel. Baghdassar is a conceited, bigheaded, arrogant fool, a self-proclaimed knowall (p298) who in fact has not the slightest inkling about the plots that are being hatched against him. But his well-conjured plight exposes both his persecutors and the social ills of the time (p350 etc, 257). Like many great writers, Baronian too held the abuses of the law and the corruption of legal institutions in his sights. The rule of law, its unbiased and just application has always been a central standard in democratic challenges to arbitrary authority. It has been indeed regarded as central criterion of progress and civilisation. Baronian's contemporaries happily proclaimed the 19th century as such an age of progress while quietly overlooking, among other things, the terrible abuses of law and that of its practitioners who, instead of working to resolve domestic strife parasitically, feed off the damage. It is this that Baronian draws our attention to. `Baghdassar Aghbar' displays a Balzacian zest as Baronian jibes and jests at the expense of the legal profession of his day. Lawyers here, as in Balzac and Dickens, are interested only in money (p325) and they are relentless in its pursuit (p327). Pompous nit-picking and verbose, they turn justice and jurisprudence not towards the truth, to those who need it, to those who deserve it, but in the direction of the pockets that have the most money (p336). Skilled in obscuring rhetoric they present vice as virtue if this will earn them a penny (p271, 279). To settle personal scores they will happily switch from defence to prosecution (p338). The family tribunal is no better. Its members are well-off businessmen and leaders of the community who volunteer their services not in order to help heal domestic troubles but to obtain even greater social status and social acknowledgement than they already possess. They show not the slightest interest in the case at hand except in so far as it will enable them to extract financial perks and other luxuries, good food and drink offered as bribes for their favourable judgement (p288, 289, 341). With `Baghdassar Aghbar' Baronian has left a critique that is finely rooted in the times, mirroring accurately the particularity of Armenian-Christian communities - or at any rate the lives of their elite - within Ottoman and Muslim society, at the edge of east and west. One gets a forceful hint of domestic violence taken for granted, but also a suggestion of developing opposition. One notes the harshness of patriarchy whilst at the same time being conscious of more progressive thinking. (p330) Baghdassar's character, so brilliantly polished, serves to reflect well the internal ills that threatened the Armenian social revival. Life within the Armenian community was becoming intolerable (p356, 358 and more). In addition to imperial oppression the pettiness and corruption within the community was so widespread that for relief its victims consider, as does Baghdassar, abandoning their religion for Islam or packing their bags and moving to the USA. `Baghdassar Aghbar' like `The Honourable Beggars' has also enjoyed a remarkable longevity. In its take on family life and the law it has telling parallels with aspects of modern times, parallels that can be referred to as explanation for its continuing popularity. Its capacity to focus on family life today and generate laughter so long after its creation is adequate testimony to contemporary vitality. Yet such references are not always necessary to establish the value of this work. With a powerful moral force and telling satire, `Baghdassar Aghbar' records something of our own past, about our social history and social development. By doing so, by telling of the forces that shaped our predecessors it also tells us something about our own human selves today serving well to pop pretensions and crumble hypocritical poses. -- 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.