Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

August favourites #15: German novel

August 15, 2018

I’ve read a fair amount of German fiction – in translation, I must admit; although I can get by passably enough in the spoken language, I’m not up to reading novels – but it’s probably the very first German novel I ever read that is still my favourite: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum. Partly it’s the setting, the vanished Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, and a city I know quite well), and partly the writer’s lifelong quest to understand and come to terms with his, and his nation’s appalling behaviour during the Nazi era. Historians have tried with varying degrees of success, and exposed the facts, but writers of fiction are those who can attempt to take us inside the heads of those who lived then. It’s surely significant that Oskar, after his experiences, is the inmate of a mental institution… Grass takes us inside a warped and twisted world that nevertheless feels normal in the pages of the novel, and perhaps that is one of the keys to the insanity of those times. A stunningly powerful read from a writer who – for me – never stopped wrestling with his troubled conscience.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

Friedrich Reck: Diary of a Man in Despair

November 22, 2017

A German conservative and royalist who loathed Hitler and the Nazis and all they stood for and did, kept this astonishing diary up until almost the end of the second world war, though he was to die of typhus in Dachau a few weeks before the end…

He is frequently very scathing and extremely outspoken. Yet he was also one of those who, though disapproving, did not manage to see how far the madness was capable of going and would go – when he writes of all kinds of atrocities he sees or hears of, he comes across as hardened, inured to them – and this is a warning to us now, living in a potentially far more dangerous world…

Keeping this diary was of course incredibly dangerous – even reckless – as he’s warned, but he succeeded in keeping it hidden.

He’s an old-fashioned German, obviously, with both a deep love of his country and a deep loathing of what it has fallen to, and yet all he does is keep a diary? This is one of the thoughts that will occur to any reader, but then one asks oneself, what could he have done? Yet he admires the bravery of the Scholls, guillotined by the Nazis for their opposition – and has taken considerable risk in finding out their story – and he knew some of those involved in the July 1944 plot. He does gradually seem to be moving towards more overt opposition, and indeed it was his refusal to join the Volkssturm that finally drew him into the authorities’ nets; he was denounced, arrested and charged initially with a crime that attracted the death penalty.

Reck’s isn’t the only diary from these times; there’s Victor Klemperer‘s massive tome, Christabel Bielenberg‘s The Past Is Myself to name but a couple. So what’s special about Reck’s book? He’s an Aryan German (Klemperer was Jewish, Bielenberg British) for starters. He knows war is coming, quite early on; he acknowledges that everyone should collectively have acted much sooner – and we all know what a wonderful thing hindsight is – and he’s strongly critical of other countries for not acting sooner against Hitler, which I found interesting because there’s not a lot of overt criticism of other world powers for their inaction in the 1930s. There are shocking details – perhaps exaggerated – of the adulteration of food stuffs during the Nazi era. And his pain and horror at the evils his countrymen are perpetrating is genuine and touching. Although the vitriol against the Nazis and Prussians palls after a while, the book is a real glimpse into the minds of those who didn’t approve; it’s salutary to learn more about such people, even if ‘internal exile’ is as far as they got, and not tarring everyone with the same brush is something many of us still need to learn about…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

Stanisław Sosabowski: Freely I served

July 8, 2017

51+Vj24M6CL._AC_US218_I’m not one for reading memoirs of military men, but I made an exception for this one. Major-General Stanisław Sosabowski was the founder and commanding officer of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, in which my father served, in the medical company, and took part in the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944. I’ve been doing some family history research, which is quite difficult given his life story, and it was time to fill in a couple of pieces of the jigsaw.

Sosabowski tells his own story: from humble beginnings in Austro-Hungarian Galicia to a military career during the Great War and also in the Polish Second Republic. He took part in the September 1939 campaign against the Nazi invaders and helped in the defence of Warsaw. Almost immediately after the Polish defeat, he became involved in the resistance, which eventually became the Home Army; he was soon sent on a mission to Rumania, and laconically records that, after that departure from Poland, he never saw his homeland again.

It’s things like that which bring home to me the sadness and bitterness of refugees, which we cannot understand from our positions of comfort and security. My father never saw his parents again after he was called up in August 1939, but he was fortunate and adventurous enough eventually to make the journey to the Belorussian SSR and revisit when he was born and grew up.

Sosabowski, because of his involvement with the underground, came via France to the UK; Polish forces at that time were based in Scotland and he had the idea of founding a parachute brigade which would eventually be able to take a lead part in the liberation of Warsaw. One of life’s great bitternesses was that when the call eventually came for help on August 1st 1944, the British would not allow the Poles to go…

Sosabowski succeeded in building up and training a highly professional organisation, which was not under Allied command but responsible to the Polish Government-in-exile in London; the British Army coveted the brigade and spent much time and effort manoeuvring to get it under its control. Eventually the Polish Government allowed the brigade to be used in the wider European theatre of war, and it saw action in the disastrous and ill-planned Arnhem action. There are detailed accounts of a horrendous battle over several days, and Sosabowski analyses the reasons for the debacle from his point of view: what he says seems to make clear sense to this non-expert reader…

He acknowledges himself that throughout his army career he was rather an awkward customer and always spoke his mind; this did not go down well with the British, especially when he was right! And because the time was one of greater scheming and politicking among the Allied powers, Sosabowski’s dismissal from his command was engineered by the British government and armed forces. One gets the impression of a very shabby episode, with various people scurrying to cover their own backs, in the context of a wider sell-out of the Polish nation, for whom Britain had originally gone to war in the first place. The book was a decent read and I felt rather better informed about times my father chose not to speak of.

Charlotte Haldane: Russian Newsreel

June 29, 2017

41UYVH8LojL._AC_US218_Two astonishing cerise Penguins in two weeks! First Japan at the start of the Second World War, and now this one reporting from the Soviet Union a couple of months after the Nazi invasion. And this one really is a wartime special, printed on really low-grade paper and the binding stapled together…

Charlotte Haldane comes across as an amazing woman for the time. Clearly a convinced communist, she had already reported on the Spanish Civil War and the war with the Japanese in China for various Fleet Street newspapers, when she got herself sent to Russia, and seems to have been the only woman reporter there at the time. She sets to in a very business-like fashion, undaunted by her lack of Russian, and the pressing problems of the time surrounding her: she cultivates contacts, organises transport and accommodation, and attaches herself to various parties and delegations from Britain: the Soviets are now our friends and Allies.

She reports on Nazi air-raids on Moscow and other towns, unflappable because she lived through the worst of the Blitz, as she reminds Russians astonished at her phlegmatic approach; she reports on interrogations of captured Nazi officers and aircrew, and she demands – successfully – to take part in a lengthy visit to the front lines, on the grounds that it’s only right for a woman to be included in the press corps.

Haldane reports clearly and in a matter-of-fact way; various details she is clear she will not include because of security reasons, and, although she clearly both witnesses Nazi atrocities and interviews victims, she does not go into gruesome detail. At this point we need to remind ourselves that we are still in the opening weeks of the Great Patriotic War and it’s only at the end of the book that the Germans begin their onslaught on Moscow that leads to the winter debacle of 1941 and the cracks in the German war machine beginning to appear; none of the full horrors that were to emerge later on are known at this point, and although the extermination of the Jews has certainly begun, it’s not known about or spoken of yet…

It’s the approaching attack on Moscow that leads to Haldane and others, and various diplomats being evacuated from Archangelsk on one of the famous Arctic convoys…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course: Haldane is strongest as reporter and much weaker as analyst, and although she supports the idea of Nazi ideology as a pathological infection that has affected an entire generation and will need concentrated efforts to extirpate at the end of the war (no doubt at all that the Allies will be victorious), and is doing her bit for the war effort in bringing information about our new allies to the knowledge of the British public, I had to laugh at the idea of Soviet and Polish soldiers as comrades in arms: she did not know the half of what the newly-released Poles had had to endure for the previous two years at Soviet hands, nor how eager they were to get out of the country… and the graves at Katyn had not yet been discovered. But overall it was a marvellous book by a brave woman, vivid and immediate.

John Morris: Traveller from Tokyo

June 26, 2017

51pZmjS9F+L._AC_US218_I’ve mentioned the cerise Penguin series of travel and adventure writing before in these pages; they date from the 1940s and 1950s and were, I presume, later superseded by the Penguin Travel Library. They presented some amazing accounts of travel and exploration, and I always look out for them when I visit second-hand bookshops. Because they date from the early days of paperbacks, and also because many of them were published under wartime restrictions, on very poor quality paper, they are quite rare, and often quite fragile.

I bought John Morris’ account on a whim, realising I’d never read anything about travel to or in Japan, and it was a real eye-opener. He was employed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry to teach English at one of Tokyo’s university campuses during the period leading up to and immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and because of his unusual employment status was apparently the only Briton who was not interned when war was declared, whereas all other foreigners he knew were. Eventually he was evacuated through diplomatic channels.

He presents us with a picture of many aspects of Japanese life, language, culture and history as he experienced them in the very early 1940s; it’s a detailed, balanced and thoughtful account, which does recognise the growth of Japanese militarism and its increasing effect on all aspects of society: he can see the growing tensions between Japan and the US. And his account of his personal treatment and growing concerns as he becomes more and more isolated after the start of hostilities is fascinating: he is not ill-treated, though he fears for his friends and colleagues, and since he has treated us earlier to an in-depth account of the vagaries of the Japanese legal and justice system (which starts from the premise of guilt until proven innocent) we can understand those concerns. We are relieved when he is able to leave the country.

There is something special in reading, so many years after the events, and when we have the benefits of hindsight, an account with the immediacy that comes across so strongly and clearly in Morris’ book. It was a really good find, well-written, though, surprisingly for a Penguin book of that vintage, riddled with spelling errors…

Sadly unable to find an illustration of the actual cerise Penguin edition.

Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.

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