Where is a Yervant Odian for our 21st century!
Armenian News Network / Groong
December 6, 2021
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Yervant Odian - exposing the liars, the deceivers, the venal parasites, the cheaters and the exploiters
Where is our Yervant Odian for the age of Pashinyan and indeed his immediate predecessors too! Never mind that Armenian satirical writer Yervant Odian (1869-1926) is from the late 19th and early 20th century and has not had an entirely good press. Outstanding literary critic Minas Tölölyan and Lebanese-Armenian poet Mushegh Ishkhan for example dismiss him as second rate, as one who lacked spine and individuality and whose works leave little imprint – ‘one laughs and passes on’. S. Manukyan’s ‘Yervant Odian – a literary biography’ (363pp, 1997, Yerevan) indirectly but effectively gives Odian the credit he deserves and prompts a desire for his reincarnation in 21st century form.
Yervant Odian was prolific with a body of work equivalent to some 50 hefty volumes – the larger part of which has tragically never been published in book form. Albeit inevitably uneven, his best is of high order, artistically and socially and endlessly relevant for our own day. As a satirist and ‘artistic social commentator’ Odian’s self-confessed credo was to do battle against ‘lying, deception, cheating and exploitation (p46)’. Against claims of beckoning happiness in heaven he demanded happiness on earth insisting that ‘the last hundred years of battle for freedom, the ideas of equality, socialism and even nihilism all had this as their primary aim (p47).
Though from the highly privileged Istanbul-based Odian family, Yervant’s writing was a revolt against his class and against Armenian elites across the Ottoman Empire. Early writings set the tone for his entire opus. He is remorseless in whipping this elite as the guiltiest class of liars, cheaters, deceivers and exploiters. His targets, lashed with the sharpest humor and most cutting and satirical tongue are the venal rich, the corrupt clergy, the cheating merchants, those ‘lovers of gold’, those moral transgressors of every sort and the useless theology of passive fatalism. For refusing to keep silent about charlatan behavior from very early on Odian was subjected to beatings by hired men of offended parties. It was never to silence him.
A string of novels, the best one perhaps being ‘Family, Honor and Morality’ (See “Why We Should Read” ANN/Groong, The Critical Corner, 21 January 2013), target the degenerate merchant-trading class in Istanbul, a class that is as cruel and vicious in its personal domestic life as it is in its commercial skullduggery. This was the class that produced the ‘national benefactor’ that Yervant Odian especially despised, ridiculed and discredited in his little masterpiece ‘The National Benefactor’ who claims social credit and standing having used others’ money for projects he claims are his! This merchant class, this bourgeois “leadership” of Armenian Istanbul is pilloried with zest in countless short stories, novelettes, and articles.
Odian was also withering in his criticism of the Istanbul-based Armenian intelligentsia, its local municipal and its national representatives. Donning patriotic party hats many posed as revolutionaries only to parasite off Armenian communities. But to be clear neither in ‘Revolutionary Parasites’ nor in ‘Comrade Panchoonie’ for which he is most famous, does Odian target the authentic Armenian freedom fighters. In ‘Revolutionary Parasites’ Odian explicitly counterposes the dishonorable poseurs that are objects of his wrath to the genuine revolutionaries fighting in defense of their peasant communities in their historic homelands (p52-53).
Though never a member of any political party Odian was preoccupied with the plight and the future of the common people. In part his criticism of those he judged as revolutionary parasites was prompted by the ineffectiveness of the national leadership that he witnessed daily. That he cared deeply for the suffering of the people is evident in a number of his short stories – ‘Levon’s Sword’, ‘The Prayer’, ‘Peace’ and ‘The Widow’. More than with just the pen Odian acted, practically helping Armenian refugees in Greece fleeing the 1895-96 Ottoman massacres.
Never a seeker of acclaim when, the vast majority of the Armenian elite and national leadership enthusiastically welcomed the 1908 Young Turk ‘Revolution’ that was supported by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Yervant Odian with the common people of the Armenian homelands in mind dismissed this ‘revolution’ as nothing more than ‘an external cosmetic’ disguising the reality of continuing oppression, suffering, famine, want and murder with no justice, equality of freedom even in the distant horizon (p110-114).
Stacks of articles constitute a damning condemnation of a Young Turk regime utterly indifferent to the plight and fortunes of the common people. Grasping the Young Turk regime’s tyrannical nature Odian was scornful of the supine, venal and ineffective Armenian leadership of the time (p117-118) who, sectarian to the smallest bone, fought over the most trivial matters whilst the people in the homelands starved (p120). Lacking calibre, this Armenian leadership was contributing to the destruction of the Armenian nation (p121).
Arrested in 1915, Odian suffered three years on the highways of The Genocide (p289-300) Miraculously he survived and returned to Istanbul unbroken. Addicted to the pen, despite poverty and illness he remained unbelievably prolific (p301-302). Loyal to his credo he wrote as sharply, incisively, and humorously as ever. Of particular note is a novel - ‘The New Rich’ telling of a despicable stratum of heartless Armenian money grubbers who made their fortunes exploiting war-time and genocidal hardships. Two other novels ‘Agent No17’ and ‘The Armenian Diaspora’ are ‘firsts’ in literary registers of The Genocide and of life in the post-Genocide Diaspora. Menaced by the prospect of eternal oblivion, these and the bulk of Odian’s work scattered in countless newspapers and magazines awaits a publisher prepared to rescue them for us and the future.
This excellent read is not free of numerous dull pages. It also sometimes lacks critical conviction. But one needs to turn to such matters only if they become subject of public debate with consequence. Otherwise, here is a welcome volume that restores and secures the standing of a political satirist and of political satire – much needed for our day.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/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.