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Bearing witness: why you should read Svetlana Alexievich

Bearing witness: why you should read Svetlana Alexievich

When Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, many in the west wondered who she was. Jacques Testard, the UK publisher of her latest book, discusses her significance and literary technique

18 May 2016
Text Jacques Testard

“Communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man’, ancient Adam. And it really worked…” writes Svetlana Alexievich in the opening pages of Second-hand Time, her most recent book. “This was perhaps communism’s only achievement. Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new kind of man, Homo sovieticus.” Born in Soviet Ukraine, Alexievich grew up in Belarus, where she resides today after a period of exile in western Europe, and writes in Russian. It was while working on Voices from Chernobyl, a harrowing book about ordinary people affected by the nuclear disaster in 1986 (which Penguin reissued last month as Chernobyl Prayer to coincide with its 30th anniversary), that she realised this “Soviet man” would be her primary object of study. Her writing career has been entirely devoted to this pursuit. She has written five books, a cycle on the “Red man”, centred around traumatic events in Soviet history, beginning with the Second World War and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and taking in Chernobyl and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

When Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last autumn, not many people in the English-speaking world had heard of her, though she was considered a major author in many western European countries. Her books take a singular, polyphonic literary form, bringing together the oral testimonies of dozens of ordinary people. Each story is introduced very simply, with a title evocative of an old folk story tradition (“On the Beauty of Dictatorship and the Mystery of Butterflies Crushed Against the Pavement” and “On the Old Crone with a Braid and the Beautiful Young Woman”, for example) and the name, profession and age of her subject. Then the voice of that subject is given centre stage, with Alexievich’s authorial presence disappearing into the background, very occasionally reminding us that she is present, tape recorder in hand, to tell us what the subject is doing:

Water… He was fascinated by water… He loved lakes, rivers, wells. Especially the sea. He wrote a lot of poems about water. ‘The quiet star has gone white like the water. Now it’s dark.’ Another one: ‘And only water flowing… Silence.’ [A pause.] We don’t go to the sea any more.

These infrequent authorial interventions remind us that what we are reading is the result of as many as 20 interviews with an individual. She records the conversations, has someone else transcribe them, and then works from the transcript, by hand, composing coherent narratives out of hours of conversation. The ellipses which pepper her books serve a dual function, mimicking conversational pauses and also allowing her to bring together fragments into a coherent whole, in what might be described as a montage technique. Occasionally, a chorus of anonymous voices is heard, and the form alters, mirroring the conditions — a demonstration, say — in which she has come across them:

— Bury Lenin already, and without any honours.
— You American lackey! What did you sell out our country for?
— You’re idiots, brothers…
— Yeltsin and his gang robbed us blind. Drink! Prosper! One day, it’ll all come crashing down…
— Are they afraid of telling the people outright that we’re building capitalism? Everyone is prepared to pick up a gun, even my housewife mother.
— You can get a lot done with a bayonet, but sitting on one is uncomfortable.
— I’d like to run over all of those damn bourgeois with a tank!
— Communism was dreamt up by that Jew, Marx…
— There’s only one person who can save us, and that’s Comrade Stalin. If only he’d come back for just two days… he’d have them all shot, and then he can be once again laid to rest.
— And glory be, Dear Lord! I’ll bow down before all of the saints…

Alexievich’s interview technique, which we never see in action, focuses on the mundanity of individual lives. Out of this, a bigger picture, and the bigger questions, emerge. As she explains in her introduction — the only time her voice is heard over more than a few lines — to Second-hand Time:

I don’t ask people about socialism, I ask about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and attempt to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life is. There are an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly an historian. I am fascinated by people…

Since winning the Nobel, becoming the first non-fiction writer to receive the award since Winston Churchill in 1953, Alexievich has overwhelmingly been described as a journalist in the media, a label she rejects. She attended journalism school in her native Belarus, but as a means to an end, to learn how to write. As she told the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen last autumn, “I’ve known since I was five that I wanted to be a writer.” In an interview with Le Figaro, she confirmed this: “Back home, we call it ‘a novel of voices’… It’s not journalism. I felt constrained by the profession. The topics on which I wanted to write, like the mystery of the human soul, like evil, didn’t interest newspapers, and reporting the news bored me.”

Her literary genealogy goes back a long way, from the ancient and universal storytelling tradition through to her mentors, the Belarusian writers Ales Adamovich and Vasil Bykau, both of whom also wrote in Russian. Dostoevsky is another influence whom she frequently mentions. Like him, she is concerned with universal human values, such as truth, rather than specific national political concerns.

Receiving the Nobel Prize has placed Alexievich firmly in the pantheon of great Soviet dissidents and fellow laureates — Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenytsin, Joseph Brodsky — and has overly politicised the reception of her work in the English-speaking world. Other than Mikhail Sholokhov, the only state-sanctioned novelist to have won the prize, in 1965, Russian-language Nobel laureates have invariably been controversial choices in the Russian-speaking world. Alexievich is no exception, and her consecration has been met with suspicion, if not vitriol, in Putin’s Russia. Though her politics are clearly in opposition to the Kremlin, and suspicion of state power is a constant theme of her books, thinking of her predominantly as a political writer, or one who has been rewarded for her political positions, is to overlook that she is, first and foremost, an extraordinary writer.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time, translated by Bela Shayevich, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

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