When I replied back to Edwina Charles congratulating her on her exquisite Chekhovian piece, I wrote to her that her short story reminded me of the main character in a wonderful adventure novel written by the great Armenian writer, Raffi. The work in question is the Memoirs of the Cross-Thief, or in Armenian, Խաչագողի Յիշատակարանը (Pronounced - Khatchakoghi Hishadagaranuh). This is the novel that I had read as a young teenager. It is 340 pages long.
The main character in that novel is Kavor Bedros, a ruthless criminal who has no morals and will do anything for illicit financial gain, including lying, cheating, murdering, raping, falsely befriending, disguising himself, betraying his kind and so on, he is the proverbial Cross-Thief. Once again, Armenian is unique among languages to have invented this word. Why? Because Armenians felt the need to express such a concept. We had (and still do have) many khatchakoghs.
Raffi was well known as a field researcher so all his contemporaneous novels are based on actual characters. Here is how Raffi describes them in his introduction to the novel (completed in 1870). These are excerpts, the translation is mine:
"The khatchakogh can change shape like the devil. He can appear as a completley different person than he truly is. No one can compete with them in such guiling disguise. You can never see a khatchakogh in his true self and form. In different places, and depending on different circumstances, he always conceals the truth and adapts.
"The khatchakogh contains within him all the habits of a human society. He climbs and descends all societal ladders with great ease and remarkable agility. He gets in and out of all social classes with a great ability to adapt. Among the upper classes, he is a proud, vapid and articulate nobleman, with all the gloss of such a person. Among the lower classes, he is a poor, kind and uneducated peasant, with all the simplicity of such character. With the educated, he can argue with conviction and all the moral fortitude of a humanist of lofty ideals. With the mullahs, he is a fanatic, dark minded like the night. One day he is evil, the next day good, but never himself.
"The khatchakogh is very elastic and malleable. He can lean any which way. He takes the form of any mould and many forms but never keeps a truly characteristic shape. He is a true chameleon.
"He knows how to cheat and lie, how to evade and become invisible. The all-seeing eye of the lawman cannot follow his footsteps. He disappears as a demon and reappears as an angel.
"The khatchakogh looks at the universe as his personal field to harvest. He is the ultimate parasite as he knows how to extract what he needs from the work of the community. He reaps but never sows. He does not produce and only consumes. He lives off the sweat of others. And to achieve his objective he uses all of his incomparable abilities. Where he cannot cheat his way, he is ready to shed blood.
"The khatchakogh has everything yet he owns nothing. He always tells his stories with a unique pride. He looks upon his cheatings, lies and sickly acts as deeds of great bravery.
"The khatchakogh is never satisfied with the amount of illicit wealth he accumulates. He is never satiated and his uncontrolled greed drives him to greater machinations and corruption of those around him. There have been khatchakoghs who, before the arrival of the British, had become Grand Viziers or Viceroys of whole provinces in India.
"Khatchakoghs are also known as "old woman stranglers" (Barav kheghtogh - Պառաւ խեղդող) and "donkey painters" (Esh nergogh - Էշ ներկող). As for the real origin of their name it is because many of them do not shy away from pretending to be priests and men of the cloth who thus would get into various positions of authority in a church or a monastery. Afterwards, they would steal all the golden crosses and ceremonial silverware and vanish. They also like to approach wealthy elderly widows, befriend them, gain their favor and when they become a household presence, they take the opportunity at night to strangle these unsuspecting women, steal all their wealth and then disappear. Finally, because they are very wily in their ways, they can steal someone's grey donkey, paint it black and then sell it back to the poor soul who would be totally impervious to their wickedness".
Raffi, of course, wrote his novels in the mid 19th century. He mentions that the original khatchakoghs were from very specific villages in the Salmasd region of Persia, specifically, the village of Savra. Many elderly khatchakoghs would teach their "trade" to their offspring. He then mentions that with the Russio-Persian wars, many khatchakoghs emigrated from the region and established themselves in Yerevan.
It seems to me that the khatchakoghs are doing very well these days. They are not extinct at all and are in fact thriving.
I think I'll start a contest called "Name That Khatchakogh!".