J. Mark Smith on a not-so-hidden Galician Gem
1. SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH IS the first writer of creative non-fiction, or literary nonfiction, or literary journalism—choose your preferred handle—to win a Nobel Prize.
2. Alexievich was born 31 May 1948 in the Soviet Ukrainian town of Stanislavov (now Ivano-Frankivsk) in the region of shifting Hungarian-German-Russian-Polish-Ukrainian borders known as Galicia. Her father was Belarusian, her mother Ukrainian. She currently lives in Minsk, Belarus. She has been a journalist for much of her life. She writes in Russian. She has been a publishing sensation: her book War’s Unwomanly Face, completed in 1983, first appeared (thanks to the thawings of Gorbachev’s perestroika) in 1985, and sold two million copies in the U.S.S.R. alone. She has also suffered political harassment and journalistic vilification: first by the Soviet and then Russian authorities in the early 1990s and, more recently, by the post-Soviet Russian and Belarusian regimes.
3. Only three of her books—War’s Unwomanly Face, Zinky Boys (Norton, 1992), and Voices from Chernobyl (Picador, 2006)—have been translated into English to date. Any English version of War’s Unwomanly Face is hard to find now. (The very rare edition I ordered for my university’s library some years ago was published by a Moscow publisher in 1988.) Among those that have not yet been translated into English are her most recent—its title, roughly: Second-Hand Time: Life after the Collapse of Communism—published in 2013; and The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories, published in the 1990s. There are rumours of others. (Alexievich scholars of the future: a complete bibliography of her publications needed!)
4. The genre in which Alexievich made her reputation is journalism of a sort not much practiced in North America: documentary history based upon oral testimonies of ordinary people. Her fourth book, Tsinkovye mal’chiki (the Russian phrase means "boys in zinc" or "boys relegated to zinc" -- i.e. zinc coffins), compiles conversations with dozens of Soviet citizens—soldiers, widows, nurses and doctors, civilian employees, mothers—who were involved in the decade-long military effort to prop up the Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan.
5. There are a few predecessors in this genre—the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew’s novelistic recreation of the voices and personal narratives of London’s labourers and poor. And there are contemporary parallels: Claude Lanzmann’s long documentary film Shoah, as well as the late twentieth century school of “verbatim theatre” whose scripts are assembled wholly from transcripts and documents related to contentious public happenings, such as the Los Angeles riots of 1993 or the imprisonment of suspected terrorists at the U.S. military’s Guantanamo detention center.
6. Alexievich credits the Belarusian novelist Ales Adamovich with teaching her how to compose her variety of literary non-fiction. Adamovich tried out different names for it: collective novel, novel-oratorio, novel-evidence, epic chorus. Alexievich calls it, “human voices speaking for themselves.”
7. North American readers are used to hearing about “voice”: i.e. the distinctive persona of the writer as expressed in sentence forms and tonal stylings. The Alexievich persona, in contrast, is sparsely present in her books. Her research can involve conversations with over 500 people. When that interview material appears in print, it has been selected, edited, and woven together: that’s where the writer’s intelligence and aesthetic sense manifest themselves. “I perceive the world through the medium of human voices,” she writes in the afterword to an American edition of Zinky Boys. “They never cease to hypnotize, deafen, and bewitch me at one and the same time."
8. No one voice outweighs the others. A soldier in Zinky Boys observes: “Birds aren’t scared of death, they sit and watch. Nor are children—they sit there too, and look on calmly, like the birds. They’re curious.” No voice in the sequence of the book challenges the questionable psychological truth of this statement. Alexievich’s voices are also individuated; they are the speech traces of real people. Her literary journalism therefore has a potent way of working against the promulgation of collective fictions. “Fairy-tale merchants,” she remarks in her preface to Zinky Boys. “That’s what we used to call the journalists and writers in Kabul covering the war”—the U.S.S.R.’s own embedded media, early in the era of managing the message.
9. Timothy Snyder, in a recent NYRB piece, describes Alexievich’s process as follows: “She rescues the recent past from the patterns of collective forgetting by the hard work of speaking to thousands of people, and then arranging their voices in a way that rescues experience without imposing narrative.” Snyder puts it well when he writes that “her non-fiction works as a kind of anti-fiction.” What she learned from Adamovich, he maintains, is “the method of closing one’s eyes to monument”—to collective fictions of a nationalist and nostalgic sort—“and listening to voices until the ruins underneath begin to move.” Or as Alexievich herself has put it:
I'm writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced. This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such a multitude of real details. We quickly forget what we were like ten or twenty or fifty years ago. Sometimes we are ashamed of our past and refuse to believe in what happened to us in actual fact. Art may lie but document never does.
10. Zinky Boys, her Soviet Afghan war book, has many female voices, and the collective testimonies in it are blunt about the chauvinism of Soviet military culture. A female civilian employee remembers:
I never saw any of us girls wearing military medals, even when we’d won them honestly. Once someone wore the one ‘for Military Merit’ but everyone laughed and said, ‘For sexual merit,’ because they knew you could win a medal for a night with the battalion CO.
11. The testimony of mothers, however, is what gives Zinky Boys its singular character. Some have lost their children to the quasi-secret war. Others are servicewomen who also happen to be mothers. A number of the male speakers in their reflections make reference to the mothers of their own lost comrades. A male intelligence officer observes that “This was the mothers’ war, they were the ones who did the fighting.” A nurse recalls the young wounded and dying soldiers: “‘Mom!’ they screamed, ‘Mom!’ when they were frightened and in pain. Always, always for their mothers.” Zinky Boys recalls the period, post-Afghanistan, pre-Putin, when the Russian mothers of conscripts organized and became briefly a political force strong enough to publicly shame Russia’s leaders for their mendacity in the first Chechen war.
12. The title of Zinky Boys refers to the cheap coffins made of low-grade metal in which the remains of Soviet servicemen and women were sent back to the U.S.S.R. (The Hercules-like planes used to send the bodies home were called “Black Tulips.”) Earlier this year, searching online for something else, I pulled up a blog with a photo showing that Putin’s Russia is still using the “zinkies,” for the same purpose—to send home cheaply and unobtrusively the remains of Russian troops. But they come now from the war in eastern Ukraine rather than from Afghanistan or Chechnya.
13. After the publication of Zinky Boys in the Soviet Union in 1990, Alexievich had a hard time of it. The KGB and the Russian military began a campaign of harassment against her, which culminated in a 1993 lawsuit being launched by the mothers of two Afgantsi who had been interviewed by her for the book. Alexievich was accused of “slandering the Soviet army.” Defending herself against the charges was expensive and drained her personal finances. The court also seized all of the interview tapes and files from her researching of that book to be used as evidence. Nevertheless, it was during these years that Alexievich, uncowed, researched and wrote her Chernobyl book.
More recently, just prior to the announcement of her Nobel win, she was the target of a smear campaign in Russian media outlets accusing her of “anti-Russian” sentiment. She had been prompt to call the covert war in the Crimea an invasion, and followed up with ruminations in interviews about the mindset of Russian society being something like a “collective Putin” in its nostalgia for the days of Soviet sacrifice and triumph.
14. For stretches, books like Zinky Boys and Voices from Chernobyl can strike one as unremarkable—in a word, prosaic. But, whether it is some version of Wordsworth’s conviction that the speech of ordinary people will rise to heights of rhetorical power under the pressure of strong emotion, or whether the spirit of Russian itself transmits some capacity for eloquence and self-reflection to even its most disenchanted speakers, now and then Alexievich’s interlocutors speak in unforgettable ways about their experiences. In Voices from Chernobyl, for example, we hear from a man who worked after the reactor’s meltdown to contain the fallout in “the Zone”:
We buried trash heaps and gardens. The women in the villages watched us and crossed themselves. We had gloves, respirators, and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. 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?' … We buried the forest. We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves.
It is a literal recounting of a clean-up operation, and yet these sentences have an appalling figurative force. Combine an ordinary enough verb (“we buried”) and a couple of direct objects that are pastoral enough in most contexts (“gardens,” “the forest”), and somehow you get an argot for the end of the world.
A few more examples. In Zinky Boys, a private says, “When a bullet hits a person you hear it. It’s an unmistakable sound you never forget, like a kind of wet slap.” Another serviceman recalls: “Once I saw a camel dragging its insides after it, as though the humps were uncoiling.”
There are also wonderful moments of dark humour in her books. In Zinky Boys, for example, a Soviet officer muses:
I remember once seeing a mujahedin leader in prison. He was lying on his metal bed reading a book with a familiar cover. Lenin’s The State and Revolution. ‘Too bad I won’t have time to finish this,’ he said, ‘but perhaps my children will.
15. Voices from Chernobyl won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction. Prior to that, Alexievich’s most significant exposure in the English-speaking literary world was a translated excerpt from Tsinkovye mal'chiki that was published in Granta Vol. 34 (Autumn 1990) under the title "Boys In Zinc." This was an all-star Granta: it includes essays and fiction by Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich, Amitav Ghosh, Jeremy Harding, and Simon Schama.
Alexievich has been well served by the versions of her work by Arch Tait, Robin and Julia Whitby, and Keith Gessen but has not otherwise been abundantly blessed to date by attentive English translators (as her shambolic English language website still demonstrates), or even with Anglophone publishers willing to take a chance on her work. I very much hope that October 8, 2015 will have changed all that for her.
J. MARK SMITH teaches at MacEwan University in Edmonton. His essay "The Richest Boy in the World" appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Queen's Quarterly. His translations of four poems by Chilean Winétt de Rokha are in Shearsman 105/106 (October 2015).
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