Pray, May Cats Never Eat their Kittens Again: A Tribute to Svetlana Alexievich
The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to the Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich entails a reconsideration of the conventional ideas about literature. The Nobel Committee had at times been able to identify tendencies in the vanguard, and the Nobel Prize, as the most prestigious international award, has always played a crucial role in giving prominence to those works that shape cultural influences. Ever since Alice Munro won the award for short stories in 2013, it was obvious that the Swedish Academy was willing to reclaim genres traditionally consigned to the edges of literary canon. In the past it has awarded writers like Theodor Mommse , Henri Bergson, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre - all of them basically non-fiction writers, who wrote in the traditional areas of philosophy and history, and were stylists of classical prose. Since Alexievich’s work is primarily journalistic, the conferring of the award on her is a radical act. It breaks new intellectual and cultural grounds, merging and even subverting the traditional relationship between the real and the imaginary.
In many ways, Alexievich’s writings form a part of a long tradition in which journalism, literature, and intellectual reflection shade into each other. Among her illustrious forebears must be considered the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski remembered for drawing attention to the lives of the marginalised and the voiceless. She has herself acknowledged Varlam Shalamov, who wrote The Kolyma Tales about Stalin’s Gulag network, as an influence. Her literary precursors though are Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, who invented the genre of documentary fiction in novels like The Executioner’s Song and In Cold Blood respectively. They based their works on real-life events that were scrupulously researched before being written in fictional mode.
The writing technique of Tom Wolf and Gay Talese that pioneered New Journalism was an important step in erasing the artificial boundaries between literature, fact and life. Their works qualify essentially as imaginative literature, using historical events and real-life crimes to delve into individual and collective minds. In all of them, however, the author’s voice subsumes the characters’ voices and perspectives. The final effect remains not far from the conventional fiction, albeit rooted in the documentary.
In the 1990s, the emergence of New New Journalism was crucial for it tended to foreground the concrete and brutal facticity of modern life where the political and the economic penetrates deeper into human psyche. In this kind of journalism, the idea was to show how the real and the topical affected the individuals, bringing about a transformation in their lives. For this, the devised the now famous immersion strategies through which events saturate readers’ senses and imagination.
Alexievich writes in that tradition, yet her work expands many boundaries, bringing into focus areas of human existence that remain in shadows. Her achievement remains that she raises the act of writing to expansive new heights by probing the limits of modes of expression.
Among Alexievich’s books, War's Unwomanly Face (1985), Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991), and Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) constitute what she calls ‘novels of voices’. These are all works that can be termed documentary and archival. However, a knowledge of her method of producing these works is essential to understand what she has set out to do. She explains that she has invented a unique method of expression because the complexities of modern world have given rise to new human conditions:
Everything happens so fast and intensively in the modern world that neither one person nor the whole culture are able to conceive it. Every person, me too, can only try to grasp a small piece of reality, conjecture only. (Interview)
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Alexievich remembered with gratitude the Belarusian writers Ales Adamovich and Vasil Bykov, whose footsteps she is following, she says, when she writes in her particular mode. It was Ales Adamovich who had insisted that the most authentic way of depicting human tragedies was by documenting them in the witnesses’ own words. His documentary novels, I'm from the Burned Village, about reconstructed account of the villages torched and scorched by the Nazi troops during the occupation of Belarus, and The Book of the Siege, written in collaboration, pioneered the genre that Alexievich practices. When Alexievich decides to write about particular events, she seeks out those directly affected by them. For years, she records their testimony, their feelings, their personal thoughts about the unfolding effects on their lives. Eventually these voices merge to formulate a narrative that is as personal as collective. She says:
Sometimes I leave only 10 lines out of 100 pages of my text, sometimes one page. And all together these pieces are united in a novel of voices creating the image of our time and telling what is happening to us. ( Interview)
One of her most compelling works is about the tragedy and suffering that unfolded in the wake of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. On 26 April 1986, a routine test in No 4 reactor of Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine went out of control. This resulted in fires and explosions, and then ejection of the reactor’s core material which led to radioactive contamination all around. The authorities employed ill-equipped firefighters who were exposed to radiation, suffering from radiation sickness that within weeks led to painful deaths.
For her book on the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, Alexievich interviewed firefighters and others who helped in the clean-up, as well as the wives of those who perished. Their voices are presented as monologues, expressing grief and pain as they describe the suffering of the dying. What emerges is no abstract report, but a chilling picture of the accident, and more importantly for her purpose the human cost of its aftermath:
I have two boys. They don’t go to nursery school or kindergarten – they’re always in the hospital. The older one – he’s neither a boy nor a girl. He’s bald. I take him to the doctors, and also to the healers. (94)
Lyudmilla Ignatenko, Wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko
We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, "I love you."
I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.
He started to change; every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks - at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers - as white film ... the colour of his face ... his body ... blue, red , grey-brown. And it's all so very mine!
He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: "It's convenient, you don't need a comb." Soon they cut all their hair.
The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.
When he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love. (18-20)
In 1991, Alexievich published The Boys in Zinc, a work about the Soviet-Afghan war, information about which was state-controlled and essentially misleading and deceptive. Alexievich travelled to different parts of the USSR, as well as Afghanistan, to gather firsthand accounts of the ravages of war, meeting and interviewing for four years war victims' mothers and veterans of the Afghan war. The book deglorified the war as a waste and an utter disaster, that had brought unmitigated suffering and pain:
And then there was another incident. An army officer with a suitcase was sitting in the half-empty waiting-room of the bus station in town. Next to him a thin boy with a crew-cut was digging in the pot of a rubber plant with a table fork. Two country women sat down beside the men and asked who they were. The officer said he was escorting home a private soldier who had gone mad. ‘He’s been digging all the way from Kabul with whatever he can get his hands on, a spade, a fork, a stick, a fountain pen.’ The boy looked up. His pupils were so dilated they seemed to take up the whole of his eyes. (193)
We waited for two more days before we rang the Provincial Military Commissariat at Minsk. They told us that it would be best if we came to collect my husband’s body ourselves.
There was a filthy box standing outside with ‘Senior Lieutenant Dovnar’ scrawled on it in chalk. I tore a board away from where the window should be in a coffin. His face was in one piece, but he was lying in there unshaven, and nobody had washed him. The coffin was too small and there was a bad smell. I couldn’t lean down to kiss him. That’s how they gave my husband back to me. I got down on my knees before what had once been the dearest thing in the world to me.
When I first heard them saying on television that the war in Afghanistan had been a national disgrace, I wanted to break the screen. I lost my husband for a second time that day (64).
To present the other side of the picture, this is what she wrote in her diary about what she saw in Afghanistan:
I drove to a hospital for Afghan civilians with a group of nurses – we brought presents for the children. Toys, candy, cookies. I had about five teddy bears. We arrived at the hospital, a long barracks. No one has more than a blanket for bedding. A young Afghan woman approached me, holding a child in her arms. She wanted to say something – over the last ten years almost everyone here has learned to speak a little Russian – and I handed the child a toy, which he took with his teeth. "Why his teeth?" I asked in surprise. She pulled the blanket off his tiny body – the little boy was missing both arms. "It was when your Russians bombed." Someone held me up as I began to fall. (Nobel Lecture)
The events in her books do not represent temporal history; they add up as she insists to give shape to a ‘history of emotions’. In Alexievich’s works, the topical, the intimate are concretised and memorialised starkly in all their rawness. No event is insignificant as long as it affects an individual. It is only because of her that we will ever hear a twelve year child Vanya Kovarov:
I'm 12 years old and I'm an invalid. The mailman brings two pension cheques to our house - for me and my grandad. The doctors said that I got sick because my father worked at Chernobyl. And after that I was born. I love my father. (45)
Those moments of stoicism-displayed by devastated victims throughout her work- leave an indelible impression on our minds. It is in recognition of this aspect that the Nobel Committee has called her writing as ‘a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.
The pain and anguish depicted by her is particularly heart-rending, yet because of this the human capacity for forbearance and resignation in the face of suffering acquires its own sacredness. We sense the heroic moments in the lives of people like us, so ordinary that even news reports will never mention them. Alexievich’s percipience makes her discover in the minutiae of people’s lives events that add up to show how modern catastrophes profane life and nature alike. Thus
We’d see a woman on a bench near her house, breast-feeding her child—her milk has cesium in it—she’s the Chernobyl Madonna.
The chickens had black coxcombs, not red ones, because of the radiation.
The hungry cats ate cucumbers. They ate tomatoes.
The cats were so hungry they ate their kittens. God, forgive me!
In the midst of devastating tragedies, humans struggle to retain sanity, self-belief and hop.The descriptions and narrations of their efforts convey their human essence. That is her wayof giving a glimpse of the experiences--concrete and real-- usually forgotten in the larger patterns of historical processes. Although her work expresses a deep sense of injustice and outrage, politics and polemics are kept in abeyance. She says:
In my book Second-Hand Time, there is a woman whose entire family was exiled to Siberia, and died there. As we sat in her kitchen, she sang this popular Soviet song with tears in her eyes. (Svetlana Alexievich - Banquet Speech)
In Alexievich’s hands, the uniquely personal is neither trivialised nor rarefied with a hallowed aura of universality that usually aesthetics provides. The Swedish Academy has canonised this genre of non-fiction that celebrates the topical and the transitory from the real world of flesh–and-blood existence. By doing so, it succeeds in reclaiming a world whose validity has been put under doubt in recent times in the name of abstractions. In a world riven by ideologies and identity politics, and made uncertain by platitudes about relativism of ideas and values, Alfred Nobel’s artistic credo resonates loud and clear: the ideal and the noble in human life must be reaffirmed. Alexievich herself expresses that belief, when she says, ‘The purpose of art is to accumulate the human within the human being.’ She enacts and reaffirms that conviction with her works.
In the acceptance speech Alexievich delivered in Stockholm, Sweden on 7 December 2015, she recounted an anecdote in her native tongue Belarus:
In one Belarusian village, an old woman bade me farewell with the following words:
"Soon we will go our separate ways. Thank you for listening to me and for conveying my pain to other people. I beg you, as you leave, to have a look at my little cabin not only once, but twice. When a person looks a second time, it is not with the eye of a stranger, it is a look with the heart.”
The wisdom of that simple Belarusian woman’s belief is not lost on Alexievich. It has inspired her to accept it as her sacred duty to tell life-narratives that immerse us in people’s moments of contingent being to make us look with our heart, mind and soul – all as one.
- Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys : Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992 . Print.
- -----. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. New York: : Dalkey Archive Press. 2005. Print.
- · Gioseffi, Daniela. Women on War: An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to the Present. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2003. Print.
- Nobel Lecture by Svetlana Alexievich.. Nobelprize.org.. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2015/alexievich-lecture_en.html> Web.
- Svetlana Alexievich - Interview. Nobelprize.org. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2015/alexievich-lecture_en.html> Web.
- Svetlana Alexievich - Banquet Speech. Nobelprize.org. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2015/alexievich-speech_en.html. Web.>