Alex­ievich’s achieve­ment

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

But, whereas many rushed to see Klimov’s film, Alex­ievich’s book did not seem to ex­cite read­ers. The Soviet Union, sup­pos­edly pro­gres­sive, re­mained rooted in pa­tri­archy. Women had jobs, but rarely ca­reers. Women writ­ers wrote ex­quis­ite po­etry and prose, and they were of­fi­cially recog­nised as the equals (well, al­most) of their male peers; but they tended to avoid cer­tain top­ics – and war was a man’s busi­ness. And thus Alex­ievich be­gins

“There had been more than 3,000 wars in the world, and even more books. But all we know about war is what men told us.”

And men told us a lot. “We al­ways re­mem­bered the war,” Alex­ievich re­called, “at school, at home, at wed­dings and chris­ten­ings, dur­ing hol­i­days and fu­ner­als. War and post-war lived in the home of our soul.” In­deed, I had heard so much about the war by the time came out, I had lit­tle in­ter­est in hear­ing more about it – whether the suf­fer­ing and sac­ri­fice or the hero­ism and tri­umph – from any per­spec­tive.

Fast-for­ward al­most a decade. Amer­ica was big on gen­der pol­i­tics, and, as a grad­u­ate stu­dent there, I was em­bar­rassed to be

be­hind. So

I fi­nally read

To my sur­prise, it was not WWII that I learned about; rather, I got my first glimpse into the emo­tions that my own rel­a­tives ex­pe­ri­enced, as they fought and sur­vived the war. Peo­ple like my grand­mother had re­counted only the oft-re­peated male story, com­pletely deny­ing her own ex­pe­ri­ence. But her ex­pe­ri­ence mat­tered, and Alex­ievich recog­nised that. I was so in­spired by

that a few years ago I wrote my own book de­tail­ing the en­durance of women in my fam­ily in the war-rav­aged Soviet Union.

Other books by Alex­ievich were sim­i­larly in­spir­ing.

(1991) spoke of a dis­tant fight – the nine-year Soviet war in Afghanistan – that eroded Rus­sian cul­ture and hu­man­ity, while (1997) med­i­tated on the global sig­nif­i­cance of the nu­clear dis­as­ter. Pub­lic re­ac­tion to both was mixed. Nei­ther the state nor the peo­ple quite knew how they felt about Afghanistan or Ch­er­nobyl – one a lost war, the other an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble catas­tro­phe.

Alex­ievich has de­scribed her­self as “an ear, not a pen.” She lis­tens and builds a story, be­fore writ­ing it down. Her tal­ent is to make the pri­vate pub­lic, to ex­pose the thoughts that peo­ple are afraid to think.

Alex­ievich does not shy away from the hor­rific as­pects of her sub­ject mat­ter, ex­em­pli­fied in a pas­sage from

“We didn’t just shoot [pris­on­ers]… we pinned them up, like pigs, with ram­rods, cut into pieces. I went to ob­serve… I waited for that mo­ment when their eyes would start burst­ing from pain.” While this bru­tally mat­ter-of-fact tone can make read­ers un­easy (in­deed, it was one rea­son why I took so long to read the book), we can­not af­ford to be ig­no­rant of the truth, even – or per­haps es­pe­cially – if it makes us squirm.

Hon­est, dar­ing, and sad, Alex­ievich’s books – con­tain­ing sto­ries in which life, bro­ken and stolen, is worse than death – show how a woman’s per­spec­tive can hu­man­ise world prob­lems and make them un­der­stand­able to all. In some ways, Alex­ievich’s lit­er­ary con­tri­bu­tion, which the No­bel com­mit­tee called “a mon­u­ment to suf­fer­ing and courage in our time,” is equal to that of the Aus­trian nov­el­ist and play­wright El­friede Je­linek, whom the com­mit­tee recog­nised in 2004 for her work’s fem­i­nist cri­tique of Aus­tria’s Nazi past and pa­tri­ar­chal present.

Now, like Je­linek, whose work was largely un­known to non-Ger­man read­ers un­til she won the No­bel, Alex­ievich is fi­nally be­ing recog­nised for her pro­found im­pact. Her award sends a pow­er­ful mes­sage – not only about her tal­ent, but also about the im­por­tance of the fe­male per­spec­tive in the pub­lic sphere.

To be sure, Alex­ievich was far from in­vis­i­ble be­fore. Her books have been trans­lated into 20 lan­guages, with mil­lions in cir­cu­la­tion. And, like many other No­bel lau­re­ates, in­clud­ing Je­linek, she has played an ac­tive role in civil so­ci­ety, most re­cently tak­ing a stand against Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea.

In­ter­est­ingly, the fre­quency with which No­bel Prizes have been awarded to women has been in­creas­ing. In 1991, Nadine Gordimer was the first woman in more than a quar­ter-cen­tury to re­ceive the lit­er­a­ture prize; now, women re­ceive it ev­ery 2-3 years. More­over, this sum­mer, the writer and lit­er­ary critic Sarah Da­nius be­came the first woman in 200 years to serve as the per­ma­nent sec­re­tary of the Swedish Academy, which chooses the No­bel lau­re­ate in lit­er­a­ture.

But the pa­tri­ar­chal cul­ture from which Alex­ievich emerged is far from dead. Recog­nis­ing the ways in which she has en­riched peo­ple’s think­ing about dif­fi­cult – and his­tor­i­cally mas­cu­line – sub­jects can only be good, not only for the women she in­spires, but also for the men she in­flu­ences.

I have just fin­ished Alex­ievich’s lat­est dread­ful mas­ter­piece, a bru­tal ac­count of the chaotic Rus­sian cap­i­tal­ism of the 1990s. In re­cent in­ter­views, Alex­ievich has said she is work­ing on two more books – one about love, the other about aging. I don’t want to read either of them, but I will.

It was 1985, and change was in the air in the Soviet Union. Aging gen­eral sec­re­taries were drop­ping like flies. Elem Klimov’s cin­e­matic mag­num opus “Come and See” de­picted World War II with­out the hero­ics on which we were reared, high­light­ing the tremen­dous hu­man suf­fer­ing in­stead. Klimov’s ap­proach echoed that of Svet­lana Alex­ievich – this year’s No­bel lau­re­ate in lit­er­a­ture – in her first book, War’s Un­wom­anly Face, pub­lished the year be­fore.

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