The 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich. When announcing their decision, the Swedish Academy praised Alexievich’s ‘polyphonic writings’, describing her work as ‘a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.
Three days later, the Belarusian election results were announced: Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled since independence was declared in 1991, was re-elected for a fifth term. His victory was comprehensive, having captured close to 84 per cent of the vote. The runner-up was not even a candidate, but rather the ‘Against all’ option on the ballot paper. International monitors described the vote as ‘falling short of democratic standards’.
Speaking with acclaimed Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, a well-known contemporary Russian film director, as part of St Petersburg’s Open Library series, Alexievich described Lukashenko as a clown, noting that ‘without the aura of power, [he] is pretty average [and] easy to poke fun at’. The two artists were discussing Alexievich’s latest book, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.
Alexievich’s opposition to Lukashenko’s absolute power is well documented. She went into exile in 2000 after years of persecution and lived in France and Germany, only returning home in 2011. When Polish journalist Stanislav Lubenskii asked about this decision, Alexievich offered an uncomplicated reply:
[M]y parents died when I was in Europe. My granddaughter is growing up at home without me. I had never wanted to live forever in the West. My work demands I be home. My return to Belarus may appear like a suicidal act […] because to live in Belarus is not easy. The young are rebelling. It is hard to talk openly. Everyone is scared. The opposition is weak. But I am an old-fashioned woman and I want to be home.
Alexievich will continue to fight in the way that most writers do: by writing and publishing more books. The Nobel Prize, like her many other accolades, serves as a shield, one she hopes will protect her from further attacks.
Belarus is a small country located, like Ukraine, at the western margin of Russian empire; thus, it has endured years of political and economic uncertainty. The opening paragraphs of Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer succinctly describes the kinds of ordeals Belarusians have long faced:
For the small country of Belarus (with a population of ten million), [the Chernobyl explosion] was a national disaster, despite the country not having one nuclear power station of its own. Belarus is still an agrarian land, with a predominantly rural population. During the Second World War, the Germans wiped out 619 villages on its territory along with their inhabitants. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and towns: seventy remain buried forever beneath the earth. During the war, one in four Belarusians was killed; today, one in five lives in the contaminated zone. That adds up to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,00 are children.
This devastating loss of life and unthinkable environmental catastrophe are just two of the many challenges that have plagued the country. The post-Soviet era has been marked by multiple electoral controversies and widespread corruption, especially within the judicial system.
‘I live with an unrelenting feeling of despair and defeat,’ Alexievich confessed during the Open Library conversation.
When I was working on the second part of Secondhand Time, I had in my mind one single question – the answer to which I haven’t yet found – and that question is: why is it that the endless suffering we, as a people, have endured haven’t forced us to look for ways to free ourselves from tyranny?
Suffering is a theme that weaves its way through the five books of Alexievich’s Voices of Utopia series: The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories (1985), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1989), Chernobyl Prayer (1997) and Secondhand Time (2013). These powerful books bring together hundreds of stories of hardship and pain, but they also reveal Alexievich’s anxious attempts to understand the failings and fragilities of human nature. ‘Why do we surrender so easily?’ she asks.
Alexievich was born in 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine. After being discharged from the Soviet Army, Alexievich’s father and his Ukrainian wife moved back to Belarus to teach in a village school. ‘My childhood was happy,’ she reminisces in Unwomanly Face of War. ‘Simple and happy. Our small house was full of books. Times were tough and life [was] hard, but my parents tried their best to shield me from the unhappiness of daily life.’
Alexievich’s family, like most in Belarus, did not escape the misery of the Second World War. ‘My Ukrainian grandfather, the father of my mother, was killed in the war and is buried somewhere in Hungary,’ Alexievich writes later in the same work. ‘My Belarusian grandmother, my father’s mother, perished from typhoid in a partisan brigade. Of her three sons, only one returned home alive from the war. He was my father. Eleven of my distant relatives and their children were burnt alive by German soldiers, either in their huts or in village churches.’
Alexievich’s father did not like to talk about the war; the stories she heard came from female relatives and neighbours. ‘The village of my childhood after the war was womanly,’ she notes. ‘It was rare to hear male voices. That is how it has remained with me: women telling stories of the war. They weep and wail, sing their songs, and begin to wail again.’
After finishing school, Alexievich worked as a reporter for a local newspaper. This allowed her to gain the two years of work experience necessary to study journalism, and in 1967 she enrolled at the State Belarusian University in Minsk. Upon graduating she worked for a local newspaper in Beresa and, like her parents, taught in a village school. A few years later she became a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman, the official mouthpiece of the Union of Belarusian Writers.
In those early years, Alexievich tried her hand at writing stories, sketches, essays and investigative reports, but these forms left her dissatisfied. Then Out of the Fire (1977) fell into her hands. Written by Ales Adamovich, Yanka Bryl and Vladimir Kolesnik, the book reproduces testimonies of Belarusian villagers who survived brutal German attacks during the war. ‘I was shaken by the book,’ Alexievich writes. ‘Nothing except Dostoevsky had affected me so much before.’ Adamovich soon become Alexievich’s teacher and mentor.
A similar narrative style was used in Adamovich’s second book of testimonies, A Book of the Blockade (1984). Co-authored with Daniil Granin, Blockade brings together eyewitness accounts of the siege of Leningrad. When it came to describing this kind of writing, the authors were at a loss. ‘Collected novel’, ‘novel-oration’, ‘novel-testimony’, ‘people in their own words’, ‘epic-chorus’ – all seemed awkward and wanting.
That same year, Russian writer Lidiya Ginzburg published her memoir of the Leningrad siege, Notes from the Blockade. The book follows a more traditional format, offering a first-person account of Ginzburg’s ordeal, but it also includes an appendix of testimonies of other survivors.
Adamovich’s and Ginzburg’s works, though different in style and approach, were part of a rich tradition of testimony-based narratives. One of the most remarkable examples of which is Notes from a Dead House, Dostoevsky’s account of a Siberian prison camp. Dostoevsky is Alexievich’s hero, and his influence on her work has been acknowledged by Alexievich on numerous occasions.
Alexievich was keen to build on this tradition, but wanted to create something more direct and affective, a style that would capture the ‘way [her] eyes look at the world’ and ‘the way [her] ears hear it’. For Alexievich, listening is as important as looking. ‘If Flaubert called himself a human pen,’ she notes in her Nobel Prize speech, ‘I would say that I am a human ear.’
In another interview, with Tatiyana Bek, Alexievich describes the impulse to give life to the stories she hears:
From thousands of voices, from fragments of our life and living, from words and from that which remains beyond words, I compose not reality (because to grasp reality is impossible), but its image; an image of our time; the way we see it and the way we represent it to ourselves.
Alexievich’s version of history is not one of dry and bare facts, of cause and effect, but rather one of feelings and emotions. She seeks to record stories that have been overlooked or that have slipped past unnoticed. Human beings, Alexievich argues, are always more interested in knowing about other human beings than in knowing about historical events such as wars, disasters and other catastrophic accidents. ‘History is interested in facts, overlooking emotions. Emotions are not allowed to enter history,’ she declares. ‘But I look at the world through the eyes of a humanist and not of a historian. I am enchanted by human beings.’
The process of researching and collecting material (including recorded stories) is long and exhausting, but it is not as hard as the task that follows – curating the narratives. She calls this stage of her work ‘selection and montage’. Her main objective is to reproduce ‘a concentrated image of the time’ lived and narrated by her interlocutors.
Alexievich curates but does not force meaning. She revisits the interviews again and again, coaxing the narratives to speak to her. Over time, the narratives ‘transform her and her own relation to the world’. What results from this painstaking exercise is a highly dense and concentrated image of the world she wants to re-create. When listening to the recordings and reading the transcripts, Alexievich’s focus remains on catching the rhythm of the stories. Rhythm, she believes, represents the real ‘signature of their soul’. It is one of the most critical elements of the story, especially when one wants ‘to understand the inner being of a person’.
A remarkable feature of Alexievich’s books is the absence of authorial commentary. Documentary books, she argues, should be sparse, aphoristic and concise. Alexievich permits herself to establish a general context, but resists explaining the narratives. With time, these stories – collected and retold by her – will find their own interpretation in the reader.
The Swedish Academy described Alexievich’s work as polyphonic perhaps because it reproduces the testimonies of hundreds of witnesses in their own voices. But the polyphony I read and hear results not merely from the monologue-like stories, but also from the subtle way in which she brings the disparate voices together. Like an expert conductor, Alexievich creates the ambience essential for these voices to be heard on their own terms.
Alexievich allows her protagonists the freedom to speak and be heard. Yet her presence is critical: without her creative imagination, the books would not have come into being; they are defined by the weight of moral imperative she carries on her shoulders.
She describes her intentions clearly: each book begins with introductory notes and prologues, and many contain epilogues and appendices. Her authorial intentions are also reflected in the way the narratives are structured, particularly the way the text is divided into chapters. The aim is to create a sustained emotional impact on the reader. But as soon as Alexievich’s interlocutors begin to speak, her presence disappears. The interplay between her and these voices is subtle. She wants us to read and hear their stories without interjection.
Zinky Boys begins with two epigraphs, one of which provides a brief yet essential historical context:
In December 1979, the Soviet Government decided to send [its] army into Afghanistan. The war continued for ten years (between 1979 and 1989). More than half a million soldiers served in Afghanistan. The losses suffered by the Soviet Army constitute 15,051 dead. Around 417 personnel were either taken prisoners or missing, presumed dead. By the year 2000, 287 soldiers remained unaccounted for.
The epigraph is followed by a prologue in which a mother tells the story of her son. After returning from the war, this young solider killed an innocent man; he was charged, put on trial and sentenced to serve fifteen years in a Soviet prison. Like all other testimonies in the book, its speaker remains unidentified, referred to only by a tag – ‘mother’.
I am walking alone … Now, I’ll have to walk alone for a very long time.
He killed a man … My son … With a kitchen axe; the one with which I used to chop meat. He returned from the war and killed a man here … Returned with the axe and put it back in the cupboard with other pots and pans. I think I had cooked chops for him the very same day … After a few days [the murder] was announced on the television; and then I read in the evening newspaper that the fishermen had found a corpse in the city-lake … bits and pieces … Then my girlfriend phones: Have you read the news? Seems like the work of a professional killer … Afghan style.
My son was at home; he lay on the bed reading a book. I didn’t know anything; didn’t doubt anything; but I don’t know why after hearing the words of my friend I looked at him … A mother’s helpless heart.
Zinky Boys is divided into three chapters, each of which begins with an epigraph from the Bible and ends with a note from Alexievich’s diary. These serve as a window into the testimonies. The first chapter, ‘For many will come in my name’, begins, ‘In the morning the phone rings, long like the firing of a machine gun.’ But the soldier hangs up on Alexievich before telling his story. The entry ends: ‘I regret we didn’t talk. Maybe he was the main character of my book.’
The most characteristic feature of the testimonies is their distinct spoken-ness. Often the sentences and phrases remain incomplete, punctuated by ellipses. They need to be read aloud to grasp the full intensity of the emotions. Alexievich’s presence occurs in brief parenthetical comments; they remind me of extra-dialogic remarks seen in written texts of plays.
This is how a lieutenant of a mortar platoon begins his story:
Each night … I see the same dream. A replay of the same thing. Everyone around me fires and I also fire. They run and I run. I fall down, and then I am awake.
I am in a hospital bed … I wake up … I want to jump out of the bed [and] go out in the corridor to smoke. And that’s when I realise: I don’t have legs … I come back to the real world …
I don’t want to hear that this [war in Afghanistan] was a political mistake! Don’t want to know that … If it was a mistake, give me back my legs … (In desperation throws away his crutches.)
I am sorry … I am sorry … (He sits in silence and calms down.)
The narrative structure in Alexievich’s other books is similar: testimonies are reproduced without distortion or interruption. The only differences are slight changes of style or technique. In the Unwomanly Face, names and roles (corporal, sniper and so on) appear at the beginning of testimonies. The narratives are grouped thematically under headings such as ‘About the final days of war when it felt terrible to kill’ and ‘About motherland, Stalin and red chintz’.
Interviewees are also named in Chernobyl Prayer, but their stories are reproduced in the form of collective monologues: at one point, seven residents of a village tell their story under the title ‘Monologue of a village on how they call the souls from heaven to weep and eat with them’.
Collective monologue is used as one of the main narrative devices in Secondhand Time, which tells the stories of those who had welcomed the fall of communism with open arms but who then saw their hopes shattered. Faced with the brute power of the free market, these people feel cheated; their dreams of freedom and democracy turned into nightmare. This explains, perhaps, why some feel nostalgic for the order and predictability of the Soviet era.
The book’s title is borrowed from Aleksandr Grin, who described the years after the October Revolution as ‘secondhand time’. In an interview included in the 2013 Russian edition of the book, Alexievich explains that the title refers to the lack of imagination guiding post-communist Russia. ‘All ideas, all words,’ she notes, ‘were as if taken off the shoulders of someone else, as if they were old, worn out’ – in other words, as if they were bought from a secondhand shop.
As a translator, I am acutely aware of the difficulties posed by the complex narratives found in Alexievich’s books. One of the major difficulties is capturing the spoken-ness of the testimonies. The language is not only colloquial, laced with proverbs, songs, ditties, anecdotes and profanities, but also deeply emotional, something that is hard to capture in translation. English editions often omit the ellipses Alexievich uses to indicate abrupt breaks in the oral narration; sometimes they also exclude her extra-dialogic comments.
A quick and cursory survey shows that the documentary narratives Alexievich has written are perhaps unique. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘oral histories’, as in the case of the 2016 English translation of Secondhand Time, but they are different from other oral histories I have come across. What distinguishes Alexievich’s work is the unique interplay between her narrators’ voices and her own. By adding the tag ‘an oral history’, the book has been made to appear lesser than what it achieves.
Each personal story Alexievich retells is intimately tied up with a much larger one; the voices seek answers to fundamental questions about life, death, power and violence. It can be hard to imagine a book or work of art helping to topple a dictator, stop a war or shield a person from a bullet. But I (perhaps naively) believe that the strong moral imperative driving Alexievich’s work, and the chorus of voices given space to bear witness to human-made tragedy, create what are, effectively, works against war, brutality and tyranny – if only we seize the moment to listen.
These stories move us emotionally because the democratic intermingling of voices presented in them creates a polyphony that keeps resonating long after the last page has been read and the book put aside.
Bibliography and references are available upon request: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue