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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