Posts Tagged ‘Second-hand Time’

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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Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

2016: my year of reading

December 31, 2016

Looking back on 2016, I’m struck by how little reading I’ve actually done this year – only 51 books finished, the lowest total since 2001. There are a couple of ‘started and paused, probably given up’ (Celine’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, and Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, if you really want to know). And I’ve managed to reduce my acquisitions for the year to 38, which is a reasonable achievement in my judgement; it would have been considerably lower but for a spree in November… And I’ve continued with the culling of the library too, although I’m not sure it really shows.

My blog – this one, which you are currently visiting – has been a bit more popular this year, in terms of visits and people signing up for regular access, although I can’t say I’ve made the big time. I have been a little surprised by what have been my most popular posts: both of the following have pretty much the same number of reads. There’s Theodore Kroeger’s The Forgotten Village – I’m not sure why so many have wanted to read about this obscure volume; it’s recently been republished in France, which is where my copy came from, but the visitors haven’t been from there. And then there was Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass, an even more obscure book on the future of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); I suppose many of those visitors may well be Quakers who have heard about the book. And I get visitors to the blog from so many different countries, though not unsurprisingly the UK and USA head the list.

Awards for 2016

Best new book: definitely Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, which I’m currently devouring and will review later, when I get to the end. I could have given the award to her book Chernobyl Prayer (see below)

Weirdest: probably Vassili Peskov’s Ermites dans le Taiga, a true tale of a family totally isolated and surviving in the depths of Siberia for almost forty years without any other human contact.

Best non-fiction: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. You haven’t read anything about the Chernobyl accident until you read this book. The first chapter will break your heart.

Most disappointing: Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit, by Celine, which I’ve felt guilty about for years for not reading, and started this year, but put down for something more interesting. It wasn’t that the book was boring or unreadable, just not gripping enough to keep me interested; I’ve kept thinking that I’d go back to it but so much time has now elapsed that I’d probably have to begin again, which I can’t see myself doing.

Resolutions for 2017: repeat last year’s to buy fewer books, read more, and diminish the pile of unread books sitting in piles everywhere. I’m also, slowly, contemplating the possibility of a re-design of this blog, so that it looks a little less austere, and is perhaps a little easier to find your way around. Would that be a good idea, or do you prefer it as it is?

And so farewell to the world of words for 2016.

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