I never want to write another word about the war, I told myself.
Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievich
Great authors write great books; brilliant authors write great books with brilliant first sentences.
Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, was commended “”for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” in the announcement from the Swedish Academy. For an award dominated by fiction writers, she is very much an outlier: whether she is an historian, or journalist or something altogether different is an intriguing question
Alexievich’s biography on the Nobel site does a better job of capturing the nature of her work:
By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era.
A similar phrase (“collage of human voices”) that kept returning to me whilst reading two of her books (few are available in English translation, alas) is word sculptor. In using the verbatim accounts of her informants, ostensibly few of the words in her books are “hers”. However, it is in the both the sequencing and shaping of these micro-narratives—using first person accounts from multiple positionalities related to shared experiences and common events—she constructs a subtly meta-narrative. Very much storytelling, in other words.
Speaking of words, it seems both books work very well in translation (to English); I’m intrigued with how her approach works in the Russian language. One criticism I’ve found to her work is she, whilst a Belarusian writer, does not write in Belarusian. My sense is that she was very much a Soviet writer prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union: her parents were Ukrainian and Belarusian. But she was taught in the language of the empire. It’s also the language of her participants, who are drawn from across the USSR.
Voices from Chernobyl (2006) is her most famous work in the West: an excerpt was published in The Paris Review several years ago. Whilst Chernobyl is a Ukrainian nuclear power plant, the prevailing winds after its 1986 explosion meant most of the radiation ended up in Belarus. Alexievich brings the stories of locals impacted by radioactive fallout, workers compelled to help in the cleanup from across the former Soviet Union, and government leaders responsible for the the initial and subsequent reaction to the crisis. She fashions a text that captures both the implications of the accident itself (which are terrifying) and a rich account of a Soviet system rapidly decompensating (if ever effective for its average citizens).
Zinky Boys (1992) is about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Like many in the West, aside from the subsequent 1980 Olympic boycott, I knew little about the Soviet invasion. It turns out there are numerous parallels between the Soviet-Afghanistan conflict and the US-Vietnam one. In some ways Zinky Boys is a much harder book to read: not in terms of the writing (again, compelling), but the stories themselves. Aside from forthright accounts of the carnage of war, readers also get an unfiltered view of the Soviet Union’s perverse and particularly brutal military complex.
Her first major work War’s Unwomanly Face is out of print in English, though Random House has secured the rights for a new English version to be released in 2016. This is the book that’s intrigued me most: it’s the story of both women left behind during World War Two (“The Great Patriotic War” as it’s known in the former Soviet Union) and those who fought alongside men. Two other books, The Last Witness (about childhood memories from the same war) and Second Hand Time (about post-Soviet Russia, from the point of view of women), will also be published in English.
The author has her own website, though the English version has not been updated for some time it seems.