Researcher of a Red People
Interview with the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich
Levan Berdzenishvili: We don’t know what it feels like to win a Nobel Prize in Georgia – our country doesn’t have a Nobel Prize winner, but I know what the reaction was like in Belarus. What was your personal reaction? I, for example, was as happy as if this prize has been won by all of us - the former ‘red people’ or rather, the people who didn’t want to be red in the first place.
Svetlana Alexievich: You know what? I’ve had to deal with tough situations all of my life – something which has probably had quite an impact on me, and so I tend to look at many things with a calmer eye than other people might do. The day I got the news, I was in Minsk, calmly ironing something at home – the girl who helps me with household chores was on vacation. The Secretary of the Academy called me and told me the news. I remember, I said something like “It’s amazing, fantastic etc…”, and the great ghosts of people like Bunin, Pasternak and others appeared before me, but I don’t think I even fully realized what was happening…
Levan Berdzenishvili: To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised by such a reaction from you. For one thing, you’re a great person and there was talk of you deserving the Nobel Prize for many years. However, there are some people who recognize you as great, and yet they’re not sure that what you do is actually literature. Do you consider yourself a writer?
Svetlana Alexievich: The thing is, that in the countries of the former Soviet Union, we were cut off from the rest of the world, and even when we formally achieved our freedom, we were reluctant to accept the rest of the world within ourselves. This form of literature is nothing new for the rest of the world – it’s a totally acceptable literary genre. Such texts clearly belong within the sphere of literature. In Poland, for example, they have Kapuściński – there’s the genre of political reporting and then many other kind of literary styles. I thought about this for a long time before finding my own voice. And yet there is also such a form in Russian literature too, for example, Sofia Fedorchenko and her works like “People in War”, “People and Revolution” and “Civil War”, where she writes in the form of conversations. My teacher, Alex Adamovich, was doing the same thing, as was Granin in “A Book of the Blockade”. Belorussian authors have written in this genre too, and so we can say, in short, there was a demand for this kind of literary form. Adamovich has called it “super-literature”. I’m not entirely sure that’s what I’d call it, but I realized that finding this new form was necessary. Those things that happened to the human race in the 20th century were so incredible, that it would be incredible to cram them all in within the confines of ordinary fiction.
I grew up in the countryside, and was constantly exposed to women’s coversations. This made quite an indelible impression on me, as did the stories my Ukrainian grandmother used to tell me. My Belorussian grandmother died of typhus after joining the partisans during World War II, but my Ukrainian grandmother was still alive. I remember those conversations between Ukrainian women. I was just a little child, and they were doing things like cooking beetroot and talking. Many of them had lost young husbands and so death and love were constantly intertwined in their conversations. Their conversations were very real, and this was much stronger than the impact that literature could have. My parents were teachers and our house was always full of books, and yet the street was much more interesting to me, and having that wish to catch onto reality, to convey live voices that were out there in reality, was worth finding a new form for, I thought.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Usually, so many voices can result in cacophony and not harmony, whereas in your case, all of your writings are one single, large and harmonious creation. There’s something strange and inexplicable about that fact that, even though so many different people are speaking in your books, one still gets this impression of wholeness and unity. I think this is your main strength, and the main mystery of what you do.
Svetlana Alexievich: You’re right. When you gather it all together, it’s not unlike a glass painting – these pieces of glass can be picked up in any artist’s workshop, but a talented artist can gather them all together into one unified piece. One can hear little bits of Glinka’s or Shostakovich’s music all the time (at weddings for example), but in the mind of a composer, these fragments are gathered together in a way that gives an impression of wholeness. The same thing happens in my work. Gathering the material is not the main thing – you can’t shock people anymore with, for instance, horror. Modern man had moved beyond horror. For me, the main thing is always to find a new vision, to renew the human view of things. Take, for example, Chernobyl. Everyone has written about Chernobyl, there are dozens of books written about the disaster. And yet, these books were all written very quickly, within a year or even a few months of the disaster. I, on the other hand, wrote my book over eleven years – not because I couldn’t write it quickly, I could – but then it would have just been an ordinary book.
I wanted to write something new that would contain a new book, a new philosophy. It had to explain what had happened. I wanted to write the chronicles of the future too, because what happened is our future also. I needed to find people that have understood some great mystery, and then I had to unite all of this in a new picture. Just as in other arts, there are voices everywhere; wood speaks, stone speaks, the streets speak. The artist gathers all this together and creates a symphony.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You’re a master of voices and I need to ask you one thing: have you ever had any musical training?
Svetlana Alexievich: Zero. I’ve had had no musical education whatsoever. During my childhood and youth, when I was growing up in the village, all I heard was folk music. I didn’t know anything but the folk songs I heard in the countryside. Of course, I also heard things played on the radio, and my Ukrainian grandma sang very well. I think life in a village is based on some kind of rhythm – a person is born, gets married, a child is born, the child is baptized – there’s a definite rhythm to it. I Georgia, I think, this has even more resonance. You believed in something, even during the years of Soviet rule. I, on the other hand, was baptized by my grandma in secret, without my communist father finding out, so my harmony was in that life. I don’t have an ear for music, but I do have an ear for words and for rhythm. At the moment I’m thinking about two new books at the same time. I’m gathering material and thinking about the title and when I find that title (all my titles are metaphorical) then I will start to hear the rhythm and music of the book.
Levan Berdzenishvili: It’s good that you mentioned the titles of your books. Let’s start with “The Unwomanly Face of War”. I was always surprised by that metaphor. The word for “war” belongs to the feminine gender in Russian and there’s this feminine part in it (especially in the ancient tradition). You have shown us women who went to war and shown us how they got there. You show how women went to war with suitcases full of candies. That one is my favorite book of yours…
Svetlana Alexievich: It’s like that all over the world. That book has recently been published in the United States and it’s been unbelievably successful. I was surprised by its success.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Well, I’m not surprised at all, because the book is very human. You’ve written much more difficult books than that one, including the one you gave to me – “Second-hand Time”. This book is a powerful weapon against inhumanity and totalitarianism, which really reveals the fighter in you. How did this come about? War has an ‘unwomanly’ face, right? How did Svetlana Alexievich become a fighter against the system?
Svetlana Alexievich: I think being a teacher means being a fighter. There’s something in the genes. My great-grandfather was a teacher, as were my grandfather, my father and my mother – they were all teachers. I learnt honesty and goodwill towards other people from my family. My father was always an example to me. He would use the same tone to speak to a school technician as he would to speak to a visiting professor – sitting down and speaking to them for a long time. My mother was different, however. “What do you have in common with that technician?” she would ask him. But my father… I’m very much like my father; I have a lot in common with him. He was studying journalism before the war, but when he was a second-year student, he went to fight and when he got back, he ended up graduating from the history department and working as a teacher.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Let’s talk about a different book where young boys go to war – the War in Afghanistan. Immediately after leaving high school, they turn into killers. This book has recently been published in Georgian, but your real way-in to young Georgian hearts for you has been your book “Chernobyl Prayer”. Many young Georgians discovered that book through Nino Bekishvili’s translation – these are different times and Russian-language books don’t arrive here with the same frequency as before. “Boys in Zinc” was a different kind of book – How did it come about? Weren’t they supposed to be taught kindness in school? How did these young boys become such cold-blooded killers?
Svetlana Alexievich: The culture of war was always very powerful in Soviet schools. Nobody was telling us girls, for example, that we were supposed to be happy and fall in love. I only remember being told that we had to be ready to die for the motherland and that has a clearly militaristic pathos about it. An authoritarian state just can’t get by otherwise – it just can’t help being militaristic. Just look at Putin: As soon as he became an authoritarian, he required an ideology, and that ideology could only be militaristic. He started wars in Georgia, in Transnistria. That’s a classic moved too! Even now, when I went to my grandchildren’s school recently, I was shocked. There were those same images of partisans wielding hand-grenades on the wall again, creating the impression that every human being is born to kill another human being. My trip to Afghanistan left a deep impression on me. Since I was the author of ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’, the Writers’ Union had serious doubts about letting me go there, but they finally decided to let me go and asked me to write the same kind of text. When I got there, they asked me whether I’d be able to write a similar book, and I answered that whatever I wrote would be different, because this war was different, and that’s when they realized that something was up.
I changed a lot when I saw the body of someone who had been killed. I heard a local hero saying that killing a group of people together was exhilarating. The main thing, he said, was not to look them in the eyes when you shoot them.
There was another episode: I once went to the canteen of the Joint Staff, where I worked, and a sentinel greeted me. When I looked behind me, this boy was already lying on the floor and another guy was standing guard waiting for the medic. The previous guard had been killed by shrapnel. This was a very ordinary sort of event there. For example, I would go to a local village and people would look at me askance, or I would go to a hospital where civilians were being treated and I would see women and children without arms or legs – victims of Soviet aerial bombing. When I brought a present to them for the first time, a young Afghan woman lifted the blanket off her child and I saw a boy without arms or legs. “That’s what your Souravis have done”, she said (‘Souravi’ being an Afghan word for ‘Russian’). There were real blow to me.
And yet my liberation from communism wasn’t easy. My father was a “pious” communist. He believed that communism was a very beautiful idea and that it had simply been spoiled by Stalin. He believed that human nature was imperfect, but the idea of communism itself was very beautiful and capitalism was a far worse system in his mind. As I said, it was difficult for me to get rid of all this, but then when I saw people who had been killed, when I saw how guys from Ryazan would enter local holy places without even taking their hats off, I would ask them why they didn’t even remove their hats and they would say “what do you mean? Who are these people? They don’t even have toilets!” I would tell them in reply that the Nazis also entered their grandmothers homes in the same way, saying we didn’t have toilets too. I saw clashes were everyone would decide for themselves whether they would kill someone or not. I didn’t understand how they could kill and not go mad. They would tell me to pick up a weapon and try it myself by shooting into some bushes. “Shoot!” they said, “feel what it’s like”. But I never picked up a weapon.
Levan Berdzenishvili: I wanted to ask you about those people around you. Some people change. For example, you’ve seen war, witnessed the horrors of Chernobyl and these events have changed you as a person. However, there are always those people who never change, who continue believing what they always believed. Have you ever had conflicts over this will people around you?
Svetlana Alexievich: Of course, especially when Putin came to power and laid the “Greater Russia” project before us. Everyone started to talk about “Khokhols” and “Benderas”. “Why do you protect them?” they would ask, and I had a lot of fights about it. I could never imagine that our elites would end up proving the truth of Shalamov’s words about prison camps corrupting both the executioners and the victims. It turned out that our elites, the people we idolized in childhood, to whom we prayed, were not themselves free and we discovered this during that period.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You mentioned Shalamov; a writer that you admire. Who are your literary idols?
Svetlana Alexievich: Dostoyevsky, of course. I love all of his writing except for his diaries. By the way, your philosopher Mamardashvili and his lectures on Proust had a profound influence on me. I love Herzen and Chekhov with all their knowledge of life and attention to detail.
Levan Berdzenishvili: Chekhov was very lucky, because he influenced two women writers who eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature: Alice Munro and you….
Svetlana Alexievich: They say that Munro’s work loses a lot in translation. Details are very important in her writing and they get lost in translation. I have read her works and I got that same impression. We have something in common – the philosophy of small people is especially interesting to us.
Levan Berdzenishvili: I’m glad that you mentioned Mamardashvili and Proust. I wonder what you think about contemporary literature. When you were awarded the Nobel Prize, about fifty people almost died of heart attacks because they had been waiting for that award themselves for some time. There are many good writers in the world, don’t you think?
Svetlana Alexievich: There are many good writers, but I’m not going to start characterizing them.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You travel a lot. Where do you feel that you are most accepted?
Svetlana Alexievich: You know it’s amazing – I can go to somewhere like Colombia, and 800 people would come to meet me, crying, desperate to talk to me, applauding me, not leaving me alone for some time, standing for two or three hours just to get my signature on their books. It’s understandable, because they’ve been at war for the last sixty years. Then you go to somewhere like Japan, and there are many people at the meeting there as well, and they want to find out what sort of country Russia is – what kind of people live there, because they achieved freedom but then gave it up. “Second-Hand Time” is really important for them. I don’t completely understand the magic of war, but this book apparently offers a different, feminine vision of war. The world is very masculine in many ways – the dominant vision is very masculine and all of a sudden you are confronted by this feminine vision. That surprises people, and I think that’s the magic of my first book.
Levan Berdzenishvili: I’ve got a lot of questions for you, but unfortunately I won’t be able to ask all of them. However, I will ask one more: You spoke about two new books, and as I understand, they will be the next installments in your five-book series?
Svetlana Alexievich: Yes, they will be a continuation of that series, but also slightly different. My interests are different now – firstly, I’ve already been alive for quite some time and secondly I want to look at other parts of human life, and so I will need to use a different vocabulary in these books. Russians have to live without a great idea for the first time in their history. Old age and death are generally very interesting topics. I’ve always been interested in the duality of the person – a person in time and the person in eternity.
Levan Berdzenishvili: You’re a writer who speaks about love and death a lot. You have one character, for example, a woman who is told not to touch her husband because, instead of just being a loved-one, he is now also a deadly source of radiation. And yet the woman still goes to him. This is really an astonishing character – I know many like her. She hasn’t read Mamardashvili, Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky – she’s spent her life baking cakes, just a simple girl, and yet you see such nobility in her. Her voice would have been lost if not for you. Do you realize why you’re adored all over the world? There are many in those countries who haven’t read those authors either, and you’re the advocate of these people. You speak their language. Here’s my question: could you ever write a simple love story?
Svetlana Alexievich: That’s not my job. The title of my next book is “The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt” – these are words by Alexander Grin which compares love to a wondrous deer. It’s a good formula; beautiful and sufficiently complex and it will be a story told by both a man and a woman – the collision of a man’s soul and a woman’s soul – a book about their intertwining.