Hagop Baronian (1842-1891) is the foremost satirist in the Armenian language. He was born and educated in the Edirne (Adrianople), in that corner of Turkey which adjoins Greece and Bulgaria, but was active mainly in Istanbul. His family was extremely poor, his health precarious (he was to die of tuberculosis at the age of fifty), his education minimal. But being a brilliant child, he mastered several languages and read all the classics in Greek, French, and Italian. He began to work at an early age and held a variety of jobs in Istanbul, then one of the most important cultural centers of the Armenian Diaspora. This gave him an excellent opportunity to study the marketplace with its many colorful occupations and types. After contributing sketches to several periodicals he became the editor of a periodical himself. He authored plays (among which Brother Balthazar enjoyed enormous popularity and is still widely performed today) and several novels, the most widely admired of which is "The Honorable Beggars" – a delightful and enduring little masterpiece about human greed and vanity wherein every character without exception is either an imbecile or a liar, and sometimes both at once.
The plot of Honorable Beggars (which is available in English) is simplicity itself. Apissoghom Agha, a wealthy merchant from Trebizond, comes to Istanbul in search for a wife. This search, however, is obstructed by a wide and colorful assortment of charlatans (editors, journalists, poets, priests, marriage brokers, lawyers, barbers…) who approach him one by one and insists on helping him in order tha tin the process they may help themselves. Of particular interests is Apissoghom Agha’s encounter with a young, ambitious poet who asks him to be his patron and to subsidize the publication of one of his fiery patriotic speeches. Apissoghom Agha who, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, doesn’t even know whether or not he speaks prose, gives him the money just to get rid of him. But immediately after, he has second thoughts. As a good merchant he can’t see why he should give something and get nothing in return. He therefore asks the poet if it would be possible to list on the cover of the booklet his “cattle, sheep, donkeys, and farms in Trebizond.” The poet, who seems to have dealt with ths type before, replies: “Those things belong to the pastoral side of poetry.” Understandably enough Apissoghom Agha says: “I don’t understand you.” The poet then explains that he could write a poem about his menagerie but since his muse visits him only once every two moths, he cannot produce such a poem on short notice. Whereupon Apissoghom Agha, who is beginning to acquire a fairly accurate understanding of all matters regarding literary creation, makes the following inquiry:
“If we give her two or three pounds, would she come quickly?” “Well of course,” the poet replies, “if you were to give two pounds, it should make things easier and my muse would come running this week.”
Baronian’s dialogue is authentic, hi satire sharp. He rarely strikes a false note and his choice of situations that will project typical behavior in bold relief is always unerring. Notwithstanding his wide popularity however, Baronian was throughout his life over-worked and underpaid.