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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.