- Martiros Saryan (1880-1972) "Armenia's national artist"
What a coincidence - just a few days after reading Burton Watson's charming The Rainbow World, I happen to read Vasily Grossman's An Armenian Sketchbook. I love little stories of real, existing human beings told by people who still love our sad little species.(*) And since, in my view, there is no real love without close and illusion-free acquaintance, such love is tempered with a clear knowledge of our trivialities, our inconsistencies, our envious and selfish nature, our striving for recognition and dominance, of the whims and accidents we set up as eternally correct and universal customs and ways, of our all too frequent readiness to injure, maim and kill each other, and our oh so readily produced rationalizations for such acts, this love is often expressed with wry irony and various degrees of sadness and poignancy. And so it is in this book.
Shortly after the Soviet machinery of mind control confiscated the manuscripts of Grossman's Life and Fate in 1961, including all associated appurtenances like typewriter ribbons (!) - a blow that struck Grossman so hard that his friends and family attest that he aged 20 years in a few weeks - it threw him a bone: he was to "translate" on the basis of a literal translation provided by another person a 1,420 page Armenian novel about "the setting up of a copper smelting plant" ! (**) And he was to do this in Armenia, so that he may consult with author and literal translator.
Off he went. He needed the money, he needed the work, and he needed the distance from a marriage that was reaching a breaking point.
Not exactly propitious circumstances, and the sight of a 60 foot bronze statue of Stalin lording it over the Armenian capital of Yerevan when he arrived after a days' long train ride from Moscow wasn't particularly promising, either.(***) But he finished the translation and then immediately started writing these memoirs while still in Armenia.
I don't know how good that Armenian novel is, but this accounting of his experiences in Armenia, the people he met, and the meditations on topics varying from nationalism to bread are splendid, all interwoven with allusions to Russian literature and history.(****) The comments he makes on nationalism should be read by everyone. His empathetic irony is turned on everything, including, often enough, himself.
As an example, in one passage he is discovering the city for the first time and
creating my own special Yerevan - a Yerevan remarkably similar to the Yerevan in the external world, a Yerevan remarkably similar to the city present in the minds of the thousands of other people walking about on the streets, and, at the same time distinct from all these other Yerevans. It was my own Yerevan, my own unrepeatable Yerevan. The autumn leaves of the plane trees rustled in their own peculiar way; its sparrows were shouting in their own peculiar way.
Not an unknown attitude to take. A little later
Lord and creator, I wander through the streets of Yerevan; I build Yerevan in my own soul. Yerevan — this city that the Armenians tell me has existed for two thousand and seven hundred years; this city that was invaded by both Mongols and Persians; this city that was visited by Greek merchants and occupied by Paskevich's army; this city that, only three hours earlier, did not even exist at all.
Again, by no means unknown. At the same time, however, some chickens and turkeys are being carried by their feet:
These little heads must be swollen and painful, and the birds arch their necks in order, at least slightly, to reduce their sufferings. Their round pupils look at Yerevan without reproach. There, too - in the birds' confused and spinning heads - a city of pink tufa is coming into being.
And then nature calls, and as the call becomes more urgent he thinks of his only contact in Yerevan:
I've heard that Armenian intellectuals are fond of gossip. I can't burst into the apartment of one of the masters of Armenian prose and trample people underfoot as I dash towards the water closet. I'd never be able to live it down - people would be joking about this throughout my stay in Armenia. No, it was out of the question.
As a universally familiar form of desperation arises, the final deflation of the solipsistic balloon takes place among scrub bushes at the end of a tramline.
Happiness. Do I need to describe this feeling? For thousands of years poets have been striving to convey on paper the nature of happiness...
Irony, empathy, sharp observation, an impression of a country most of us know little about, a panoply of persons one would otherwise never meet. That's enough to get me into a book.
Grossman (1905-1964) rejected the demands made by the censors for changes in the manuscript of this text (among others, the passages on Stalin and nationalism were not well received); it was published in 1988.
(*) Though I can well understand those authors who are so disappointed in, so disgusted with, so repulsed by, so despairing of humankind that the reader's mind, heart and stomach all churn at the sight of their characters.
(**) Personally, I'd be headed for the top of the nearest high building.
(***) Could one jump off of that statue?
(****) Details are generously provided in a section of Notes at the back of this NYRB edition.