31 August 2006

Don't start the revolution without Panchoonie


Born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1869, the Armenian writer Yervant Odian (Odyan in Turkish) lived the final, turbulent decades of the Ottoman Empire like a nomad, moving from one country to another. Besides Turkey, he spent time in France, Romania, Egypt, Lebanon, England, India, Hungary and Greece. In addition, in 1915 he was exiled from Istanbul to Syria; he survived and returned to Istanbul in 1918. He died in Cairo in 19261.

panchuni2Among the many works of humor, Odian published a set of 3 books featuring the fictional character, Comrade Panchoonie. These books were originally written in Armenian and they were only recently, more than 90 years after the first one was published in Istanbul, translated into Turkish. The present edition consists of the first 2 books in the series2.

Panchoonie can perhaps best be described as an overenthusiastic, overoptimistic agent provocateur. He is sent by an unspecified central office to the Ottoman Empire to organize the masses for the upcoming socialist revolution. His first assignment takes him to a tiny village, Dzabilvar3, presumably somewhere in eastern Turkey, where the proletariat consists of one person, the village horseshoer. Unfazed, Panchoonie forges ahead with the "ideological struggle", which, at the end, brings nothing but death and destruction to Dzabilvar.

Next, Panchoonie is sent to the eastern Anatolian city of Van (Vasburagan in Armenian), where there was a substantial Armenian population until 1915 or so. There, with the help of a fellow socialist, comrade Sarsapuni, Panchoonie gathers up a larger group of followers. The book climaxes with their capture of a local monastery.

This is a funny book and I enjoyed reading it. The adventures of Panchoonie reminded me of those of Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švajk, although while Hašek parodied everything, Odian was poking fun at only the Armenian socialists. For example, he was quite respectful, perhaps out of practical necessity, of the Ottoman soldiers who enter the story briefly in Dzabilvar.

The book is illustrated with many (up to 2 per page) amusing drawings of Aleksandr Saruhan (1898-1977). These were added to Odian's book in 1938. I may have spent as much time examining the details of the drawings as I did reading each page.

I don't know why Odian's 3rd Panchoonie book, in which the hero is said to be exiled, was not included in the current Turkish edition. I would like to read it one day.

There is an English translation of Comrade Panchoonie available here.

1. I have extracted all information on Odian from his biography included in the Turkish translation of Comrade Panchoonie.
2. Yoldaş Pançuni. Aras Publishing, Istanbul, 2000.
3. I have not been able to determine the present-day name of this village, if it still exists.

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