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Why we should read:
    'The Amira's Daughter' by Yeroukhan

'Yeroukhan - Selected Works'
Antelias, Lebanon, 1993. 464 pages.

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 13, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Abuse of the term 'a masterpiece' is all too common in contemporary
literary commentary, driven as it is by the pressure to sell rather
than to appreciate works of literature. Yet the expression is
appropriate when it is applied to Yeroukhan's (1874-1915) 1904 novel
'The Amira's Daughter'.  With remarkable satirical skill and an expert
eye for detail Yeroukhan brings to life the pre-1915 Armenian
community in Constantinople with all its classes, personalities and
national institutions. It is a testimony to his literary talent that
this world, now forever vanished without trace, is so vividly
resurrected for us through the activities and relationships of a group
of well constructed, accurately focused and placed characters.

The world of 'The Amira's Daughter' that Yeroukhan reconstructs is not
a mere photographic reproduction of surface appearances. Many
excellently detailed descriptions of places, scenes and unfolding
events reveal the concealed, darker, aspects of life in the Armenian
suburbs of Constantinople.  In particular, the 'respectable' classes,
beneath their finely cut cloaks of public virtue are shown to be riven
with corruption, greed and vice.  Leading lights of the community,
apparently humble servants of the people, turn out to be expert
predators skilled in the art of living at the community's or at
someone else's expense.

At the centre of this world is Mrs. Margossian and her son Arshak. They
are among the last remnants of the once fabulously wealthy 'Amira'
families whose fortunes were built on economic monopolies granted by
successive Ottoman sultans. Mrs. Margossian's father, Amira Margossian,
was 'a typical example of this class. He was a deceitful and rapacious
robber'. But this did not deter the 'fawning and obsequious local
good-for-nothings, who gathered like a flock of crows to feast at his
table'. However when misfortune leads to the Amira's downfall and
imprisonment, they disperse, as rapidly they had formed.  'The Amira's
daughter desperately searched for help and support from those ever so
loyal, selfless, noble, altruistic creatures. But she found only
emptiness. Emptiness.'

Nevertheless through Mrs. Margossian's efforts the family's wealth is
partly restored. Inevitably the flock of crows returns hoping once
more to 'eat freely at her table, even though only the crumbs of its
bountiful past remained. But what did that matter, for even these
crumbs were still well buttered.' Among them are some brilliantly
depicted scoundrels such as Tateos Mergherian, the local council
treasurer who 'having removed his tomato-like nose from the community
chest invites himself to thrust it into the mounds of food on Mrs.
Margossian's table.' Equally colourful is Partogh Agha whose 'craft
was as grotesque as his body'. Whilst secretely hunting stray dogs to
sell as meat to the poor, Partogh Agha 'built for himself an honest
and decent reputation' on the back of which he secured the post of
Mrs. Margossian's family accountant and thus 'discovered whole new
spheres for personal enrichment.' Apkar Gostanian is an outstanding
depiction of a conman. This 'native of Karabagh disguised as a
pedagogical expert hurled himself into the hitherto unexploited world'
of education-hungry Constantinople. Through enthusiastic public
subscriptions he accumulates vast sums to set up a school based on the
'most modern pedagogical principles' and then makes a hasty departure
to the gambling dens of Europe.

Such types prey not just upon the world of private wealth. They come
to dominate many areas of community life. Secondary characters, some
only adumbrated but all convincing, appear in the local press, the
school, the local community councils, charity organisations, the
medical profession and the church. In one respect the novel's enduring
power rests among Yeroukhan's universally conceived social parasites,
decadent hedonists and cheats. They stalk the streets of any major
city today. Only their attire has changed to suit current fashions.

Yeroukhan also opens the doors to the private lives of some of his
protagonists. Here too other individuals, however close, are but
instruments for one's own egotistical ends.  The Amira's daughter has
high ambitions for her son. But only so that he can enhance her social
standing. She satisfies Arshak's every whim and fancy because she sees
in him 'an instrument that will revive yesterday's widespread praise
and reverence. He would be the phoenix who would restore her old
glory.' It matters not at all that reverence and esteem is but fawning
obsequiousness in search of personal gain.  But Arshak has no
inclination to realise his mother's ambitions. 'In place of boyhood
mischievousness he developed into a selfish brute full of spite and
cruelty.' Like 'some demented soul he indulged every vice' and
squandered what remained of his mother's wealth after Partogh Agha's
depredations.  Arshak's brutishness is revealed at its worst in his
relations with Sophie, a local washerwoman's daughter. Sophie
surrenders to his advances in the hope of securing a marriage that
will release her from grinding poverty.  But for Arshak, women, and
particularly those from the working class, are but objects of pleasure
to be discarded once they have fulfilled their purpose.

As a counterpoint to this money-obsessed and selfish world Yeroukhan
depicts aspects of the lives of the humble classes - Sophie's mother,
her neighbours, the local fishermen, porters, artisans and the
long-suffering but always hopeful Hampig whose love Sophie does not
return. Where in one case money and self-interest determines all human
relations, here social and private solidarity, humans and altruism are
the common currency of daily life.

'The Amira's Daughter' is not however without flaws. The plot is
frequently cumbersome and some of the characters lack in depth and
consistency. With less talented authors such weaknesses would condemn
the work. With Yeroukhan they highlight his achievement. In this
regard the case of Sophie is instructive. Sophie frequently appears as
an ill-constructed and contradictory character combining two discrete
personalities - one totally unreal, the other a literary achievement.

Balzac remarks that in 'Catholic mythology the Cherub has a head and
nothing else'. Such is the case with the depiction of women in much of
Armenian literature. They frequently appear as lifeless creatures, as
idealised Christian mothers and wives who lack any human sensuality,
sexuality, individual ambition, inner-turmoil and conflict. At
different points Sophie appears as such 'a spotless soul' free of 'all
hatred, of jealously, of all vulgar and ulterior motives.' She is
frequently described as being 'like newly fallen snow, white and
pure...a natural, untrammelled, unpremeditated striving for beauty.'
Editing out this ridiculous portrayal would however leave intact the
Sophie who is a real person capable of feeling and suffering,
possessed of sexual desire and ambition for wealth. The real Sophie
feels 'instinctively that the lights and the comforts of the Amira's
palace should be hers'. She is ready to use her physical charms to
climb the social ladder. To ingratiate herself with Mrs. Margossian
she takes on airs and fancies and abuses her loyal and loving
mother. Nevertheless she remains the young and naive working class
woman fallen victim to a rich and disgusting dandy. She is no angel,
but she is an enduring human character who experiences intense
emotional conflict as she tries to balance her sense of morality with
the promise of wealth with an Arshak whose mask eventually falls and
the pleas of the ever present and persistent love-lorn Hampig.

Had Yeroukhan the time or inclination to edit the novel he would,
without exageration, have left us a masterpiece. Nevertheless what we
do have is a wonderful tale full of remarkable characters that tell us
something about the corroding and tragic effects of a society without
morality.  'The Amira's Daughter' is superior to Muratzan's 'The Rich
Amuse Themselves' which deals with a similar theme from the life of
Armenians in Tbilisi. Both are well written and can be read, and
indeed with pleasure, as an accurate historical record of the times.
But Muratzan's characters lack the psychological depth and complexity
that gives Yeroukhan's novel the universality that makes it an
artistic success.

A work of fiction is sometimes a better guide to the social and
political history of a period than many a historical volume. So it is
with 'The Amira's Daughter'.  Reading it, one can visualise why the
Armenian elite in Constantinople was incapable of producing an honest
and effective national leadership, and why the cream of Armenian
intelligentsia insisted that a genuine national revival had to be
located outside Constantinople, in the historical homeland.

When Yeroukhan was arrested and murdered in 1915 at the age of 45, he
had already left for Kharpert where he was accumulating material for a
new novel about Armenian life in Armenia itself.

It is painful to imagine the scale of the loss.

Mr. Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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