2015 saw the fourteenth woman writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. When the exalted prize was bestowed on Svetlana Alexievich, it was unique in many ways. Very less number of women has received this prize. Very less number of non-fiction writers has received this prize. The data suggests that male novelists are most likely to get this coveted prize. The case of Alexievich is strange in many ways. Her work is rooted in research and she has received the prize for literature. Her selection has in a sense widened the scope of the term ‘literature’.
Alexievich writes what she knows. She has researched deeply and widely on female Russian soldiers who went to the battlefield in World War II. She has also studied in detail the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy. ‘By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices- Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era.’
Being recognized for non-fiction is no small achievement in our times. No exaggeration to say that ours is a fiction-bitten generation. She is the first non-fiction writer to win this prize in about five decades. When we talk of Alexievich winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, we must remember that she is basically a journalist. In her case, the Swedish Academy has accorded journalism the high place of literature. Her work, emanating from fact-finding and research, has risen to somber and subtle heights of literature. Alexievich has raised the status of journalism. Generally, everyone views journalism as a vehicle of information alone. She has taken her writing to aesthetic levels:
‘All that we know about Woman is best described by the word ‘compassion’. There are other words too- sister, wife, friend and the noblest of all, mother. But isn’t compassion a part of all these concepts, their very substance, their purpose and their ultimate meaning? A woman is the giver of life; she safeguards life, so ‘Woman’ and ‘Life’ are synonyms. But during the most terrible war (World War II ) of the 20th century a woman had to become a soldier. She not only rescued and bandaged the wounded; she also fired a sniper’s rifle, dropped bombs, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering and captured prisoners. A Woman killed’.
Her style is totally literary. Through facts, she sees the larger picture, the profound truth. She plays with the collective memory of mankind, that is, the World War and mixes it with personal memory to give us an aesthetic taste. The Nobel Committee called her work ‘a monument to suffering and courage in our times’. Alexievich has broken many set norms. She is the first ever journalist to win a Nobel. Journalists today are known to manipulate power, leak information and play judges. But here we have Alexievich who records individual voices. She carefully records and systematically puts forward the voice of the voiceless. She goes with people who have suffered the worst of history of mankind. Victims of World War II, the Chernobyl disaster and the Soviet Afghan war fill her pages. She has questioned the collective conscience of mankind. Getting into the world of Alexievich means shedding off prejudices and leaving polarities. Her method is unique. She says that soulless, purposeless journalism means nothing to her:
‘I’m not interested in information, information which serves more and more as the foundation for our civilization. I think information has discredited itself as a way of knowing human beings. What I’m interested in is human feelings and human turmoil, to be able to make some kind of a guess about what goes on inside of people, about what has meaning for them and causes them to suffer’. (From speech: 2005 National Books Critic Circle Award for ‘Voices from Chernobyl’)
So here we have a journalist who says that she is not interested in information. And that’s a pretty huge statement to make. Alexievich has always spoken against data journalism driven by technology. It shocks people when someone speaks against data and technology in today’s world. But her point is valid. Humanness cannot be measured; should not be measured rather. It is only to be felt. Writers are quick to put their books in market right after a disaster. It is considered to be a hot commodity- a burning book on a burning topic. Alexievich presents an entirely different view. What really emerges from a disaster needs time, thought and assimilation.
‘Right after Chernobyl happened, when I was making my first trips to that region, I saw dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists there. And I said to myself, those guys are going to put their books out really fast, but the book I’m going to write is going to take years, and, indeed, I worked on the book for ten years. And when I speak of these journalists who were going to put their books out quickly I’m talking about books that were filled with facts, information, medical information… But the most important thing we needed to learn from that event took more time to emerge.’ (From speech: 2005 National Books Critic Circle Award for ‘Voices from Chernobyl’)
To understand Alexievich’s value and contribution, we have to realize that she has put her life to the study of the mind and feelings of the individual in the Soviet and post Soviet era. Her work can only be understood in a trail as a whole. Hers is a sustained effort through decades to study the changes in the thinking of the individual mind. Some of the scholars even say that Alexievich has evolved a new genre. She has been a journalist. She has focused on the impact of Soviet policies, regime and events. She has researched and investigated on and on. And yet her writing is poetic. Her reporting is literary. Through the history of events, she has presented the history of emotions. The chain and consistency in her work is her unique appeal. The world of Alexievich is an emotional world solidly based on real life events. Her research is extensive and deep. She has interviewed thousands of children, women and men. She has mapped the human soul. It is a new technique. It is a new genre, if you wish. The achievement of Alexievich is not just that of matter but of form as well. She packs so much in her work- years of research, journalistic zeal, editorial accuracy, analytical ability, literary sense, historical sensibility coupled with the most precious quality, that is, her human sensitivity. Her books present the voice of those, no one cares about. She has devoted her life to the depiction of the common life. Her books become communities of people bound by disaster and tragedy. She makes sure that the world would not forget the unfortunate people.
It was amusing that no one knew about Svetlana Alexievich before her Nobel win. We can say that she has written history in a literary manner from below. It is obvious that the publishing industry has its own limitations. It cannot publish what is not keenly defined. The work of Alexievich has been called ‘polyphonic’ by the Swedish Academy. It is a very significant word. The work of Alexievich carries the beauty of fiction but it is based on non-fiction, that is, interviews, research, travel, interaction and so on. It is fiction as well as non-fiction. What is difficult to categorize is difficult to sell. The market is ridiculously simple. So this unconscious mixing of genres by Alexievich carves a special niche for her. The second assertion by the Swedish Academy is equally important. They have called her work, a monument of suffering. She documents the kind of pain which usually goes unnoticed. Her recognition has led to widespread attention to these voices which otherwise would have gone unheard. Many people feel that the choice of Svetlana Alexievich for the Nobel is a very bold and unconventional choice. They are not sure whether this choice matches with the ideals set by Alfred Nobel. Nobel has talked about ‘ideal direction’ in which the work of a writer should go. That the writer has to be great is not sufficient; his or her writing must lead us in the ideal, right direction. We can safely say that a writer is not awarded the Nobel for one work but for the tone and tenure of a body of work. It is the prevailing consciousness of a whole work which is awarded. The Nobel committee evaluates the impact a writer has made on important issues on mankind as a whole.
Alexievich experienced the World War II first hand as a child. We can see and understand her concern. She began her Nobel lecture this way:
‘I do not stand alone at this podium… There are voices around me, hundreds of voices. They have always been with me, since childhood. I grew up in the countryside. As children, we loved to play outdoors, but come evening, the voices of tired village women who gathered on the benches near their cottages drew us like magnets. None of them had husbands, fathers, or brothers. I don’t remember men in our village after World War II: during the war, one out of four Belarusians perished, either fighting at the front or with the partisans. After the war, we children lived in a world of women. What I remember most, is that women talked about love, not death. They would tell stories about saying goodbye to the men they loved the day before they went to war, they would talk about waiting for them, and how they were still waiting. Years had passed, but they continued to wait: ‘ I don’t care if he lost his arms or legs, I’ll carry him’. No arms… no legs…I think I’ve known what love is since childhood…’
This gives goose bumps. This is the power of Svetlana Alexievich. Poetry in hopeless scenes… As a journalist, as a contemporary historian, Alexievich derives power from her divided, torn life experiences. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus- these three nations have been her territory. She closely inspects the past, observing the minute details, recording the unexpected and registering the mundane. Her literature has appropriately been called ‘the literature of fact’. She stands as a strong antidote to any nostalgia of the Soviet era. She breaks all norms of so called nationhood that might ever try to justify individual suffering and loss. The Soviet nation was an artificial construct, created to suit the dictators. Alexievich has recovered history from myth; experience from collective amnesia. Understandably, she is one of the most staunch critics of dictatorships in Belarus and Russia. Just to say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1948 is oversimplifying reality. The region had been part of Poland under different dynasties. It came under Soviet rule only in 1939 and under Nazi rule in 1941. Every single Jew in the town of Stanislaviv was murdered. Many Poles and Ukrainians were deported or killed. So just to say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine would be wrong. Much more is needed to understand the background of her angst. The city of her symbolized suppression where everybody pretended to have forgotten the past.
‘Activist’ writing has been recognized. The impact of the prevailing consciousness of a whole body of work on mankind has been evaluated. Alexievich has spoken against ‘collectivization’. ‘Collectivization’ is a necessary evil. Today in this small, interconnected world, we are still known by labels- woman, Belarusian, journalist etc. The grand labels work fine for speeches, look inspiring in times of war, do magic to invoke mass hysteria. But if we look closely, labels nullify individual struggles, identity and experiences. Broad labels also result in mass exploitation- Jews and refugees are examples of some such labels. The work of Alexievich sensitively unravels the falsity of such labels, popular folklore and myth-making factory. The oppressive Soviet regime was based on constant movement of population from one part to the other, the power of the linking language Russian and jingoistic propaganda by the state machinery. Alexievich questions everything. The shifting of population from rural to urban areas is not the best thing according to her. It brings stress and disintegration of its own kind. Alexievich has seen ghost cities having been vacated by war and then being rehabilitated by mixed population from all over. Seeing war as was, seeing things as they are rather than as the government wishes people to see them- this is the specialty of Alexievich.
‘War’s Unwomanly Face’ by Alexievich remains a pioneering work on the condition and psychology of female soldiers who have participated in war. Exposing falsities of all kinds is Alexievich’s technique as well as achievement. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan proved fatal for the Soviet Union as well. Her book ‘Zinky Boys’ highlights the plight and trauma faced by soldiers and their families. It proves that war rhetoric is always wrong. Willful invasion of a sovereign country is also deadly for the invaders.
The writing of Alexievich provides a strange kind of solace. In psychological terms, we can say that her attitude is opposite to escapism. Instead of avoiding, forgetting or being ignorant, the approach of Alexievich is to directly confront reality as it is. She goes into every possible detail, the full length and depth of a tragedy and comes out of it. This is the voyage for an Alexievich reader. It is as though she has vowed to keep pain alive. She has fought collective amnesia. There are no easy routes in the verbal labyrinths created by Alexievich. The writer as well as the reader comes out strong after the literary exercise. This is literature which gives the reader the tools to live.
The Nobel Prize in literature has rarely been bestowed on those associated primarily with non-fiction. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill and the German historian Theodor Mommosen are the rare examples of this category. These three writers have presented their own interpretation of historical events like the World Wars. They have tried to give readers eyes with which to see history. Alexievich, on the other hand, is blank. She does not give her own view. She does not have a view of her own. She simply records voices. The reader is left to decide. This is what makes Alexievich unique. She leaves the reader breathless, clueless. No explanation, no contextualizing, no forecasting- nothing; only voices; true, real voices; voices which cannot be ignored; voices of people who have been through havoc. These are bare voices of sufferers, human voices depicting human pain horrible magnitudes. The reader, after reading the work, is bound to speak against the official narrative full of jingoism, collectivization and forced grandeur. That’s what makes Alexievich courageous. Many brave journalists who tried to see things as they were, were killed. Alexievich continued with her work of replacing myths with stark realities. She kept Chernobyl alive amidst all efforts to repress its memory by the official machinery. This is what makes Alexievich great.
Alexievich writes only in Russian. She identifies with Russians. She is clearly on the side of Russians trying to live a life of dignity. And yet, her honesty has cost her dearly:
‘Alexievich has been unremembered in the country, Russia where her work has perhaps th most contemporary relevance. She writes only in Russian and her themes are those with which Russians, at least of her generation, could in principle identify. Her book on women in war sold two million copiesin the Soviet Union, which suggest that it should now rest on a million or so bookshelves in Russia. This summershe was subjected to a press campaign in Russian media in which she was branded as anti-Russian. The reason given for this claim was her criticism of Russia’s war in Ukeraine’. (Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices by Timothy Snider)
With tear in her eyes, Alexievich has declared, ‘It is hard to be an honest person in our times’. Alexievich has raised problems with Russian nationalism. The official pressure to defend the Russian world is often based on lies. Lies are lies and will be exposed. It is a tussle of ideas- a totalitarian world against a humanitarian, open, democratic world. Alexievich has stood against forces mightier than herself. It is people like her who keep the light alive in this world.
- Alexievich, Svetlana. War’s Unwomanly Face. 1985. New York: Random House.
- Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation.1992. New York: Random House.
- Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.2006. New York: Random House.
Read Also: Zinky Boys: A Requiem to be Remembered by PGR Nair