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 hundreds of books already on the war, but no one had talked to these women. They spoke in a particular way, totally straightforward. They told it like it was.”
Alexievich wove the material she’d gathered into colourful swatches of spoken testimony, refreshingly different to top-down, heroically male accounts of Soviet history. One woman watches Smolensk go up in flames during battle, but it is a glimpse of white lilacs in her garden that is burned into her memory. Another, a paramedic, recalls packing a suitcase of chocolate to take to the front. The chapter headings are rough but personal (“I Don’t Want to Remember,” “They Awarded Us Little Medals”). Eventually the book sold more than two million copies in Russia.
Alexievich used the same unobtrusive narrative technique in her next work, which addressed a more controversial period: the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which at the time was becoming the USSR’s Vietnam. She witnessed battlefield horrors firsthand, but what makes her approach unforgettable is the powerful personalities of the soldiers. Bitter, angry, hopeful, resigned: the voices leap off the page, raucous and vivid, each utterly distinct. Published in 1989, the year the USSR finally withdrew, Boys in Zinc caused outrage—not least among some of its interviewees, who unsuccessfully sued Alexievich for libel. (Alexievich eventually won.)
How does she get her subjects to be so unguarded? She shrugs. “You need to be interested in the person, come to them. You can’t just say, ‘oh, I’m the Nobel laureate, I’ve written 20 books,’ or whatever. You have to show that you want to establish contact. After time, the person starts to open up. Everybody has their own mysteries, their own secrets.”
Over the years, her approach hasn’t changed. She records hundreds of hours of interviews, which are then laboriously transcribed (no longer does she do this personally; the Nobel has some benefits). Then comes a meticulous process of distillation and editing. She has likened the process to portrait-painting (“you keep going back… adding a stroke at a time”), or to sculpture: “Rodin said that he wrestled with stone. This is the work. I like this concentrated prose, almost harsh.”
In adopting this approach, she was influenced by her fellow Belarusian Ales Adamovich, whose histories of the Russian 20th century likewise drew on vivid first-person testimony. But a more revealing comparison is to the work of oral historians such as Studs Terkel and Tony Parker, who tried to capture the voices of the people they interviewed as faithfully and humanely as possible. Alexievich insists her job is to let her witnesses speak for themselves. “If I intervened, I would lose the battle with my material. My commentary would go out of date very quickly—unlike what people are telling me.”
Another subject she has tackled is the fallout, both literal and emotional, from the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April 1986. Although the site was across the border in Ukraine, about 70 per cent of the radioactivity fell on Belarus. As soon as the accident happened, Alexievich knew it would change her country profoundly. And estimated seven-tenths of the population were affected.
The testimony she compiled in Chernobyl Prayer (originally published in Russian in 1997) is intimately, agonisingly painful, all the more so—again—for its surprises. A traumatised pest exterminator recalls executing dogs and cats poisoned with radioactivity. A soldier describes the peculiar horror of seeing strawberries ripen and beehives drip with honey in a landscape seeded with caesium-137.
Chernobyl Prayer took Alexievich nearly a decade. She likes material to settle, as her subjects sift through their memories. Though she has often been called a reporter—sometimes with a trace of condescension—she is adamant that is not how she sees it. Most journalism is “banal,” she sniffs: “I collect material in a journalistic way, but I work with it as a writer.”
How would she describe the difference? She cocks her head, as if attending to a melody. “It’s a lot about the intonation, the tempo. These are very important. It sounds to me like music.” Dostoevsky is one of her greatest influences: “Every one of his characters has their own idea, their own thing they want to express. Dostoevsky just lets them do it.”
Although Alexievich’s books have often been called “polyphonic,” what’s equally important is how discordant they are, full of deliberately unresolved harmonies. Anti-communist voices rub up alongside those of zealous party members, “whites” alongside dyed-in-the-wool “reds.” One section of Secondhand Time (2013), about the slow fade-out of the Soviet Union, braids together the opposing perspectives of Elena, a former member of the nomenklatura (party elite) with Anna, who has nothing but scorn for communist ideals. Despite the ideological chasm between them, the two are firm friends.
Sensitive as such an approach is to Alexievich’s material, one wonders if there’s something else, too—a reflection of the messy complexities of Belarusian politics. On the one hand, the country’s strong-willed ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, was once branded “Europe’s last dictator” and won the last presidential election in 2015 with an eyebrow-raising 83.5 per cent of the vote. On the other, many citizens remain genuinely anxious about the gangsterish post-Soviet capitalism of their neighbours, and wary about where unfettered democracy might lead.
Russia is a major part of the equation. As Belarus’s largest neighbour, the country retains considerable influence, but relations between the two have recently become strained. In February, the Belarusian authorities relaxed visa restrictions for foreigners, which prompted Moscow to impose a hard border, using its gas and oil supplies for leverage.
According to Elena Korosteleva, a Belarus-born professor now at the University of Kent, Lukashenko is engaged in a high-wire balancing act: trying to stand up to Putin and engage with the European Union—but never too enthusiastically. “What you have to remember about Belarus is that it’s a small state, it has a population of less than 10m people, and like many small states it has to be very careful about its relationships.”
What does Korosteleva make of speculation that Belarus could be the next Eurasian flashpoint, with Russia asserting its military primacy—or even invading, as it did in Ukraine? “The situation is quite different, I think; despite the scaremongering, there’s too much interdependency.” What about when Lukashenko eventually goes? “That is a harder question,” she allows.
Alexievich is engaged in her own balancing acts. Following years of official harassment, in 2000 she moved abroad, eventually staying away for over a decade. Even when she won the Nobel, Lukashenko pointedly did not call her.
What does she think of the standoffs between the president and Putin? She shrugs. “I don’t think we know the whole truth. It’s a sort of game. Of course if Lukashenko did break his relationship with Putin, the EU would not be able to give him as much. He would be forced to let in democracy, which will be the end for him.” She looks at me wryly. “Lukashenko is very much like Trump, because democracy and Trump are incompatible things.”
Her opposition to the regime remains staunch, and she has shown herself more than willing to confront the Russian literary establishment, too. In January, she quit the Russian centre of PEN International in protest at the expulsion of the anti-Putin journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, and accused the organisation of succumbing to the “new patriotism” that has infected much of Russia.
But in the future she’d like her own writing to be less political; after three decades confronting conflict and disaster, she wants different colours and textures to infiltrate. For a while she struggled with a book on people and their pets, eventually putting it aside. Another project focused on mental illness; she collected interviews, but again couldn’t get the material to coalesce. At the moment two books are on her desk—one on old age, the other on love. “I am in my late sixties, so I have some experience with old age,” she says with a quiet laugh. “Less so with love.”
As we prepare to take our places at dinner, I remark that, for all the bleakness in her work, there is also a strange, wild optimism: a sense that life will somehow continue, even in the shadow of war or disaster. She looks pleased. “Showing just the dark side doesn’t always work. The important thing is to show what we can learn from dark things, what good we find there.”
Svetlana Alexievich’s “Boys in Zinc” is published in a new translation by Penguin Books in March; a new version of “The Unwomanly Face of War” will follow in July