Old favourites: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (1985)

Week 1: A year of Rob Doyle’s favourite books

Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich who won the 2015 Nobel prize for literature. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich who won the 2015 Nobel prize for literature. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

 

The Nobel Prize in Literature can be hard to take seriously, but we should be grateful to it for bringing global attention to the work of Svetlana Alexievich. Her first book is a wonder constructed on top of a simple, radical idea: “Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’,” but how might war appear when described in the voices of women who lived through it? How does killing feel to beings who generate new life from their own bodies?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Alexievich travelled around the Soviet Union and spoke to women who had lived through – and fought in – the second World War, recording their experiences on tape and notebook. Persisting against wary publishers and hostile censors, she fashioned from these amassed voices a literary form that carried the spiritual drama of great Russian literature into the 20th century. While Dostoevsky and Tolstoy put the resources of the realist novel at the service of their visions, Alexievich arranges her chorus of voices into a work of nonfictional art. I defy any reader not to be continuously moved by pity, awe and horror as these stories come pouring forth, some lasting several pages, others in mere fragments.

“I think of suffering as the highest form of information,” writes Alexievich, before bringing us to the brink of information overload. In our volatile historical phase, The Unwomanly Face of War can be read as a primer for a descent into hell. The horror really is abyssal. Yet the strange, sobering revelation of the book lies in how tenderness and pity manifest alongside savagery on every page. The war that Alexievich presents is one of small, piercingly human moments salvaged from oblivion. It is a humbling read. At the outset of her career, Alexievich established mastery of a literary form as majestic, capacious and tragic as Russia itself.

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