In 1961, the year in which Vasily Grossman travelled by train from Moscow to Armenia, his masterpiece, Life And Fate, was "arrested" by the Soviet government. By that point, Grossman already had a formidable reputation as a writer, and there were fears that if his novel was published, either in the Soviet Union or in the west, it would attract the same acclaim and unwelcome attention prompted by Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, which had appeared a few years earlier.
As Robert Chandler and Yury Bit-Yunan write in the introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook, Grossman did not know that his work would survive, let alone be published. Deemed ideologically dodgy, its author was informed that it was his responsibility to ensure it was not published anywhere. His apartment was searched and he was made to sign a declaration that he possessed no copies other than the manuscripts that had been seized. Moreover, he was left in no doubt that if he were to defy the authorities the consequences for himself and his family would be grim.
To compound Grossman's distress, his marriage was collapsing and his health, as he intimates in An Armenian Sketchbook, was poor. Soon he would be diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him in 1964, aged 59. Why then did he agree to go to Armenia, ostensibly to convert a word-for-word translation of Hrachya Kochar's voluminous war novel, The Children Of The Large House, into a work of literature?
The short answer is that nobody really knows. As Bit-Yunan intimates, there is much about Grossman's life that remains mysterious. What does seem clear, however, is that he was well rewarded for his efforts. Plausibly, Bit-Yunan suggests that Grossman may have been given the assignment as compensation for the confiscation of Life And Fate, bizarre as that may seem.
In 1961, land-locked Armenia, which is bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran, was part of the Soviet Union. With its distinctive culture and own language, it was as alien to Grossman – who was born in the Ukraine – as Tibet. His book is partly a portrait of that now-independent, rocky and mountainous country and also a meditation on humanity. Grossman's candour and compassion combine with his sardonic wit and vivid descriptions to produce a book that is as much about its author as it is about its purported subject.
In the Sketch, Kochar is called Martirosoyan. He is not, apparently, a writer in Grossman's class, which of course leads to further speculation as to why Grossman would want to translate him. Perhaps the reason is simple; perhaps Grossman wanted to escape Moscow and its attendant worries and visit somewhere he'd always been curious to see.
Martirosoyan is an Armenian nationalist who is fervently in love with everything about his country. But he loves himself even more, "deeply and sincerely". When not working on the translation the pair travel around, to the Lake Sevan (banally described as "one of the most beautiful places on earth"), and the Geghard monastery, which is gouged out of a mountain. "Only a pure, childish faith could have helped people to build these churches, chapels and monasteries," reflects Grossman.
An air of melancholy inhabits Grossman's prose. A stranger in a strange land, whose language he cannot speak, he has no alternative but to be an observer, bringing to bear the skills learned as a reporter during the Second World War. There is a strong sense, too, that he is coming to terms with his own mortality, questioning the validity of poetry and painting ("Maybe they can limit the soul rather than deepen it") and appearing to agree with Goethe when he said that during his 80 years he had known only 11 happy days.
But it would misleading to suggest this is a gloomy book, for it is shot through with humour. A censored version of it was published posthumously which was doubtless no more than Grossman would have expected.
An Armenian Sketchbook
Translated by Robert and
MacLehose Press, £12