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Friday Favourite: The works of Svetlana Alexievich

In this week's Friday Favourite, Ernest Lee reflects on the poignant power of Svetlana Alexievich's prose.

Svetlana Alexievich’s works are not an easy read. On the face of it, they are oral histories of the Second World War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. Lucid, chilling accounts reveal how trauma and suffering are variously experienced, memorialized, and do not go forgotten.  She does not speak for the individuals that have witnessed and experienced these calamities, but allows their fears, hopes and dreams to speak to the reader. “I’m writing a history of human feelings”, Alexievich states. Thus, various individuals of all walks of life whom she converses with become co-authors of this document, each contributing fragments of themselves and their pasts.

“I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia.” Temporality and boundaries are two constructs that mediate our understanding of the world. Yet these concepts are always being reimagined and contested. Peace treaties for wars, the end of a super-state, pensions and benefits paid out in the wake of a disaster: the artifice of their finality is made evident by the close attention Alexievich pays to the lingering effects of what state efforts cannot contain. Authoritarian socialism, conscription for an unjust war, the failed paradigm of modernization, are all scars on the body of “homo Sovieticus”. There is a sense that the various anecdotes, jokes, obituaries, and memories that comprise her books are presented “as-is”. Alexievich has expressed at times the impotency of stylized representations or artistic form to record and document human lives. Often, too much is lost. Memories are capricious and dissipate quickly; shame or disbelief at what has happened to us are equally silencing. Her choice of “a genre where human voices speak for themselves” seems like a natural means to understanding the story of “one Soviet-Russian soul” across multiple generations, borders, languages, and communities.

This “mélange of reportage and oral history” have their antecedents in Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ales Adamovich, yet go beyond collating a polyphony of voices to articulate a point. Behind the drama and pathos, lies an awareness that each speaker remains grounded in the real world. “Human memory interests me not at the level of information, but as one of the human mysteries.” They assert independent, autonomous views, yet are inextricably embedded in a web of human relationships – as we all are – fragile and rendered asunder by forces seemingly beyond the control of any individual. The human endurance of suffering is the common thread uniting her works.

Another notable theme that emerges is that of femininity. Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, opens with her own childhood memories from Belarus of the destruction of her family, from fighting at the front to disease, famine, and brutal atrocities. “The world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.” War’s Unwomanly Face is notable in focusing on the perspective of women, but Alexievich makes clear that her approach has structural, not just thematic roots. “The village of my post-war childhood was a village of women. I don’t remember any men’s voices.” The production of documentary-prose affirms this female version of history, and their right to participate in collective memorialisation amidst male narratives. The dichotomy between men and women, of warrior and supporter, military and domestic, crumbles.

Love – maternal love, romantic love, familial love – does not emerge in spite of war. It becomes all the more poignant, something further evident in Boys in Zinc, named for the coffins used to ship Soviet conscripts back to their families. As one mother related: “I was expecting him back home – he had one month left to serve. I bought shirts, a little scarf, shoes. And now they’re in the wardrobe. I’d have dressed him in them for his little grave … I’d have dressed him myself, but they didn’t allow us to open the coffin. If I could only have looked at my son, touched him … Did they find a uniform to fit him? What’s he wearing in there?”

Nonetheless, Alexievich emphasises that it is man too that initiates the collapse of super-structures. War or the end of the Soviet empire unravel with human action. Nuclear disaster however, intersects with nature, and seem to fundamentally warp ideas of reality and responsibility itself. Helplessness, even if not hopelessness, is evident in Chernobyl Prayer: “The world changed. The enemy changed. Death had new faces we had not known yet. Death could not be seen, could not be touched, it did not smell. Even words failed to tell about the people that were afraid of water, earth, flowers, trees. Because nothing like this had ever happened before.” Alexievich’s persistence in employing human testimony speaks to how Chernobyl was a tragedy rather than just a fact or phenomena. Books and records have a stronger duty of memory, not to simply log a history of events, but inner emotion and feelings: the juxtaposition between Alexievich’s various fragments from newspapers, journals, and ‘official publication’ and her testimonies, demonstrate Alexievich’s novel genre of both non-fiction and storytelling. Arkadii Filin, a Soviet liquidator, invokes imagery both alien-like and war-like: “We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say, ‘Boys, what is this – is it the end of the world?’”

Alexievich’s attention to historical and emotional veracity should not obscure the literary merits of her own humanistic approach. “I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.” Her poetics are born out of being a ‘human ear’, a willingness to set the stage for middle-aged mechanics, female ex-snipers, policemen dying from Chernobyl’s fallout, schoolchildren. They mourn departed relatives, recount their first kiss, and relay their nightmares, fondly recalling as often as they are cursing the Soviet motherland. The staggering diversity of human experiences she captures prevents me from marshalling any single quote from her books to illustrate my point.

Amidst these various calamities, her books speak to the persistence of love, hope, and the human spirit. Facts do not take priority over a universal language of emotion, because in her own words, “my interest in life is not the event as such, not war as such, not Chernobyl as such, not suicide as such. What I am interested in is what happens to the human being, what happens to it in our time. How does man behave and react. How much of the biological man is in him, how much of the man of his time, how much man of the man.”

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