Monday, September 11, 2017

Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War

"They say to me:  Well, memories are neither history nor literature:  They're simply life, full of rubbish and not tied up by the hand of an artist."  S.A.

Svetlana Alexievich has done something special in her career and certainly deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature she received in 2015.  When I read her book, Voices from Chernobyl:  The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, several years ago, I was awestruck, but didn't know how to characterize the experience.  What was it exactly that I had encountered with this small book?  In some ways, the book's witness testimonies about the Chernobyl disaster seemed almost too frightening to be believed.  There was an irony in the fact that the one author who approached the nuclear catastrophe by soliciting eye witness accounts of its impact on ordinary people seemed particularly unbelievable. That is to say, when you read Voices from Chernobyl, you are stunned by the way ordinary people are able to articulate the horror of their lived experience.  You assume only great authors could distill the essence of tragedy into such precise formulations.  In the introduction to Secondhand Time, Alexievich attempts to resolve the seeming paradox in her approach to history by claiming that there her job as oral historian is to discern when everyday speech is transformed into literature.  If we listen carefully enough, Alexievich seems to be arguing, even the most ordinary life becomes extraordinary.

In the Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Alexievich demonstrates just how powerful her methodology can be on the way we remember or record the past.  Alexievich has in fact helped to refine our understanding of one of the most important events in either Russian/Soviet history or the history of the modern world:  World War II.  By including women in the story of World War II, Alexievich helps to enhance our understanding of what happened in the Soviet Union's titanic struggle with Nazi Germany.  Women were involved in many if not most aspects of the armed struggle with Germany, and this involvement extended to front-line combat operations both on land and in the air.  However, Alexievich is not content merely to include women in her history of World War II.  Rather, she seeks to use ordinary women's memories of their combat experience to get us closer to the actual, and therefore completely unromantic, conditions that existed on the front lines.

When she visited veterans, Alexievich wants to know everything about their experience in war, or at least their memories of that experience.  Doing her best to weed out the official version of the past, Alexievich seeks out deeply personal memories, whether or not these memories seem useful, appropriate, honorable, or heroic. Alexievich wants to know why women signed up for the war, what their families thought about their intention to volunteer, and what their first experiences in combat were like.  She also wants to know what women remembered most decades later.  She wants to know what stuck in their minds, even if these fixed memories revolved around very simple things, such as losing their to army barbers or experiencing menstruation in the middle of a battle.  She also wants to know how living with the memory of war affected their lives, or the lives of those around them.

Other quotes from the author about her methodology:

"I write not about war, but about human beings in war."

"I have to discern the eternally human in them.  The tremor of eternity.  That which is in human beings at all times."

"At least three persons participate in the conversation:  The one who is talking now, the one she was then, at the moment of the event, and myself."

"When you look back you feel a wish not only to tell about your life, but also to fathom the mystery of life itself.  To answer your own question:  Why did all this happen to me?"

"The neighbors' boy once asked me:  'What do people do under the ground?  How do they live there?'  We, too, wanted to unravel the mystery of war."

"War is first of all murder, and then hard work."

"I listen to the pain...Pain as the proof of past life.  There are no other proofs, I don't trust other proofs.  Words have more than once led us away from truth."

"I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery.  With the mystery of life.  All of Russian literature is about that."

"I listen when they are silent...Both words and silence are the text for me."

"...our memory is far from an ideal instrument.  It is not only arbitrary and capricious, it is also chained to time, like a dog."

"They are still paralyzed not only by Stalin's hypnosis and fear, but also by their former faith.  They cannot stop loving what they used to love. Courage in war and courage in though are two different courages.  I used to think they were the same."

"We still do not know (or else forgot) that revolution is always an illusion, especially in our history."

"But the history of the war has been replaced by the history of the victory."

"I'm sorry for those who will read this book, and for those who won't..."

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