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Chris HerlingerApril 06, 2016
Voices from Chernobylby Svetlana Alexievich

Picador. 256p $16

Zinky Boysby Svetlana Alexievich

W. W. Norton & Company. 224p $15.95

When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, those of us who write about humanitarian themes and subjects related to sorrows, like war and conflict, were heartened.

A fellow journalist had won—a rare feat for a prize that has tended overwhelmingly to go to writers of fiction. (The annual speculation about who will win the honor inevitably focuses on novelists like Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami.) That Alexievich was also only the 14th woman (out of more than 100 winners total) to win the prize was also something to celebrate. So was the fact that in a world where the vision of contemporary fiction seems to be getting smaller and smaller, a nonfiction writer not afraid to take on expansive themes was being honored.

But even we in the United States who cheered the announcement were at a bit of a loss to say much about Alexievich and her work. Alexievich, who lives in Belarus, is not as well known, for example, as the late Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish journalist and author who had a real following in the United States and Europe and was sometimes mentioned as a possible Nobel candidate.

Alexievich’s works translated from Russian into English include two books, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices From the Afghanistan War and Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. The latter has won a degree of recognition in the United States, including a National Book Critics Circle Award. An English translation of Alexievich’s oral history about the collapse of the Soviet Union is expected later this year.

The fact that “voices” appear in the title of both books is a key element in understanding Alexievich’s oeuvre and vision. The voices of those Alexievich collects through interviews come together to create a kind of literary collage—oral history that might seem familiar to readers of the late Studs Terkel, yet arranged in a way that is artfully structured to produce a shattering effect.

In a recent New Yorker profile, Masha Gessen wrote that early on “Alexievich wanted to dispense with the author’s voice and with the usual chronologies and contexts. She wanted to approximate the voices she heard in her childhood, when village women gathered in the evenings and told stories about the Second World War.”

In her Nobel lecture, Alexievich expanded on that theme, saying she was surrounded by hundreds of voices. “They have always been with me, since childhood.” She continued:

Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk.... I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.

Alexievich’s passion has now merited the highest possible praise and honor—but it is also hard work. Compiling these voices from hundreds of interviews is a process that can take years and produces a kind of polyphonic “novel of voices,” as she has called it. “Novel of voices” has a nice ring to it; her choice of themes, though, embraces the tragic—perhaps not surprising in a culture where, as she has tartly put it, “we live among victims and executioners.” Events like Chernobyl, not to mention horrible wars and the legacy of the Stalin years, produce what Alexievich calls a “novel of pain.”

So, what is one to make of this nonfiction novelist of pain? It is impossible to talk of Alexievich’s work without mentioning her technique. I do not think Alexievich is writing fiction. But I doubt we are reading verbatim transcripts. What emerges still strikes me as authentic because the character of so many of the voices remains rough, earthy and often opaque. That may be irritating to a reader who wants a clean, coherent, linear narrative. (Reading Alexievich is not unlike reading passages penned by a Russian, non-fiction Faulkner—and I mean that as a compliment.) But her circular fragments are the voices of real people dealing with different kinds of catastrophe.

And the catastrophes are linked. In both Zinky Boys and Voices From Chernobyl, Alexievich’s voices are, ultimately, lamenting the end of the Soviet era and the confidence many people had in the “system.” Zinky Boys—the title refers to the sealed zinc coffins in which soldiers’ bodies were returned back home from Afghanistan—is, in the end, a meditation about the failures and human costs of the Soviet invasion and occupation of a neighboring country (1979). Voices From Chernobyl, a more searing book given the unprecedented nature of the world’s worst nuclear meltdown (1986), is a book about an even greater Soviet-era failure—certainly one that caused more physical harm to more people.

A uniting theme in both books is how a people who fought heroically in World War II were reduced and marginalized from Afghanistan and Chernobyl, crises that shamed people. Those who lived through the 1930s and 1940s won the war. They weren’t afraid, said one observer. “Whereas us? We’re afraid of everything. We’re afraid for our children, and for our grandchildren, who don’t exist yet.”

If some recognize and accept, if uneasily, the course of their history—one person noted that the “world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx”—others remain confused and angry. Some lash out at writers like Alexievich for “dwelling on tragedy,” for slighting a one-time “heroic heritage.” One person angrily berated her in a telephone call: “Who needs your dreadful truth? I don’t want to know it!!! You want to buy your own glory at the expense of our sons’ blood. They were heroes, heroes, heroes! They should have beautiful books written about them, and you’re turning them into mincemeat.” (A quarter century after the publication of Zinky Boys, there is finger-wagging. There have been grumblings in the Russian media that the Nobel honor for Alexievich, no friend of the Kremlin, either past or present, is part of a long tradition of the West poking its fingers in the eyes of whatever regime is in power in Moscow.)

Not surprisingly, the voices of those who actually served in Afghanistan are more nuanced and knowing, often displaying more empathy and understanding toward the people of Afghanistan, for example, than those at home. And, of course, the lessons they learned are the universals experienced in any war. “Within two or three weeks there’s nothing left of the old you except your name,” says one veteran. “You’ve become someone else.” Says another: “There’s not much humanity in a human being—that’s what war taught me. If a man’s hungry, or ill, he’ll be cruel—and that’s just about all humanity amounts to.”

Of course, there are other facets of being human—and one is the way humans can, and do, live in denial. That is particularly a key element of Voices From Chernobyl. The accounts of the physical effects radioactive contamination had on so many, for example, are almost physically painful to read. And yet most telling is that so many people, particularly elderly people living near the atomic plant, refused to recognize the enormity of what had happened. They carried on as if nothing unusual had happened. One elderly woman told Alexievich: “I got in to see a doctor. ‘Sweetie,’ I say, my legs don’t move. The joints hurt.’ ‘You need to give up your cow, grandma. The milk’s poisoned.’ ‘Oh no,’ I say, ‘my legs hurt, my knees hurt, but I won’t give up the cow. She feeds me.’”

It is little wonder that in her Nobel lecture Alexievich said that she has often “been shocked and frightened by human beings. I have experienced delight and revulsion. I have sometimes wanted to forget what I heard, to return to a time when I lived in ignorance. More than once, however, I have seen the sublime in people, and wanted to cry.”

Shock, fright, delight, revulsion and the discovery of the sublime—these may be the same reactions readers will experience upon discovering the polyphonic and tragic vision of Svetlana Alexievich.

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