Wednesday, August 14, 2013

BOOK: Affectionate Look At Armenia By A Soviet Man Of Letters

Sunday Business Post, July 28, 2013

An Armenian Sketchbook
By Vasily Grossman
MacLehose Press, EUR 15.10
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien

The last time that Armenia got into the news with any regularity was about 25 years ago, when it and Azerbaijan waged a nasty little conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave on Azeri territory. The war is long over, but while Azerbaijan has since elbowed its way into western consciousness with its hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, its sponsorship of Atletico Madrid and its open-door welcoming of Big Oil, its smaller neighbour has languished in the shadows.

Armenia has no oil and few other resources, leaving it somewhat out in the cold. A friend who went there for an Ireland game in 2010 reported back that while the place itself was perfectly safe and fine, if a little drab, it held a sense of feeling cut off from the world -- unsurprisingly, given its rugged geography.

There's a lengthy tradition in Russian literature of writers travelling to the Caucasus -- a region which, even after two decades of strife, still looks like a Timotei-ad Alpine paradise -- for inspiration. Lermontov, Pushkin, Mandelstam and Tolstoy all did it. 

book image Vasily Grossman, the venerated chronicler of the horrors of the Holocaust and Stalingrad, was thus in good company when he journeyed to Armenia in the early 1960s.

Grossman went there because, after his book Life And Fate was "arrested" by Khrushchev's ministry of literary correctness, he received a surprising offer to translate an old novel (about, wait for it, the construction of a copper-smelting plant) from Armenian into Russan. Relieved at the chance of some respite from the KGB, he headed south for two months and wrote down everything he saw.

But while those men of letters generally went to the Caucasus to bask in gorgeous surroundings and take the waters, Armenia was and is the exception to the region's jaw-dropping mixture of lush pastures and tropical vistas. "There is no greenery," writes Grossman. "The houses are surrounded by dense scatterings of grey stone. Sometimes a grey stone comes to life and begins to move. A sheep."

Everywhere he walks, he sees granite instead of growth, sterility instead of fertility. "Sometimes this seems to be a strange and terrible kingdom where the earth engenders not life, but death."

Reaching Yerevan, the bustling capital, he marvels at the huge Stalin statue that towers over the city. The Armenians -- who will soon tear it down -- react to this praise by dismissing Stalin as a maniac and, worse, a puppet figurehead. Grossman feels a mad urge to stick up for the dictator -- a bizarre position for a Soviet intellectual to find themselves in.

Grossman finds Armenia's inhabitants a puzzle. He recoils from the stereotype of Armenians as "primitive[s], pederasts and swindlers", but keeps running into individuals whose trumpeting of Armenian superiority in the arts, culture and architecture drives him slowly insane. He knows it stems from an inner defensiveness caused by the bloodstained history of the place, but finds it no more palatable for that: "What matters is the global, even cosmic, superiority of the Armenian people. Sometimes this passion is touching and wonderful; sometimes it is sweet and funny; sometimes it is so insane as to be shocking."

Grossman died of cancer in 1964 and never saw An Armenian Sketchbook published. It's obvious he loved the place, for all its oddness -- the book pulses with life and affection on every page, even though he apologises on the final page for "clumsy and wrong" things he'd written. He needn't have worried. This is a moving, beautiful little encomium to what is still, even today, one of the obscurest corners of Europe.

Vasily Grossman: Loser, Saint []
Vasily Grossman: An Armenian Sketchbook (MacLehose Press) []
Vasily Grossman: his life and legacy []

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