An Armenian Sketchbook

An excerpt

Vasily Grossman

Illustration by Michela Caputo

When I first went out for a walk around the mountain village of Tsakhkadzor, I was a foreigner. Passersby stared at me. Women by the water pump, old men sitting under a stone wall and clicking their worry beads, chauffeurs (our twentieth-century cavaliers) laughing and shouting outside the restaurant—everyone fell silent as I, dragging my feet and embarrassed at being the focus of so much attention, made my way between the little one-story stone houses. I went by; everyone exchanged knowing looks.

I saw curtains twitching in the windows: a new Russian visitor had appeared in the village.

After this, I was thoroughly studied and analyzed. Everything known to the clerks in the house of creativity quickly became public knowledge: I'd handed in my passport to be registered; I'd refused to eat khash; I didn't speak Armenian; I was married, with two children; and I was from Moscow. I was a translator and I had come to translate a book by Martirosyan. The translator was not young, but he drank cognac, played billiards atrociously, and wrote a lot of letters. The translator often went out for walks, and he was interested in the old church on the edge of the village; he sometimes called out in Russian to Armenian cats and dogs. He'd gone into a village house where an old woman was baking lavash in a tandoor. The translator knew no Armenian and the old woman didn't know a word of Russian. The translator had laughed and gestured to her: he wanted to know how lavash is baked. And the old woman had also laughed when the smoke from the dried dung that fueled her tandoor had made the foreigner weep.

Then the old woman brought out a little bench. The foreigner sat down—the silky column of smoke now hung safely over his head. The muscovite admired the way the old woman flattened the dough in the air, not against a board but up in the air. She threw sheets of dough into the air and caught them in her outstretched hands, her fingers spread apart. The force of its own weight gradually made the dough thinner and thinner, turning it into a large fine sheet. The muscovite admired the old woman's flowing movements, which were both careful and confident; they seemed like a beautiful ancient dance. And the dance truly was very old, as old as the first baked lavash. And the shaggy seventy-year-old woman in her torn quilted jacket sensed the admiration of the gray-haired, bespectacled muscovite. This pleased her, and it made her feel both merry and melancholy. Then her daughter and son-in-law arrived; the son-in-law's face was covered with blue stubble. And then her granddaughter turned up; she was wearing pink stretchy trousers and dragging a little sledge behind her. Everyone laughed; then the old woman shouted imperiously in Armenian. The translator was brought a small plate of dry, greenish cheese. The cheese looked moldy, but it was very tasty—sharp and fragrant. The translator was given a hot lavash, taught how to wrap it around the cheese, and then brought a mug of milk.

And when the translator left, his eyes red from the smoke, the dog, instead of barking as it had done on his arrival, gently wagged its tail—evidently the translator too now gave off some familiar bitter smell. As for the old woman's family, they all stood by the little stone wall to wave goodbye: the thin, black-haired daughter; the thin, unshaven son-in-law; and the little granddaughter with the coal-black eyes.

Then the muscovite went to the post office and tried to send off some airmail letters, but they turned out not to have the right envelopes—though it took some time to establish this, since the black-eyed young women at the post office did not speak any Russian. This led to everyone shouting, laughing, and waving their arms about.

The following day the translator set off along a mountain path and came to a cemetery where an old man was digging a grave. The translator shook his head. The old man made a despairing gesture, threw away a half-finished cigarette, and returned to his digging. And then the translator went past a water pump and offered to help a woman carry a bucket of water back home. But the woman was overcome with shyness. She looked down at the ground and set off with the bucket, leaving the translator standing there helpless.

And then the translator stood for a long time by some masons who were building a pink tufa wall around a school yard. The masons were cutting and dressing the stone and fitting the blocks together; women in quilted cotton trousers, with scarves wound around their heads and faces, were preparing the clay mortar. When fragments of pink stone landed on the passerby, the women's eyes gleamed with laughter from beneath their scarves.

And then the translator conversed with a mule and a sheep who were walking along the pavement towards their mountain pasture. He had noticed that people and dogs, for some reason, walked in the road, while the pavements were used mainly by sheep, calves, cows, and horses. At first the mule listened fairly attentively to the translator's Russian words, but then it laid back its ears, turned away from him, and tried to kick him with a back hoof. Its kind, sweet little face with its wonderful broad nostrils was suddenly transformed. Now the mule looked vicious, curling its upper lip and baring its huge teeth. And the ewe, which the translator had wanted to stroke, pressed up against the mule, asking for help and protection. This was ineffably touching; the ewe sensed instinctively that the human hand stretched out towards her was a bearer of death—and so there she was, trying to get away from death, asking a four-legged mule to protect her from the hand that had created steel and thermonuclear weapons.

And then the new arrival went to the village shop and bought a piece of baby soap, some toothpaste, and a small packet of purgative. Then the translator made his way back home, thinking about the ewe.

The ewe had bright eyes, rather like glass grapes. There was something human about her—something Jewish, Armenian, mysterious, indifferent, unintelligent. Shepherds have been looking at sheep for thousands of years. And sheep, for their part, have been looking at shepherds. And so shepherds and sheep have become similar. A sheep's eyes look at a human being in a particular way; they are glassy and alienated. The eyes of a horse, a cat, or a dog look at people quite differently.

The inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto would probably have looked at their Gestapo jailers with the same alienated disgust if the ghetto had existed for millennia, if day after day for five thousand years the Gestapo had been taking old women and children away to be destroyed in gas chambers.

Oh God, how desperately mankind needs to atone, to beg for forgiveness. How long mankind needs to beg the sheep for forgiveness, to beg sheep not to go on looking at them with that glassy gaze. What meek and proud contempt that gaze contains. What godlike superiority—the superiority of an innocent herbivore over a murderer who writes books and creates computing machines! The translator repented before the ewe, knowing he would be eating her meat the following day.

A second day passed, and a third. The new arrival ceased to think of himself as an exotic parrot in this mountain village. Now the people he met were beginning to greet him. And he was greeting them back.

He already knew many people: the young women from the post office; the man at the village shop; the night watchman—a melancholy man with a rifle; two shepherds; the old man who looked after the thousand-year-old walls of the Kecharis monastery. He knew Karapetaga, the man with gray hair and light-blue eyes who had returned to Armenia from Syria and whom he often saw standing outside the village restaurant; he knew Volodya Golosyan, the handsome and imposing driver; he knew the physical-training instructor, who wore green ski pants and who had the protuberant brow and laughing face of a strong young ram; he knew mad old Andreas; he knew the woman who fed turkeys under a fig tree; he knew the young drivers of three-ton trucks, who tore along the steep little streets like hurricanes. These drivers had the souls of eagles and the fingers of a Paganini.

translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler

Used by permission of NYRB. An Armenian Sketchbook will be out in stores on 19 Feb 2013.

Click here to read an essay by the translator about the above translation

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