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Tara Isabella Burton: Grounded by the Trout

May 30, 2013

Vasily Grossman’s newly translated meditation on travel writing, Armenian Sketchbook, embraces the messy truth.

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Image from Flickr via Arthur Chapman

By Tara Isabella Burton

“A translator from Armenian who knows no Armenian.” Such self-deprecation is typical of novelist Vasily Grossman, whose 1962 Armenian Sketchbook—a chronicle of two months Grossman spent in Armenia, refining a translation of an Armenian novel—is less a straightforward travel narrative than a haunting and deeply personal meditation on the possibilities, and the limitations, of that medium. Grossman, perhaps best-known as the author of the incendiary 1959 novel Life and Fate, turns his hand to the problem of artistic creation: the travel writer, the landscape painter, the storyteller; can they ever truly capture a place, Grossman asks us, or do our attempts at artistic conquest “limit the soul rather than deepen it?”

Certainly, Grossman is keenly aware of the narrative burden he carries. The Southern Caucasus has been the subject of reductionist mythologizing by writers ranging from Lermontov and Pushkin to Marlinsky. Grossman has seen Saryan’s paintings of Armenia’s Lake Sevan and has read Osip Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia. He is intimately familiar with the “silly, smutty clichés and jokes that have become so ubiquitous… [Armenians] as pederasts and swindlers, funny little people… the Armenian as huckster, voluptuary, and bribe-taker.” He knows—he thinks—what to expect. He depicts his initial arrival in Yerevan as a kind of artistic colonization: this Grossman is less an observer taking in his surroundings than a divinized creator, subsuming his experience into the narrative categories of myth. “You absorb a huge universe… 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… this city that suddenly arises from nonbeing is a special city, it differs from the city that exists in reality.”

In the absence of dramatic proclamations… we find instead quieter, more personal accounts, stories not of “clichés and jokes” but of individuals.

Yet no sooner does he effect this creation than Yerevan “in reality” forces its way in: Grossman is seized by an urgent need to use the lavatory. Suddenly, “the lord and master is tongue-tied.” His imagined Yerevan gives way to the desperate, animal present. When at last Grossman finds respite on the city’s derelict outskirts his relief is “not the proud happiness of a creator, the happiness of a thinker whose omnipotent mind has created its own unique and inimitable reality. It was a quiet happiness that is equally accessible to a sheep, a bull, a human being, or a macaque. Need I have gone all the way to Mount Ararat to experience it?”

It is this tension between the ideals of the voyager and the stark reality of his voyage that drives An Armenian Sketchbook’s most powerful passages. Grossman pays a visit to the mythic Lake Sevan but finds himself distracted, so worried that the restaurant to which they are heading will not serve the region’s famously delectable trout that he is unable to concentrate on the sight of the lake itself. “I had no wings to fly,” Grossman laments, with characteristically black humor. “I was grounded by the trout.” An encounter with the Catholicos Vagzen I, likewise, is less enlightening than generically pleasant—the two politely discuss Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as Grossmann takes mental notes with which to regale his friends in Moscow: “I might have been preparing to review a show.” So too does Grossman, on arriving at the mountain resort town of Dilijan, cast doubt on its romantic reputation as a spiritual retreat: “Dilijan is a town you fall in love with at first sight. And your first thought as you fall in love is ‘Yes, this is where I must come to heal my soul… ’ None of this, however, is true… the anguish of the human soul is terrible and unquenchable.”

Grossman refuses to compromise his commitment to the pursuit of truth–in its mess, in its complications–in favor of grand narratives or easy answers.

Grossman’s unflinching honesty, however, possesses a poetry all its own. In the absence of dramatic proclamations about the beauty of Sevan or the transcendence of Dilijan, we find instead quieter, more personal accounts, stories not of “clichés and jokes” but of individuals. We learn about Andreas, the “madman of Tsakhazdor,” who conflates the two world wars and vociferously defends Stalin as an enemy of the Turks; about Sarkisyan, a former revolutionary who now sells fizzy water on the streets of Yerevan; about the eccentrically sluggish Hortensia, whose Russian translation of a lengthy Armenian novel he has come there to refine.

In these keenly drawn portraits, we find not the work of the artist as “almighty ruler,” subsuming his subjects into a grand or self-serving narrative, but rather a carefully wrought example of the artist as observer, as watcher and listener, engaging with his subjects in, as Grossman puts it, “a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.”

Of course it is impossible to separate Grossman’s distrust of such totalizing narratives from his politics. Grossman’s trip to Armenia was, after all, spurred by the confiscation—or “arrest,” as he calls it—of his magnum opus, Life and Fate, by Soviet authorities, and his quiet anger infuses his writing. In one particularly memorable scene early on in the text, Grossman critiques the reductionism of those who so easily condemn Stalin after his death; their “lack of objectivity… so glaring that I felt an involuntary urge to stand up for Stalin… to resemble nothing so much as the lack of objectivity these same people had shown during Stalin’s life, when they had been so supremely worshipful of his mind and strength of will, of his foresight and genius. Their hysterical worship of Stalin and their total and unconditional rejection of him sprang from the same soil.”

Here, and throughout An Armenian Sketchbook, Grossman refuses to compromise his commitment to the pursuit of truth–in its mess, in its complications–in favor of grand narratives or easy answers. His account of travel in Armenia, no less than his analysis of Stalinism, reveal a writer powerfully aware of the potential–and the danger–of his craft.

Tara Isabella Burton’s work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Spectator, The New Statesman, Guernica Daily, The Rumpus, Lady Adventurer, and more. She is the winner of The Spectator’s 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing and the author of the novel A Thief in the Night, currently on submission. Tara is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency.

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