Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman, trans. Robert & Elizabeth Chandler. MacLehose Press, £12

Near the end of his road, the author of ‘Life and Fate’ found beauty and solidarity in a strange land

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam