It’s always slightly challenging to answer the question: what is that book about? There are two ways of going about it. First, by describing the landscape of events within the book. Second, by excavating what these events are supposed to represent. The second method is much more exciting. When it comes to Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook the answer is clear; humanity, and the triumph of the human spirit. However, there are so many incredible nuances that lead to that thesis.
In the short literary memoir, Grossman accounts of his travels through Armenia as a literary—not to be mistaken with literal—translator. The Russian author passionately describes the jagged rocky landscape, and the profound national pride shared by Armenian people. From his writing one can get the sense of two profound tragedies, and one remarkable fact. First, the totality U.S.S.R. occupation over the country. In small ways, this is reflected in the skeptical glances locals instinctively tossed towards a Russian outsider. In larger ways, it’s manifested in the magnanimous descriptions of statues of Stalin which towered over Yerevan (the capital of Armenia). The second tragedy harks to the Armenian genocide of 1915. Instead of addressing the exact numbers, Grossman seeks to synthesize the human impact of the tragedy. The heartbreak, anger, and eccentric individuals produced by those conditions. The pain isn’t described in a way that elicits pity, but almost a feeling of honor and shared humanity. An underlying theme in the book–and possibly in life–is that suffering breeds a sort of reverence. As far as the question of what is held reverent, and whether or not suffering is worth it isn’t clear. However, the theme of humanity follows beautifully from the themes of tragedy.
The human element is incredibly subtle, but at times overwhelming. On the one hand Grossman perceives it in the glimmering eyes of children and the caustic wit of elderly women. On the other, it is manifested in the idea of a powerful sense of nationhood, in spite of ethnic diversity. That peoples’ shared suffering and historicity bound them to each other forever. This is Grossman’s initial proposition for what it means to be a part of a nation. The fine line between nationhood and nationalism was the ability to see and appreciate the eternal bonds of other groups, and to view them as equal to one's own. Nevertheless, one should not make the mistake that this group of people is being idealized. Grossman treats them as full individuals. Some are kind and gentle, while others are bitter and enraged. The point Grossman seems to drive home is not that they–and we–are human beings. And that wherever there are human beings, there is also the potential for good, beauty, and culture.
I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in writing, culture, and politics. The writing is at times hyperbolic, and has a tendency to go over the top. But it will, without a doubt, grip you into another world, and leave you in contemplation.
- Pictured: Vasily Grossman
Title: An Armenian Sketchbook
Author: Vasily Grossman
Year of publication: 1988