Vasily Grossman found himself in Armenia less than a year after the KGB had confiscated his novel Life and Fate. Scared by the scale of the row around Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in 1958, the Soviet authorities decided to act differently in Grossman’s case three years later. They prevented the novel from being published abroad and its author from becoming famous. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” was Grossman’s own response to this.
“I need the money and I feel terrible,” he said in a letter. In the circumstances he was glad to accept an invitation to translate a 1400-page novel by an Armenian writer, Hrachya Kochar, although, as he had no Armenian, this meant a huge task of turning what he called “the awful, illiterate literal version” into readable Russian. However, as joint ventures of this kind were supposed to cement “the friendship of the peoples”, it was common practice to give translators the chance to work with the author and to see the republic, at the expense of the Writers’ Union. So Grossman was off to Armenia for two months.
This was how An Armenian Sketchbook came about – an extraordinary lyrical account of his acquaintance with the country. His friend Semyon Lipkin, who saved the manuscript of Life and Fate, called it Grossman’s “Armenian poem”. A poignant foreboding of imminent death is present in the book (during this trip Grossman, unknowingly, felt the first signs of cancer), but this doesn’t overshadow his excitement at discovering unfamiliar landscapes and architecture or his admiration and warmth for people working hard in a stony country.
There is a lot of subtle irony too, especially when those of a higher social rank are depicted. For example, a “stunningly beautiful” monk is described in the following way: “the god of kindness and compassion had not even touched his wonderful countenance”.
Instead, kindness and compassion overflow Grossman’s own notes, whenever he talks about people. But the sketchbook also contains persistent reflections on life in the Soviet Union and on the issues of nationalism and inter-ethnic relations which were always acute there. At the very end, while describing a village wedding, he comes to a subject very close to his heart: addressing him, his hosts speak about Jews and Armenians and “how blood and suffering had brought them together”.
With the Holocaust never officially mentioned in the USSR, Grossman, whose mother was murdered by the Nazis, was particularly moved by this expression of solidarity coming from Armenian peasants: “I bow down in honour of their words about those who perished in clay ditches, earthen pits and gas chambers, and on behalf of all those among the living in whose faces today’s nationalists have contemptuously flung the words ‘It’s a pity Hitler didn’t finish off the lot of you’.”
However, when An Armenian Sketchbook was ready for publication, it was precisely these lines, together with another half a dozen, that were marked for deletion by a vigilant censor. This was something Grossman was not prepared to compromise on. Thus yet another book of his became unpublishable. It first appeared in print in 1965, after Grossman’s death and with numerous cuts. Only in 1988 was the full version published in Russian. This has now been beautifully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler.