“I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.” (Alexievich, Nobel Lecture, 2015).
Svetlana Alexievich is known for creating a unique “history of human feelings” — her books are a distinct blend of oral history and deeply psychological literature, composed of stories collected on a simple tape recorder. She was born in 1948 in Stanislav, Ukraine, to two teachers — a Belarusian and a Ukrainian. She studied in Minsk and began her life as a journalist in Belarus, first in the Brest region near the Polish border, before later returning to the capital. From her background in journalism, Alexievich developed a distinct way of storytelling — a vastly laborious process of interviewing people about their experiences in the Soviet Republic, then deftly, almost mystically, crafting those stories into one polyphonic narrative history. In opposition to journalism, which deals with the facts on the ground as they occur, she deals in memory. The events she sets down have often long since passed — the Second World War, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster, the collapse of the USSR — while her subjects recall their experiences with trepidation, nostalgia, and even relief.
The essential paradox of Alexievich’s style is that it consists of hundreds of different voices, yet remains unmistakably hers. She rarely inserts herself into the narrative and, when she does, it is in parenthetical stage directions. As in a play, they go almost unnoticed by the audience, but make the scene what it is: (There is a long pause in the conversation); (The cat is on his lap. He’s petting it); (A barely perceptible smile); (She weeps for a long time).
By writing stories that are outside of the official history, she has often set herself in opposition to the Belarusian political regime, which has publicly accused her of “defamation” and “slander”. She has had periods of self-imposed exile, but nonetheless spent most of her adult life in Minsk. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. During her Nobel Lecture, she spoke at length about her commitment to literature as a form of bearing witness.
“Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche’s words come to mind – no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it.”
Alexievich has a relatively short back catalogue (so far!) and because of the historical subject matter, it can be tempting to read her books in chronological order. That approach certainly has its merits, as does reading them in the order they appeared, beginning with the devastating Unwomanly Face of War. Yet, if asked, here is how I would suggest getting into Alexievich’s oeuvre.
“Time was out of joint. The past suddenly became impotent, it had nothing for us to draw on; in the all-encompassing — or so we’d believed — archive of humanity, we couldn’t find a key to open this door.”
I read Chernobyl Prayer in the first uncertain months of the coronavirus pandemic. The parallels between battling invisible-but-deadly nuclear radiation and a similarly invisible-but-deadly respiratory virus were striking: confusion, misinformation, climate fears lurking sinisterly in the background, the whole “unprecendentedness” of it all. At one point, a man recalls how those around him were acting as if in a war film (“It turned out that we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with…”), which recalled the eerie atmosphere and attitude toward those on the pandemic “frontline”. This is why Chernobyl Prayer makes a particularly interesting entry point for anyone starting with Alexievich’s work today. The metaphors and imagery of war are particularly striking because her books that deal with war directly tend toward a different, more emotional language — of love, disgust, fear — rather than using battlefield terminology to try to make sense of the situation. As we face the long-term consequences of the pandemic alongside a burgeoning climate crisis, this book becomes even more prescient.
The Unwomanly Face of War is Alexievich’s first book, incited by the realisation that despite growing up in a community of mostly women, their stories were largely missing from the “official history”. She spent many years interviewing dozens of women — soldiers, nurses, pilots, even snipers — and collected stories of their dreams and desires, what drove them and what haunted them. What developed out of these conversations is an extraordinary work, equally versed in anti-war convictions as it is in a kind of long-dead patriotism and solidarity. The book is more difficult and exhausting than Alexievich’s other works, as it oscillates between cruelty and tenderness, and shows the human drive to maintain dignity even on the bleakest battlefield. Many of the women tearfully recall their mothers’ goodbyes, or the sight of them waiting at home at the end of the war. The honesty these women exhibit in their interviews exposes a vulnerability that is neither gentle, nor “feminine” – it is a vulnerability that annihilates any prospect of hope or morality in wartime.
Arguably Alexievich’s magnum opus, the 700-page-long Second-hand Time is an intimate, empathetic, and Tolstoyan portrait of a population coming to terms with the fall of Soviet communism, and lurching into a capitalist world. The interviewees, often sitting in their ordinary kitchens, are varied: a former Communist Party member, a police officer, a migrant worker, a daughter, an advertising manager, an Armenian refugee… One sprawling monologue follows another, then another, then another, until the reader is completely immersed in a kind of confessional marathon. In this slow and steady way, the sheer magnitude of inequality, disillusion, and loss reveals itself. There are innumerable accounts of Russia’s trajectory from 1989 into the tumultuous present, but none come close to the deep emotional understanding Alexievich elicits from her subjects.
“I love life in its living form, life that’s found on the street, in human conversations, shouts, and moans,” Alexievich says in the beginning of this insightful and moving speech delivered at Cornell University. She covers her battles against the censorship of The Unwomanly Face of War and Boys in Zinc, as well as her ideas about Soviet identity in light of her upbringing. She also talks about the role of oral history and how she developed her unique documentary style. A wonderful, reflective essay for anyone already familiar with Alexievich’s work.
In an interview about Last Witnesses, Alexievich said that her aim was to “write a book in such a way that even generals would feel disgusted by the idea of war.” Children in war often do not survive, and if they do, they are left to grapple with life-limiting physical and psychological conditions. With this sense of urgency driving her, she set out to speak to people who were children during the Second World War. The stories that follow are told with an unsettling mix of horror and naivety — like a fairytale we accept in childhood, only to balk at its gruesome details when revisiting it as an adult.
Over most of the 1980s, the Soviet Union sent troops into a devastating war in Afghanistan. Despite thousands of casualties, the authorities spent much of this time denying that there even was a war, shipping the dead soldiers home in sealed zinc coffins (hence the book’s title) to cover up the scale of the disaster. Once seen as a parallel to the US war in Vietnam, the voices of the veterans and those who loved them develop a renewed significance against the backdrop of impending humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. This resounding study of nationalism garnered reviews such as “a slanderous piece of fantasy” when it was first published in Russia, clearly upsetting the accepted accounts of what happened during the Afghan war. A new English translation was released after she received the Nobel Prize.