A Family Novel Probes Mixed Identity, Loves and Hates


The Young Man in the Gray Suit by Agop J., Hacikyan. Interlink Books. 2013. 248 pp. $20. ISBN 978-1-56656-907-1

By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Agop J. Hacikyan’s new novel focuses on the complex identity of the Kardam family, and in particular on the story of its youngest son, Nour, who discovers a secret in his past that sets this multi-plotted tale in motion.

The novel opens in the 1950s and moves between the Kardam mansion (or yali) on the Bosporus and New York, the two poles of the story.

Nour, the youngest son of Riza Bey, is in his early 30s, partially educated in the United States and has been appointed above his older brothers to take charge of his father’s successful tobacco business. Riza Bey is portrayed as a deeply flawed character, a successful businessman and philanthropist in the present, but a former governor of Aintab who identified with the Young Turks and possibly was complicit in the Armenian Genocide. He has married three women and is the father of six sons and three daughters.

His sudden death precipitates the reading of his will, which divides his vast wealth between his surviving wives, Safiye and Leila (his second wife having died) and his children. But his final bequest drops a bombshell. Riza leaves a bequest of more than $1 million to a woman, unknown to the family, named Maro Balian.

There are many story lines in this densely plotted novel, among them the older sons’ involvement in criminal business ventures that extend to illegal sales of the family company’s tobacco and trafficking in the opium trade.

But the main thread of the story is Nour’s effort to discover who Maro Balian is. He has always believed that he was the son of Leila, Riza Bey’s third wife, but he ferrets out the truth from a former family servant and discovers that he is, indeed Maro’s son and that his father saved her, an Armenian refugee, during the period of deportations. Maro, already married and with a son by her Armenian husband, Vartan, becomes a member of Riza Bey’s household, and the mother of his son. Only Leila, the adoptive or substitute mother has known the truth of Nour’s origins. Maro and her first son, Tomas, are eventually banished from the household and eventually rejoin Vartan.

His father’s will has indicated that Maro may be living in New York and Nour embarks upon a tortuous attempt to locate his real mother. Maro and her husband, Vartan, represent, a recognizable Armenian couple living in the Diaspora. They publish an Armenian newspaper; Vartan is active in the community as a lecturer and supporter of the Armenian cause, and in addition to Tomas, they have four additional children, a son and three daughters.

Leila and Vartan are both consumed with jealousy. Leila fears, if Nour finds his real mother that he will abandon her. And Vartan, who knows that Nour is the son of Riza Bey, is not only jealous but hateful towards a man he knows was active in the Genocide of the Armenians, perhaps salving his conscience by saving Maro.

Nour eventually finds his way to Maro and meets all of his new family, including his half sister. Somewhat shockingly, the half brother and sister embark upon a torrid love affair, although Nour is also involved with a young Turkish doctor, Esin, whom he is considering marrying.

The discovery by Turks of an Armenian ancestor or even parent is certainly based in reality as this has been the experience of many who have probed deeply into their origins. Nour’s discovery has particularly complicated results and he remains, for some period of time, torn by the passions and demands of both his families.

Hacikyan covers a lot of ground in this novel and the turns and twists of the plot, the revelations, particularly of Nour’s brothers criminal activities, are sometimes so murky that the reader may have trouble following certain aspects of the narrative.

Still, many will find this a provocative and compelling story of mixed identity, its sources and its consequences.

Hacikyan, a Canadian university professor, lives in Quebec and is the author of a previously well-received novel, A Summer without Dawn, a historical saga that focuses on the Armenian Genocide.