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When Grossman ventures off the beaten track and takes us down a side avenue of thought, the book is elevated from mere travelogue into literature. His mission to disprove the stereotype of the Armenian as “a huckster, a voluptuary, a bribe-taker” results in a fascinating disquisition on nationalism and national identity. A funeral prompts him to muse on mortality, suicide and the Turkish genocide. And after marveling at architecture — from humble collective farmhouses to grand monasteries hewn from mountains — we are regaled with penetrating insights on beauty and art.
Best of all are the meditations on religion. At one point, Grossman, “an unbeliever,” admires a church and thinks, “But perhaps God does exist.” He is prepared, however, to concede only so much, and believes we should “call on the Creator to show more modesty.” After all, “In whose image were Hitler and Himmler created?” He comes to the mordantly witty conclusion that God created the world too hastily: “Instead of revising his rough drafts, he immediately had his work printed.” Thus “Siberian permafrost” and “the soul of Eichmann” are “typing errors, inconsistencies in the plot.”
There are several “inconsistencies” in Grossman’s prose. For example, some descriptions are flatly mechanical (although to be fair, this could be more a translation problem). But these are rare lapses. In the main, Grossman impresses, at times dazzles, when highlighting local color or crystallizing ideas. Mount Ararat “seems to grow not out of the earth but out of the sky.” Sheep eyes are “glass grapes” (whereas real grapes in a market are like “Baltic amber”). During one sober reflection, he explains how the Gestapo took away Jewish women and children to not be “killed” but rather “destroyed.”
Grossman writes just as candidly about himself as he does about the country he is visiting. On the way to a wedding, after a meal of mutton and vodka, his bowels begin to protest, and he confesses to feeling more afraid than he was during the Battle of Stalingrad. After a night spent drinking a particularly potent cognac he wakes in a sweat: “I was dying.” The meticulous description of his hangover should be amusing, but instead it is poignant, for, unbeknown to Grossman, he was in fact dying: The cancer that would kill him three years later had already stealthily taken hold.
Grossman died a dissident and never got to see his book in print. “An Armenian Sketchbook” fell afoul of the Soviet censors and, like his two masterpieces, was published only posthumously. At first glance, “Sketchbook” seems a trivial work when compared with the rest of his oeuvre. A hodgepodge collation of Armenian customs, rituals and picture-postcard views can’t compete with those searing depictions of Stalingrad, the Shoah and the Ukrainian Terror Famine. Grossman, however, emerges as a cross between an informative tour guide and a captivating travel companion, showcasing a wonderful acuity in all that he sees, and revealing a disarming intimacy in each of his considered digressions. We follow him and hear him — and in the process, not only does Armenia come alive, but also Grossman himself.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer and critic. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.