Stranger Than Fiction

Svetlana Alexievich, Grant Awarded 1994, 1996

Svetlana Alexievich © Margarita Kabakova
Svetlana Alexievich © Margarita Kabakova

Svetlana Alexievich is an investigative journalist, not a fiction writer, but she calls her books “novels in voices.” It is a term that speaks to her method – a “mélange of reportage and oral history” – and also to her ambition, which is not to deliver the news, but to describe what it was like to live through and to live with some of the defining traumas of the Soviet Union. With each of her books – about women in the Second World War; about conscripts and their mothers in the Soviet-Afghan war; about men and women who committed suicide, or attempted to, when the Soviet Union collapsed; and about everyone who was consumed by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and its cover-up – she spends years finding and interviewing her subjects, then weaves their testimonies into a polyphonic narrative that immerses the reader with relentless particularity in the individual and the collective experience of existence in the grinding jaws of history.

The first time many English-language readers may have encountered Alexievich’s writing was in the quarterly Granta, under the editorship of Bill Buford, where a piece called “Boys in Zinc” appeared in 1990. (A book, Zinky Boys, soon followed.) The title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the Soviet military returned its Afghan war dead to their mothers, and the piece, told from the mothers’ point of view, made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal – as real – as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision.

There is a lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature… that somehow it lacks artistry.

Ten years ago, at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, Alexievich spoke of her work as arising from the need to find new modes of expression to represent new human conditions. She mentioned Chernobyl, and the destruction of the World Trade towers, and she said: “It’s a new age… What we have experienced now not only goes beyond our knowledge but also exceeds our ability to imagine. The things that are happening to us today are unbelievable – the human mind is incapable of grasping them – they happen with incredible speed.”

As a young journalist, in her native Belarus, Alexievich had found that the newspapers failed entirely to represent what made reality interesting to her. She said, “I began to understand that what I was hearing people say on the street and in the crowds was much more effectively capturing what was going on than anything I was reading.” She wasn’t interested in information for information’s sake. No, she said, “I’m interested in human feelings and human turmoil,” and by way of example, she described arriving in Chernobyl after the nuclear meltdown: “Imagine this incredibly crazy picture: A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to make sure that she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread; it was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects. Thousands of soldiers sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone who was involved turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation.

Alexievich’s voice is, of course, much more than the sum of her subjects’ voices, and for raising it fearlessly and freely, she has been much vilified in Belarus, and – for most of this century – was forced to live in exile. But although her work is often hot with the passion and outrage of independent witness, it is wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda. She serves no ideology, only an ideal: to listen closely enough to the ordinary voices of her time to orchestrate them into extraordinary books.

Of course, there is a lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature – to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention by comparison to fiction. The mentality is akin to the prejudice that long held photography at bay in the visual-art world. Gay Talese summed up the experience of such snubbing in an interview with The Paris Review by saying, “Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can’t quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off.” And John McPhee, in his Paris Review interview, says, “Nonfiction – what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Alexievich figures that in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky she would likely have taken up novel-writing. But in our times, she says, “there is much about the human being that art cannot convey.” In other words, she turned to documentary work to do what literature does best, which is to respond to life and death with writing that – by its voice and its substance, its soul and its urgency, its truth and, above all, its wisdom – enlarges our understanding and experience of our world and our being.

Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Adapted from a piece that originally appeared on newyorker.com.

The Invisible Killer

An excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

“I’m afraid of staying on this land. They gave me a dosimeter, but what am I supposed to do with it? I do my laundry, it’s nice and white, but the dosimeter goes off. I make some food, bake a pie – it goes off. I make the bed – it goes off. What do I need it for? I feed my kids and cry. “Why are you crying, Mom?”

The town of Pripyat in Ukraine was built to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant © 2006 Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos Pictures
The town of Pripyat in Ukraine was built to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant © 2006 Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos Pictures

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. He’s the littlest one in his grade. He can’t run, he can’t play, if someone hits him by accident and he starts bleeding, he might die. He has a blood disease, I can’t even pronounce the word for it. I’m lying with him in the hospital and thinking, “He’s going to die.” I understood later on that you can’t think that way. I cried in the bathroom. None of the mothers cry in the hospital rooms. They cry in the toilets, the baths. I come back cheerful: “Your cheeks are red. You’re getting better.”

An abandoned pre-school in the deserted town of Pripyat © 2006 Getty Images

“Mom, take me out of the hospital. I’m going to die here. Everyone here dies.” Now where am I going to cry? In the bathroom? There’s a line for the bathroom – everyone like me is in that line.”

From Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich; translated by Keith Gessen. Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Picador, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

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