A couple weeks ago I gave you a little Vasily Grossman teaser. Now I can tell you that I finished An Armenian Sketchbook on Saturday and have been letting sit in my brain for a bit. It is one of those slim, beautiful books that cannot be rushed in reading and in thinking over afterwards.
Grossman was born in 1905 in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. He worked as a journalist and was one of the first to write about the Nazi concentration camps. His article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” was used as testimony during the Nuremberg trials. His first novel was published in 1952 to great acclaim and was then attacked. Russia was starting to purge its own Jews, and it is thought that if Stalin had not died in 1953 Grossman would have been arrested. His manuscript for his book Life and Fate was, as Grossman put it, arrested. The Soviet government confiscated it February 1961. Later that year he was “given” the job of rewriting a poorly done literal translation of a long Armenian war novel. This required that he spend two months in Armenia working with the man who had done the literal translation.
An Armenian Sketchbook is a memoir of Grossman’s two months in Armenia. He finished it and submitted it for publication at the beginning of 1962. The publisher accepted it as is but the censor demanded deletion of twenty lines about anti-Semitism near the end of the book. Grossman was tired of making compromises and refused to delete the lines. As a result, the book was not published until 1965, eight months after Grossman’s death. Sadly, not just twenty lines were omitted then, but whole chapters.The complete text was not published until 1988. The original title of the book was Dobro vam, a literal translation of the Armenian greeting Barev dzez, all good to you, Armenians and non-Armenians.
The memoir is not written as a chronological story. It doesn’t cover the work Grossman was doing either. It is an episodic narrative but I can’t really tell you when each episode took place and in what order. The only moment I am certain of time is at the very beginning of the book when Grossman arrives by train in Yerevan. But not even his arriving is simply described. Before he even steps foot in the town we are treated to a digression on the huge bronze statue of Stalin that can be seen from anywhere in Yerevan.
This isn’t just any memoir nor is this any travel narrative. It is also a thoughtful meditation on Armenia, culture, humanity, survival, religion, friendship, poverty and generosity. Grossman, who didn’t know a word of Armenian, also laughs at himself and the many confusing and awkward moments that his lack of the language made even more confusing and awkward.
What comes shining through this book is a beautiful portrait of the Armenian people. At first I was surprised that not once is the Armenian genocide mentioned. But then I realized that it is always there under cover when so many of the people Grossman meets tell him that the Armenians and the Jews are friends. Nothing else need be said. In that, all is understood.
An Armenian Sketchbook is a beautiful book in so many ways and I highly recommend it to one and all. I leave you with a passage that says much, I think about Grossman. He woke up in the middle of the night after having drunk too much alcohol with new friends and he thinks he is dying, but then of course, he doesn’t die:
All this leads me to think that this world of contradictions, of typing errors, of passages that are too long and wordy, of arid deserts, of fools, of camp commandants, of mountain peaks colored by the evening sun is a beautiful world. If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experience. This is why I feel such emotion, why I weep or feel overjoyed when I read or look at the works of other people who have brought together through love the truth of the eternal world and the truth of their mortal ‘I.’
On a side note, you can read a lovely article by Grossman’s translator at Asymptote, Worrying about Worry Beads.