This is a vivid little book, as much a platform for the author’s musings on a variety of subjects as it is a travelogue. Grossman was a Jewish writer in the Soviet Union who had just had his masterwork confiscated by the authorities, when he traveled to Armenia to work on a “translation” of an Armenian novel. (He was actually cleaning up a literal translation into literary Russian, and did not in fact speak Armenian at all.) This short book is more essay collection than straight travel narrative; Grossman reflects on the landscape, on various people he meets and experiences he has, and on aspects of life in general that interest him.
At the beginning I enjoyed this book, appreciating the immediacy of Grossman’s writing and the thought-provoking subjects he touches on, but I found myself losing patience as I went on, and ultimately this book fell on the back burner.
Here’s an example of one of the passages that struck me, from a section in which Grossman wonders why the view of a beautiful lake doesn’t strike a chord of wonder within him:
For a particular scene to enter into a person and become part of their soul, it is evidently not enough that the scene be beautiful. The person also has to have something clear and beautiful present inside them. It is like a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.
The world was beautiful on that day. And Lake Sevan is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But there was nothing clear or good about me – and I had heard too many stories about the Minutka restaurant. After listening to the story of the lovesick princess, I asked, “But where’s the restaurant?”
. . . .
Or was it the thousands of paintings I had seen? Were they what poisoned my encounter with the high-altitude lake? We always think of the artist’s role as entirely positive; we think that a work of art, if it is anything more than a hack job, brings us closer to nature, that it deepens and enriches our being. We think that a work of art is some kind of key. But perhaps it is not? Perhaps, having already seen a hundred images of Lake Sevan, I thought that this hundred-and-first image was just one more routine product from a member of the Artists’ Union.
And here’s a passage that made me want to roll my eyes, thinking that the author puts altogether too much faith in his own feelings and perceptions:
But I repeat: there are many ways through which one can recognize that someone believes in God. It is not just a matter of words, but also of tones of voice, of the construction of sentences, of the look in a person’s eyes, in their gait, in their manner of eating and drinking. Believers can be sensed – and I did not sense any in Armenia.
What I did see were people carrying out rites. I saw pagans in whose good and kind hearts lived a god of kindness.
Why Grossman would think he could recognize Christianity from a person’s gait and syntax, of all things, especially cross-culturally, and why he is so confident in this ability that he can declare a country devoid of real Christians, I have no idea.
At any rate, this is a well-written little book that ranges over a wide variety of topics. Ultimately, I’d have liked it better if it had contained more about Armenia and less of the author’s pontification. But I did learn more about the country than I knew before, which was not much. (Judging from the selection of books shelved on Goodreads as “Armenia” – almost none of which are set there – I had the vague impression that the country had come into being only after the Armenian genocide. As it turns out, it is an ancient country with a long history and unique language.)