An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

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An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Brought back from the middle of the Soviet experiment, this travel journalism has a very personal touch from an author you may well feel like reading more of.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: July 2013
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857052353

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In 1961, noted Soviet man of letters Vasily Grossman went to Armenia, for a couple of months' research and fact-finding, while he was working on transforming an Armenian novel of no small length into Russian. (You can't call it translating, as he didn't speak Armenian beyond two words – he really was paid to rewrite it to some extent in his fashion.) With time spent in the capital, Yerevan, and in other rural areas, he got an intimate flavour of the country and its people, and this book is the resulting piece. It's not really accurate to call it a travelogue, for it covers just a patch here, a topic there, and is in no correct order as such – and the author calls it a literary memoir. What you can call it, however, is a success.

This short volume certainly did what I expected of it. It introduced me to Grossman through my favoured route – exploring an author not via his greatest, most renowned (and lengthy) works, but through the back door so to speak, of the more intimate, personal and atypical. It also introduced me to Armenia, and while it might seem off-kilter to learn of a country via a fifty year old account, if the country next door, Georgia, which I have recently returned from, has changed at the same pace, then this is probably not too far from the current truth – some certainly coincides with the latest guidebook I've checked out alongside this.

As conveyed by the original, cheery title of this volume, Grossman is very favourable of Armenia and her inhabitants. He finds their custom and hospitality of a mixed nature, likewise their very physiognomy and faces, as befits a populace at the crossroads of many a warring empire. He doesn't exactly cover much ground in his two months, but his reportage is fine. We also learn of him and his writing through, say, the tricksy changes from third to first person he employs in a section about how he began to feel at home, and in diversions into attitudes to Stalin and a rant about nationalism within and as a consequence of the USSR. We also have to smile at least when he describes the horrors of being caught short as a stranger in a strange land.

So while the book might not sell the rest of his oeuvre completely successfully, or demand one drop it and book a flight to Armenia, it does offer a rich, literary snapshot of the author and his response to what probably is a charming, attractive (if stony) landscape and people. Both subject and author seem equally matched in a kind of quirkiness, neither really fitting within the Soviet ethos completely, but both with a kind of laissez-faire attitude to keep them in their place. Grossman has been well served by the translators and publishers here, with a foreword and afterword that points out we're not exactly certain why and how he came to get the job of the 'translation' in the first place. But historians of Soviet times, fans of semi-obscure Caucasian republics, and interested armchair travellers will find some small delights in this small book. We recommend it.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

A Journey to Nowhere: Among the Lands and History of Courland by Jean-Paul Kauffmann looks at a different section of the old Soviet Empire most successfully.

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