Vasily Grossman’s Memoirs of Armenia

by Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian, London, 13 November 2013

Book Review

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

You may not have heard of Vasily Grossman. This great modern, classical, not anti-Soviet writer, died at age 59, in 1964, from stomach cancer. He visited Soviet Armenia two years before his death, and to our (Armenians’) great good fortune wrote this masterly book, the original title of which is an untranslatable Armenian greeting, Barev Dzez – I do not know what Hello means in English, but barev in Armenian is a complex of multiple meanings; literally it means “Let there be good”, hence “God’s (understood) Blessings”–let us not forget that the Armenians were the first in history to convert to Christianity in 301 AD. Barev is thus the most meaningful, compassionate, heart-warming greeting possible, wishing (praying) a fellow human being be endowed with God’s very own blessings.

by Professor Hovhanness I. Pilikian, London, 13 November 2013

Book Review

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

You may not have heard of Vasily Grossman. This great modern, classical, not anti-Soviet writer, died at age 59, in 1964, from stomach cancer. He visited Soviet Armenia two years before his death, and to our (Armenians’) great good fortune wrote this masterly book, the original title of which is an untranslatable Armenian greeting, Barev Dzez – I do not know what Hello means in English, but barev in Armenian is a complex of multiple meanings; literally it means “Let there be good”, hence “God’s (understood) Blessings”–let us not forget that the Armenians were the first in history to convert to Christianity in 301 AD. Barev is thus the most meaningful, compassionate, heart-warming greeting possible, wishing (praying) a fellow human being be endowed with God’s very own blessings.

And Grossman understood the complexity of this simple historical linguistic fact as a profoundly humane evolutionary cultural development worthy of a paradigmatic significance for a better future of mankind. It is a measure of Grossman’s own much-tortured humanity (he was a war correspondent for the Soviet Red Star, covering the most terrifying battles of Moscow, Kursk, Stalingrad, and Berlin, while Churchill was tumbling in the sands of Africa … ) that Grossman could write the most beautiful ending of any book I have yet encountered and here it is in full.

Though mountains be reduced to mere skeletons, may mankind endure forever.

Accept these lines from a translator from Armenian who knows no Armenian.

Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong.  But all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.

Barev dzez – all good to you, Armenians and non-Armenians!      

Such humanitarians as Grossman must never die. Come to think of it, they don’t. The beauty of those words are incomparable, and their meaning immeasurable. 

All honor be to the translators, Robert Chandler and his wife Elizabeth. They have produced a masterly translation.   

I worry that I have not unravelled enough the multiple meaning profundities of the above quotation especially that it sums up magnificently the textured layers of the whole book. Let us begin with the very last line and the words–blessings onto all, Armenians and non-Armenians alike…which leaves absolutely no doubt about Grossman’s…communist internationalism.

Out of sheer Love, Grossman’s humbling apology for his intellectual frailties, is as Christian as Jesus’ universal message. It displays Grossman’s non-orthodox Reformist Jewish enlightenment.

Moving backwards and up, the sweet self-deprecation in the next line, defines the risible predicament of the Soviet bureaucratic literary foolishness, of getting ‘their selected intellectuals’ translate from languages they did not know.  It also displays Grossman’s stand-up comic’s genius for throwing one-liner daggers.

The first part of the sentence (mountains being reduced to skeletons) refers also to one of the grand themes of Grossman’s book – manifesting Armenia as the country of rocks, stones, broken mountains, the most ancient, actually, the oldest volcanic piece of earth on this planet.             

Soviet Armenians complained about it non-stop in a kind of proud manner … that they cannot take blood out of stone, that they cannot feed on stone or make clothes out of it, that they could not hence create business and trade, ‘capitalist’ wealth from stone.  

Grossman, amazingly, alone in the world of international belles letters has picked up on this Soviet Armenian intellectual mantra, and has produced one of the most beautiful chapters (Ch. 10) ever written anywhere – the book is worth its weight in gold for this chapter alone;

What expresses the soul of Armenia is stone.”

I have never seen so much stone scattered about the ground – and I have seen the Urals, the cliffs of the Caucasus, and the Tien Shan. What strikes you in Armenia is not the stone of gorges, steep mountainsides, or snow-capped peaks.  Far more striking is the stone that lies flat on the ground: the stone meadows and fields, the stone steppe.

There is no beginning or end to this stone.  There it lies – flat and thick on the ground.  There is no escape from it.

And here comes Grossman’s most potent meditative insight that unwittingly, by sheer instinctual creative genius and intuition, defines the territory of Armenia as the earliest piece of volcanic land on the waters of this planet, and its people as the first hominids (I call humanoids) of the world, making their stone axes, collapsing mountains, creating language and culture;

It is as if countless stonecutters have been at work –thousands, tens of thousands, millions of stonecutters, working day and night, for years on end, for centuries, for millennia.  They must have used wedges and hammers (puns on the hammer-and-sickle concept of the Soviet Red flag) to dismantle huge mountains.  They must have smashed them into splinters–splinters they could use to build huts, temples, or the walls of fortresses. From what they left behind in this vast quarry you could make a mountain so high that the snow on its peaks would never melt. There is still enough stone to build any number of towers of Babel, from the one swallowed up by the sands three thousand years ago to the skyscrapers that buzz with activity on the far side of the Atlantic.

I began to think of this small nation as a giant nation.

I looked at Armenia’s silent, implacable stone – and thought about all the fruit I had seen in the collective farm market on the day I arrived in Yerevan.

Only a giant has the strength to turn stone into mounds of juicy vegetables and the very sweetest of grapes….  only titanic labour can have extracted grape juice from basalt.

And on, and on, Grossman weaves his miraculous tapestry of Armenia. It is impossible to categorize this work. It shatters all moulds of literary genres.  It is NOT a travelogue, not a memoir, fiction or non-fiction, poetic or historical faction – It is all of them in ONE, perhaps a deep meditative philosophical contemplation of what it means to be oneself, beginning by feeling being an … Armenian, the first hominims, hominids, humanoids, the first people on earth born of a volcanic mountainous landscape, but also being a modern non-Armenian, being Jewish, Chinese, Arab … a sheer human being beyond race and religion, skin-colour or specific faith.

Via Armenia, Grossman journeys through the peoples of the world to arrive at … himself, as a creative Spirit, an embodied Soul (the famous Russian Dukha) in the likeness of God, the creator of all things, Good and … Evil – an ancient Judaic/Rabbinic concept argues for God’s omnipotence in the creation and evolution of evil; Satan, after all, was the first among angels, before his pathetic fall as a result of envying, desiring and conspiring for God’s power!

evil in Grossman. When I first discovered it, I was deeply disturbed. I put myself in his shoes and put it down to his unbearable eye-witness experiences of the imperialist genocidal battles of the Second World War. Grossman’s motivation of writing his ‘Armenian’ masterpiece – which I think is a masterpiece of the whole of the 20th century, has given rise to daft speculations, that he needed the money (which he certainly did not, having achieved the status of a famous Soviet Writer), that he needed the holiday … well, anyone could do with a holiday anytime.  

The immediate reason was a well-paid commission to ‘translate’ the multi-volume novel of the Armenian Tolstoy, Hratchia Kotchar, who had imitated Tolstoy’s  Napoleonic War & Peace to re-invent it, conceptualising the noble contribution of the Soviet Armenians to the defeat of Nazism – Armenians had just suffered the most shocking genocide of the 20th century, whereby 1.5 million of them (out of a population of 2 million) were massacred by the Ottoman Turks (in 1915) on death marches to the deserts of Syria. 

During Nikita Khrushchev’s half-baked thaw, the KGB retards invaded Grossman’s Moscow flat to … “arrest” the manuscripts of his penultimate book, Life and Fate. Arrest, is how Grossman perceived it, as a proxy to himself being arrested, which thank god did not follow, giving him enough courage to write directly to Khrushchev demanding the release of his unpublished book.  Grossman was famous enough for his letter to be noted – he was granted an audience with Mikhail Suslov. Grossman recorded Suslov’s amazing commentsԹ “Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?”   

Frankly, I don’t believe a word of this being uttered by Suslov. I have no doubt that the quote is an evil naughty joke by Grossman aggrandizing his work as equivalent to a nuclear bomb capable of destroying the vast Soviet Union. It is also a learned joke, displaying Grossman’s grasp of the international situation of unrelenting conspiracies to destroy the Soviets.              

The silly speculation that Grossman was encouraged to travel to Armenia out of a need of his translation work is unfortunately gaining ground and becoming a dogma. It was a low of Soviet bureaucratic stupidity to force writers to translate works the original language of which they did not know. It is one thing to order a literal translation, then have it radically edited by a second, ignorant of the original language, and another to pretend that the editor (usually a famous Soviet author) is … the translator, eliminating the poor true translator from the records! Grossman is determined to have a good laugh calling this Soviet bluff by emphasizing his total ignorance of the Armenian language, and his dependence on the original translator.

What could have been then the motive of Grossman’s visit to Soviet Armenia? Armenia occupied a very special status and a tender place at the Moscow-heart of the Soviet Union. Armenians were regarded as Russia’s “little brother”.    Soviet Armenia had the reputation of being a soul-cleansing healing place for the corrupt and the spiritually bankrupt Soviet bureaucracy. They sojourned there for a bit of mountain fresh air, spiritual renewal, and creative regeneration. 

The puzzle thus of Grossman’s decision to sojourn there had this precise cause, a wish for spiritual cleansing and intellectual renewal, not the advertised nonsense of wishing to have a holiday or get some money together.  The content of the book proves my point abundantlyGrossman went to Soviet Armenia there to find … himself, encounter his own soul, discover and define his intellectual creative identity, and feel like God, being in his image, finally to BECOME HIM.  

Grossman succeeds gloriously and perfectly, fulfils his spiritual quest entirely, like Gurdjieff (another famous Armenian) he mentions. Grossman is aware of his precious and priceless achievement and defines it very early on in his book (Ch. 5) in his inimitable style of masterly discourse, simultaneously manifesting (what I call) a god-complex, the archetypal male predicament under which the best of men seem to suffer, while women seem free of it (perhaps because they give birth to the child, as their own substitute act of god-being). 

With penetrating insight and an all pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe – houses, trees, faces of passersby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the colour of the sky.  During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being, you create, you build inside yourself a whole city with all its streets and squares, with its courtyards and patios, with its sparrows, with its thousands of years of history, with its food shops, and its shops for manufactured goods, with its opera house and its canteens.  This city that suddenly arises from nonbeing is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality – it is the city of a particular person.

This is also Grossman’s profound apology and explanatory excuse to all potential numbskulls who shall feel offended that his book is not about a nation and its famous sons. Grossman leaves them to their superficial ‘heroic’ pathetic nationalist glories. He is interested in the ‘little’ people, grotesques perverted by the evils of this genocidal planet.

And when Grossman tells of real Armenians, he selects characters so deeply disturbed and disturbing, unbearable even to read about them. Grossman’s portrayals are haunting and unforgettable, and a measure of the power of his masterly skill – in a few pages, Grossman distils a whole novel of thousand and one pages;

Arutyun, the mournful dismal, round-shouldered night watchman, with the big nose….   I think he never sleeps – some huge sadness prevents him.  He never speaks to anyone; no one visits him.  … What’s the matter with him?

….. Arutyun had five sons. The eldest worked as a drilling engineer.  He was killed a year ago in a drunken brawl; someone smashed him on the head with a piece of iron piping.  The villagers say he was a bad man.  They feel sorry not for him, but for the man who killed him and is now in prison.

I have heard that Arutyun’s fourth son, the wildest one of all  left Armenia three years ago; he was one of the young people who answered the call for volunteers to settle the virgin lands of Siberia. Away he went – and no one has heard from him since. No one has seen him, nobody knows how to find him or even if he is still alive.

Aurtyun’s fifth son, though mentally retarded, is the least unsatisfactory. .. he smiles affectionately and slobbers as he shows me a picture book – a book of Armenian tales about animals.  The animals in the pictures all look Eastern; they have dark hair and Armenian faces. …

After the infinite tragedies above, it remains to note Grossman’s hilarious humour. I have never read anything funnier than his description of Stalin’s titanic statue (which is no more). More than its anti-Soviet denouncement, what fascinates me is (as in everything else) Grossman’s intellectual skill to transcend the mundane and image the profoundly hidden depths of the human predicament, in this case the male chauvinist pig’s desire to equal God.

On a hill above Yerevan stands a statue of Stalin. No matter where you are in the city, you can clearly see the titanic bronze marshal. …. He strides along, and his stride is slow, smooth, and weighty.  It is the stride of a master, a ruler of the world; he is in no hurry.  ….

Where Grossman is totally evil is his despicable denigration of Hratchia Kotchar’s life-work. Inexplicably, Grossman disguises him as “Martirosyan”, and disgustingly refers to his “novel about a copper works” (Ch. 6), which it absolutely is not. I can’t accept it even as a piece of black humour. There is no way of knowing if Grossman understood the etymology of the false Armenian surname he has given Kotchar – Martiros is the Armenian of the Greek root meaning a “Martyr”. Perhaps Grossman in bad conscience is self-flagellating for abusing Kotchar as a martyr). 

Kotchar’s massive novel is (not “copper works”) titled Meds Dan Zavagnere(h) (= The Children of the Great Household – translated erroneously as The Children of the Large House). The Armenian root doun means ambiguously House-as-property, and household as an aristocratic abstraction – Kotchar referring ironically but not anti-Sovietically to the Soviet Union as a household of noble families of nations, which was the social structure of the Medieval Kingdoms of Cilician Armenia, each aristocratic household holding a specific duty and  responsibility in sustaining and securing the survival of the nation as a federative union of ancient ancestry. 

Grossman reduces this kind of complexity into … “cobalt works”! Shame on him – it is very clear to me that Grossman is a slave of the green-eyed monster … suffers mortally from uncontrollable jealousy, trying to steal Kotchar’s crown of being the Soviet Tolstoy.

Grossman is totally unfair and evil about him. I have absolutely no doubt that Kotchar on the other hand, would have done absolutely anything and everything to have rendered Grossman’s life in Armenia a happy one.  Grossman could have been a twin brother to Kotchar, even physically alike, were it not for Grossman’s compulsive obsessive professional envy, Cain-like deliberately misrepresenting Kotchar as an ultra-nationalist. Kotchar was a patriot, but never a nationalist, let alone an ultra one. 

And when I discovered in the scholarly notes by Yuri Bit Yunan, that Grossman had lied about his own flesh-and-blood, fantasizing horrendous things about his own family … I thought Grossman had gone mad – perhaps the developing stomach cancer (like the final stage of VD) causes phantasmagoria, hallucinatory brain dysfunction. I felt sad and sorry for Grossman – especially in view of a lifetime witnessing the unimaginable horrors of the Second World War.

I think he can and must be forgiven, because in spite of it all, Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook is such a unique masterpiece, a subtle amalgam of good and evil on a biblical scale, precisely like the Old Testament and all other great works, so simple and yet Oh so very complex, about nothing and everything, about stones … and man’s inhumanity to man, wise and yet Oh so very foolish, a psycho-socio history of being and feeling like an Armenian, and everybody else of non-Armenians, an existential survival narrative of being merely a sheer  human being … an incredible, miracle of a book, nay, a treatise? Perhaps it’s an essay–an extended philosophical Cartesian cogitation about the nature of things.

The expanded version of the above article may be viewed on Nor Khosq on-line publication.

  1. An Armenian Sketchbook

    An enticing book-review which inspired me to order the said book instantly. Professor Pilikian expertly quotes parts of the book that hook the reader and make you want to read more. I wanted to know how Mr Grossman discovered himself as well as the ordinary Armenians. I wanted to get to know Arutyun and what had happened to him to make him appear so full of sadness. Professor Pilikian informs the reader that this book may inspire one to contemplate how it feels to be a person, a human being, and how reading Grossman's book will help one to connect with the first people on earth, the Armenians. How can anybody resist reading the book-in-review, after that overwhelming statement.

    I look forward to reading my own copy now of An Armenian Sketchbook.

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