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Svetlana Alexievich: Chronicler of Soviet horrors

This year’s Nobel Literature prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has been often called a scribe of the soul, a writer whose “polyphonic writings” captured the implosion of the Soviet Union.

books Updated: Oct 08, 2015 22:42 IST
Simar Bhasin
Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich is seen during a book fair in Minsk, Belarus.
Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich is seen during a book fair in Minsk, Belarus.(Reuters File Photo )

This year’s Nobel Literature prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has been often called a scribe of the soul, a writer whose “polyphonic writings” captured the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Born in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankviska to two village schoolteachers, Alexievich, 67, studied journalism in Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. During her years at the Minsk University she won several awards for her papers.

After having finished her degree, Alexievich started work for a local paper in the 1970’s. During the time she tried her voice in various genres experimenting with the short story, essay, and reportage.

It was the famous writer Ales Adamovich who is said to have made a decisive influence on Svetlana’s choice of writing. He defined his genre of writing as a “collective novel”, “epic chorus”, among others. According to her official website, Alexiyevich has always named Adamovich as her main teacher.

It was during her time as a reporter that Alexievich began tape-recording accounts of female soldiers who took part in World War II. The resulting book is one of her best-known works, “War’s Unwomanly Face”, which was long barred from publication because it focused on personal tragedies and did not emphasise the role of the Communist Party. It was finally published in 1985 under the perestroika reforms.

Books of Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich translated in different languages are on display at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. (AFP Photo)

In the book, Alexievich offers an unusual account of the war, moving away from the military’s narrative and telling tales of Soviet women who took on male roles, fought on the front lines, killed and got killed, but still looked at the shattered world around them from a feminine perspective. Her next book published in the same year focused on children’s memories of the war and was titled “The Last Witnesses, the Book of Unchildlike Stories”

Alexievich’s body of work includes chronicles of the lives of Soviet women during the Second World War as well as of the consequences of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and the Russian war in Afghanistan told from the perspective of ordinary citizens.

She now lives in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. But her books, controversially written in Russian, are not published in her home country, long ruled by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, amid what the author has described as “a creeping censorship”.

Throughout her career, she has collected hundreds of interviews of people impacted by these tumultuous events, putting them together in works that the academy said were like a “musical composition.”

Chronicling such horrors in the first person through the words of witnesses, Alexievich has seen her works translated into numerous languages and scooped international awards.

Later she took the first-person testimonies to document the despair of mothers who lost their sons in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- in “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War” (1990).

“By means of her extraordinary method - a carefully composed collage of human voices - Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era,” the academy said on Thursday.

Continuing her trademark narrative style, in 1997, she published “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future”, a collection of horrifying accounts from people who had worked on the nuclear clean-up of the 1986 disaster. The fall-out affected Belarus more than any other country. “I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings.” she says.

Alexievich’s most recent book “Second-Hand Time”, published in 2013, is a non-fiction work examining the legacy of the Soviet mentality over 20 years after the collapse of Communism.

She has lived most of her life on writers’ scholarships in Italy, Germany, France and Sweden. After being awarded the 8 million crown ($972,000) Nobel Prize for literature, she said at a press conference: “It’s not an award for me but for our culture, for our small country, which has been caught in a grinder throughout history.”

(With agency inputs)