Vasily Grossman understood Armenia. And thusly, Armenia saved his live; as it did for Osip Mandelstam. As it did for me. Armenia saved his life, though he was to die only two years after visiting Armenia. Despite that “An Armenian Sketchbook” would only be released posthumously. And even though he only spent two short months in that ancient stoic land of stone.
Maybe it’s the stone itself which has made Armenia endure. Gevorg Emin wrote in “Song of Stones”: “Popular legend has it that the Lord, while creating the world, stood on the top of one of our mountains. The mess that he originally created he sifted through a huge sieve pouring the soft soil to one side and dumping the remaining stones on the site of present day Armenia.” And there he put the Armenians; climbing down from Noah’s mountain first to live in caves and harvest their sweet grapes and nectarines and peaches from patches of earth stolen from the stones.
Vasily Grossman fell in love with Armenia during his two month sojourn that saved his life. Grossman was a Soviet Russian Jew born in Ukraine and sent to Armenia as a consolation prize after the greatest work of his mind – “Life and Fate” had been taken prisoner by Soviet censors (and itself would only be published after Grossman had died). So he was sent to Armenia to translate a book by an Armenian novelist. There, following the tradition of Russian writers who also found inspiration in the Caucasus – Pushkin and Tolstoy among the greatest – he walked in the footsteps of Osip Mandelstam. Lake Sevan, that jewel-blue lake at the top of the world, from which even Prometheus might have drunk. Tsaghkadzor, that little Alpine skiing village nestled in the mountains. Yerevan, older than Rome, ancient sophistication. Aragats, little brother to the great mountain of Ararat just over the border in Turkey from whence Noah had descended.
Grossman discovered the food: shashlik, khash soup (its basically boiled cow bones), meat and fruit. The fruits are what I remember most, coming in waves as they ripen as all good fruits do reminding us of the season of things and how while things change, they also stay the same. Cherries then apricots then peaches then apples then watermelons and finally pomegranates.
The people. Good men and women, conservative not necessarily in the political sense but in the understanding that there has been so much good and bad over the ages, so many hard fights won at great cost and so many terrible tragedies that have repeated and repeated again. So much pride in the churches tucked away in the mountains or the music composed after genocide. Grossman made common cause, as a Jew, with the Armenians who too have had such a difficult time of it on this planet. The most natural of sympathies, sister peoples who should see in each other’s life experiences a reflection of their own – though sometimes they do not, which is odd.
Grossman understood Armenia. There are lots of people who don’t; but it is them I don’t understand. Because I too understood Armenia and even now, my sojourn also over (though thankfully mine was not two months but two years), I find myself yearning for the high mountains and the fresh pile of cherries bought along the side of Ashtarak highway.
And that is good.