This woman can tell a story or two. Or a hundred.
Svetlana Alexievich writes so well because she knows who to ask and how to listen. She received last year’s literature Nobel for her ‘polyphonic writings’ – but she’s not a grand conductor orchestrating a response. She gets people to tell their stories because she seeks them out and wants to record what they have to say. It’s not just journalism, it’s more like the work of the Grimm brothers or Lönnrot.
And the stories are as strong and dark as folklore in the original version, but real: the tales are full of love and bloodletting and impossible escapes. Secondhand Time (Penguin Random House, May 2016) tells the stories of ordinary people in and after the Soviet Union. Their memories go back to Lenin, but the focus is on the last 25 years.
The first thing to strike me was the transition from books to money, from kitchen conversations onto the streets, from the rule of ideas to the rule of the market. The whole time, the violence doesn’t go away: it spreads out of the camps and cells to civil war and gangs. “We grew up among victims and executioners. For us, living together is normal. There’s no line between peacetime and wartime, we’re always at war.”
The country is still run by a KGB leader, after all. The book ends with the the story of a student protestor on Alexievich’s home turf, Belarus, the last European dictatorship. On her way home from prison, a taxi driver picks her up and tells her “In 1991, I was a student in Moscow, I also ran around to the demonstrations. There were more of us than there are of you. And we won… We chased out one group of bastards, and another group of bastards took their place.”
The other thing that struck me was ethnic diversity. Here is a Tajik hero of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, Armenian and Azerbaijani star-crossed lovers, Chechens, and Ukrainians and Karelians and Jews and Muslims and… Russians. Emigrating to Israel, Canada, California, anywhere to get away.
The brand new English translation is a product of that. The translator, Bela Shayevich has Russian family but grew up in the US. As she wrote herself, she’s handled the excruciating task of bringing these voices west, following the journey her grandparents made. “Translating Alexievich is difficult – not only do I face the reader’s task of braving murder, suicide, deprivation, and war along with Alexievich’s protagonists, I must tell these stories in the first person, taking on the voices of trauma. It is a lonely task, putting anguish into words while not being able to help the people speaking. It’s a relief at least to know their voices will be heard.”
One great strength of this collection is that Alexievich talks to everyone, including the torturers in the secret police and party secretaries, the informants and the soldiers, so you can see how they got to where they are, and how Russia got to where it is now. And there are footnotes on almost every page to bring in the characters behind the characters: shock workers, Heroes of the Soviet Union, poets and dissidents. Olga, whose husband was in the gulag, tells Svetlana: “The pain hasn’t gone anywhere… Everything is right where I left it… I’m afraid of handing it off to someone. No one can possibly handle it. It’s too much for ordinary hands.”
You need will strength to read this – but you should. Get your hands on a copy.