The Un­wom­anly Face of War (1985)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OLD FAVOURITES - by Svet­lana Alex­ievich

The No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture can be hard to take se­ri­ously, but we should be grate­ful to it for bring­ing global at­ten­tion to the work of Svet­lana Alex­ievich. Her first book is a won­der con­structed on top of a sim­ple, rad­i­cal idea: “Ev­ery­thing we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’,” but how might war ap­pear when de­scribed in the voices of women who lived through it? How does killing feel to be­ings who gen­er­ate new life from their own bod­ies?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Alex­ievich trav­elled around the Soviet Union and spoke to women who had lived through – and fought in – the sec­ond World War, record­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences on tape and notebook. Per­sist­ing against wary pub­lish­ers and hos­tile cen­sors, she fash­ioned from these amassed voices a lit­er­ary form that car­ried the spir­i­tual drama of great Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture into the 20th cen­tury. While Dos­to­evsky and Tol­stoy put the re­sources of the re­al­ist novel at the ser­vice of their vi­sions, Alex­ievich ar­ranges her cho­rus of voices into a work of non­fic­tional art. I defy any reader not to be con­tin­u­ously moved by pity, awe and hor­ror as these sto­ries come pour­ing forth, some last­ing sev­eral pages, oth­ers in mere frag­ments.

“I think of suf­fer­ing as the high­est form of in­for­ma­tion,” writes Alex­ievich, be­fore bring­ing us to the brink of in­for­ma­tion over­load. In our volatile his­tor­i­cal phase, The Un­wom­anly Face of War can be read as a primer for a de­scent into hell. The hor­ror re­ally is abyssal. Yet the strange, sober­ing rev­e­la­tion of the book lies in how ten­der­ness and pity manifest along­side sav­agery on ev­ery page. The war that Alex­ievich presents is one of small, pierc­ingly hu­man mo­ments sal­vaged from obliv­ion. It is a hum­bling read. At the out­set of her ca­reer, Alex­ievich es­tab­lished mastery of a lit­er­ary form as ma­jes­tic, ca­pa­cious and tragic as Rus­sia it­self.

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