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Svetlana Alexievich: The truth in many voices


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At the NY Review Daily, Timothy Snyder explores the life and work of the Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Alexievich is one of the few Nobel Prize winners to work in the genre of nonfiction, although her nonfiction is unorthodox, as her primary material is the voices of others, who take center stage in her work. Here’s an excerpt from Snyder’s piece:

It is right, but also not quite right, to celebrate the journalist and contemporary historian, Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a Belarusian writer. The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union. She is connected to Russia and Ukraine as well as Belarus and is a writer of all three nations; the passage from Soviet state to national state was experienced by them all, and her life has been divided among them. Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union. Polish has a nice term for this approach, literatura faktu, “the literature of fact.” Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her a major critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia…

Alexievich’s sad chronicles—about women soldiers in World War II, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, among other subjects—are thus the opposite of escapism. She does not allow herself to jump ahead with the toolkit of fiction and then look back for meaning, redemption, or distraction. She instead rescues the recent past from the patterns of collective forgetting by the hard work of speaking to thousands of people, and then arranging their voices in a way that rescues experience without imposing narrative. Alexievich is sometimes compared to Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish international journalist. But unlike him she resists the charms of constructing appealing characters from composites. She has no characters; only voices.

Image of Svetlana Alexievich via NYR Daily