Alexievich's ear for the testimony of war and hardship made her a Nobel laureate. In a rare interview, she reveals how she marries the craft of journalism with the novelist's artby Andrew Dickson / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
In a vast, draughty exhibition centre at the Minsk book fair, hundreds of people stand in line. The queue straggles past the children’s bookstand and around a fake red phone box installed by the British embassy. People have been here for hours. At the other end of the hall, a slight woman sits at a table silently signing books. Occasionally she poses for photographs, looking uncomfortable. It is going to be a long day.
When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, few people outside the Russian-speaking world had heard of her. Some questioned whether a little-known oral historian from Belarus deserved the honour. But here in Minsk, her country’s capital, Alexievich has long been a household name, revered because her writings have trained a spotlight on this disregarded, much-abused corner of Europe. Although—or perhaps because—her books were not officially available for years, a victim of Belarus’s zealous censorship, she is the nearest thing the country has to an international celebrity.
Even so, seven hours later, in a reception room for a dinner in her honour, Alexievich admits that the role of national treasure is not one she finds straightforward. “I don’t enjoy it, the fuss,” she confides in me, nipping at a glass of red wine with obvious relief. There were 400 autograph-hunters at the fair, and she turned away 200 more. She pulls a face: what can you do?
Not that it’s been all bad: the Nobel money, the best part of £700,000, means she has recently been able to move from her Soviet-era, two-room apartment in Minsk to a larger one in a glossy new development. When she can, she retreats to a village outside the capital, where people know her simply as Svetlana. “I can wear trainers, ride my bike. They know I’m a Nobel laureate, but they treat me exactly the same way they always have done.” She tilts her glass in salute. “Ordinary people—very nice people.”
For the past 30 years, “ordinary people” have been Alexievich’s obsession. Her debut, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), was a garrulous collage of female voices—soldiers, nurses, girlfriends, munitions workers, wives—who described what Soviet life was like during the Second World War. Crisscrossing the USSR as a journalist, Alexievich had encountered many remarkable women of the generation above hers: “There were…