Journey to Virginland (Epistle 1) by Armen Melikian
At the onset of Armen Melikian’s ambitious first novel Journey to Virginland, the author of this raucous, bawdy and sometimes farfetched satire asserts that the story he is about to recount was related to him by the shadow of a dog which appeared to him at night while he slept. This narrator, known going forward simply as Dog (God backwards), embarks on one of the stranger picaresque tales of late, a critique of ideology, religion, capitalism, communism, and the generalized decadent mayhem and corruption that often pass for civilized or human behavior. While that is an intriguing, if not wholly original, conceit (I am thinking of a whole slew of novels that posit anthropomorphic canines as protagonists, starting from Paul Auster on down), the reader is never quite sure why Melikian needed to use this device in order to relay his sometimes finely crafted humor.
Be that as it may, Journey to Virginland is a tour-de-force to the extent that it attempts to deconstruct the history of Western civilization by attacking in a humorous, satirical—and sometimes downright savage—tone the underlying myths that underpin Western and, in particular, Armenian society. It is also to my recollection the first attempt, along with Vahram Martirossian’s Soghank and Denis Donikian’s unpublished French-language tome Vidures, to come to terms with post-Soviet Armenian society—though again Melikian’s book extends to the Diaspora, Armenian culture and human society as a whole.
Melikian is particularly unsparing of gender relations and Armenian patriarchy:
“The unbreakable bond between Paradisean [Armenian] mommas and their male sucklings was explained to me by my landlord: ‘In Paradise, women don’t love their husbands,’ she said. ‘That’s why they shower their affections on their sons, by way of compensating for their need to love a man.’ Manpanzee the Custodian (I beg the chimpanzees’ forgiveness for the analogy) surrenders his wife to the custody of his mother. Whenever a disagreement erupts between the two women, first he beats the wife, seeking to mold her with mamma’s bizarrerie. Should the wife fail to submit, he kicks her out. ‘There’s plenty of fish in the water, but only one Mamma.’”
Journey to Virginland is also a decidedly anti-religious tract, one that dares to show the absurdity of Christian, Judaic and Islamic traditions, as well as the fact that all three religions are derivative of pre-existing pagan traditions and stories, something the Church is not exactly eager to publicize. Regarding Etchmiadzin, the holy seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and its leader, the Catholicos, Melikian is equally unsparing:
“The idolatrous, iconolatrous Judolicos of Paradise demands from his lambs to bow before Judas’s mamma. But is she worth even a hump in the anus? That is to say, by remaining loyal to the national traditions of Virginstan? Brothers, at least pimps do not require their customers to bow in front of a whore. Dog rejected that reign. He refused to walk under the sword of the twosome, his Holiness the Lambowner and Her Virginosity Mary the Harlot. To the bastard, a whore is worth zero. Not so for the Judolicos.”
While Melikian’s book is refreshing in its audacity, it also crosses the lines at times to become somewhat overwrought. None of what happens while the narrator searches for an Armenian girlfriend and travels to Paradise, disquisitioning along the way on all manner of thought, political or otherwise, is all that surprising or particularly revelatory. More alarming for a satirist, however, is the fact that one always feels the narrator’s presence, to the extent that one doesn’t fully enter into Melikian’s story. One of the strengths of a book like Animal Farm, for example, is that one becomes completely enmeshed in Orwell’s fictional world—and one suspends one’s literary disbelief when confronted with all manner of anthropomorphized pigs and other farm animals. Here, even Melikian’s naming mechanisms seem odd: Adonis is Lebanon (after the Syrian poet?); Paradise is—of course, Armenia—Virginland is also an extension of Armenia (though on the book’s map it appears to be a good chunk of Russia and the former USSR); Pharaohland is Egypt and Pashaland, Turkey. But then Cilicia and Cyprus are given their real names. Similarly we wander in and out of scenes that are sometimes realistic and sometimes surreal: sometimes we seem to be in the presence of a full-blown human narrator again; sometimes we are consciously made aware that the narrator is canine in nature.
Plot details are rather beside the point and play second fiddle to Melikian’s philosophical and satirical musings. I hesitate to say that Journey to Virginland should be made mandatory reading in all Armenian schools and homes: we are perhaps not in the presence of a great writer, or even of a particularly subtle one, but what we do have here is a new voice, and an intelligent and powerful one at that.