An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman
A trip to Armenia proved to be the creative answer for a writer censored by the KGB, broke, and dying of cancer
An Armenian Sketchbook
He is aware that he speaks only two words of Armenian and that no one was there to meet him when he arrived. But Grossman never complains; he sees everything, the poverty, the chaos, the daily life, even the towering statue of Stalin, “a great and terrible ruler”, as part of a vivid, moving picture show. At a post office Grossman attempts to send a few airmail letters, but fails, as there are no envelopes: “It took some time to establish this, since the black-eyed young women . . . did not speak any Russian. This led to everyone shouting, laughing and waving their arms about.” This is travel writing at its most entertaining and informed; he has not taken his ego with him, only his all-seeing curiosity.
Grossman is also sympathetic without being sentimental. His humanity never burdens the text, which is handled with an inspired lightness of touch. He watches his companions and fleshes out their individual histories with the ease of a good listener. An observation about a mule and a ewe gradually acquires an unnerving profundity. Grossman briefly adopts the third person, and becomes the Russian translator. Writing of himself at this remove, he notes: “He had noticed that people and dogs, for some reason, walked in the road, while the pavements were used mainly by sheep, calves, cows and horses.”
Initially friendly, the mule becomes aggressive towards the Russian translator, who quickly realises that the mule is defending the ewe, which is pressed up against the mule “asking for help and protection”. Grossman detects that the sheep is aware “that the human hand stretched out towards her was a bearer of death”. He considers the ewe’s eyes, “rather like glass grapes”. He then develops this apparently random observation in one of the most remarkable passages in a singular work:
“There was something human about her – something Jewish, Armenian, mysterious, indifferent, unintelligent. Shepherds have been looking at sheep for thousands of years. And so shepherds and sheep have become similar. A sheep’s eyes look at a human being in a particular way: they are glassy and alienated. The eyes of a horse, a cat or a dog look at people quite differently.
“The inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto would probably have looked at their Gestapo jailers with the same alienated disgust if the ghetto had existed for millennia, if day after day for five thousand years the Gestapo had been taking old women and children away to be destroyed in gas chambers.”
Grossman makes his point yet avoids turning his book into a polemic.
A visit to a village fills him with joy, as he joins in the fun even though he doesn’t understand a word. Aside from all the stone, his first and lasting impression of Armenia is of a mountain that had died – “its skeleton had been scattered over the ground.” And what he took away with him “was a memory of stone”.