The Collective Novels of SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH
Svetlana Alexievich is the first journalist to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature, after 30 years exploring human conflict and its aftermath. Interviewing thousands from Chernobyl to Kabul, she presents her harrowing facts by letting her sources speak for themselves in dramatic monologues. The Swedish Academy cites her work as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Each of her six books has taken three to four years to complete, with 500 to 700 people interviewed per book. Alexievich has perfected a genre which is neither fiction nor non-fiction that she calls the collective novel (she also calls it the novel-oratorio, the novel-evidence, and the epic chorus) created out of interviewing people who have survived some national trauma, asking the right questions, removing the unnecessary repetitions of real dialogue, boiling down their answers to the essence, and arranging these stark reductions in a mosaic-like composition that covers the whole emotional gamut of the historical experience.
Her first book immediately brought her to prominence, an investigation into the role of women in the Second World War translated as War’s Unwomanly Face. Her second, The Last Witnesses, probed the childhood memories of war survivors who were ages 7-12. But her third book, Zinky Boys, about the Afghanistan War, caused such violent responses that they literally became incorporated into the book itself.
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, trans. by Julia and Robin Whitby (W. W. Norton, $18.95 trade paper, 9780393336863, 1990/1992)
Zinky boys were the dead teenagers sent home from Afghanistan in sealed zinc coffins. Alexievich interviewed survivors of all kinds, amputees and those who lost more than limbs in the war that broke the faith of Russians in their country. Her book about the military disaster that consumed a generation records the testimonies of surviving infantrymen and paratroopers, sergeants and civilians, medics and mothers, nurses and interpreters, widows and engineers, and lets them tell you their truths, betrayed by the government, deceived by the press, tricked into volunteering to “go to the aid of the Afghan people.”
Beginning with snatches from her own diary, Alexievich arranges her monologues in three groups she calls “Days,” each beginning with an Author receiving a phone call from a furious, anonymous war vet she calls her Leading Character, who condemns what she is trying to do. “What’s the point of this book of yours?” he objects. “What good will it do? … You’ll never be able to tell it like it really was over there.”
Alexievich then takes the reader through a selection of accounts so full of grief and horror and pain that only the most restrained, even-handed reporting makes them endurable. Vets recount both sides of the Afghan horror, from kicking villagers to death to soldiers being killed with village pitchforks. The book’s postscript concludes with a sampling from the storm of hate letters and phone calls provoked by the publication of excerpts from the book.
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, trans. by Keith Gessen (Picador, $16 trade paper, 9780312425845, 1997/2005)
In the same manner, her fourth book covers the nuclear fire at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986, the largest technological disaster of the century, ten times as radioactive as the explosion at Hiroshima. Alexievich doesn’t hesitate to show that the nightmare was compounded by incompetence, indifference, and out-and-out lies, with four thousand deaths attributable to the accident, while “the number of people with cancer, mental retardation, neurological disorders and genetic mutations increases with each year.”
The heartbreaking opening monologue by a fireman’s wife is like a tragic short story. Three movements of voices follow. A woman who refuses to leave her home in the evacuation, a man who defies the police to go back for the family door, a soldier who unwittingly gives his contaminated cap to his son, each contribute their gram of horror to the mix, leavened only barely by the alcoholic cab driver braving the radioactive zone to rescue kindergarteners. The book reads like science fiction, survival tales from a poisoned planet where the milk will no longer make cheese and chickens grow black coxcombs and the gardens have turned white with radiation, where families of contaminated farmers are forced to abandon their unharvested fields. With the resulting suicides and abortions, it’s a contamination not just of their land and their bodies, but also of their faith in the government.
Alexievich does far more than simply interview. She selects and arranges, she juxtaposes opposites, she records all sides, creating a series of no-nonsense prose-poems out of the darkest, saddest realities. From patriotic self-sacrifice to disillusioned questioning, her voices are the products of a culture trained to honor blind faith in the homeland. Zinky Boys and Voices from Chernobyl are her two most readily available – and devastating – books in translation, though the others are sure to follow, including Enchanted with Death, about suicide attempts when the Soviet Union failed and Second-Hand Time about the USSR’s collapse. To offset her preoccupation with the tragic nature of life, Alexievich is currently completing a book about love and the pursuit of happiness called The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt.
Her most unbearable sequences, the descriptions of teenage soldiers in Afghanistan having their limbs blown off or the heartbreaking slaughter of the Chernobyl household pets are minimal and mercifully brief. But they’re like bullets. They hurt. These collective novels are not for everyone. Their urgent clarity and unwincing, unflinching reportage on the far, dark frontiers of the human soul are thoroughly upsetting but never lurid or sensational, always with a humanitarian awareness of the value of life behind her objective portraits of 20th century horror.
(originally posted on Shelf-Awareness.com)