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Alexievich’s Achievement

NEW YORK – It was 1985, and change was in the air in the Soviet Union. Aging general secretaries were dropping like flies. Elem Klimov’s cinematic magnum opus “Come and See” depicted World War II without the heroics on which we were reared, highlighting the tremendous human suffering instead. Klimov’s approach echoed that of Svetlana Alexievich – this year’s Nobel laureate in literature – in her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, published the year before.

But, whereas many rushed to see Klimov’s film, Alexievich’s book did not seem to excite readers. The Soviet Union, supposedly progressive, remained rooted in patriarchy. Women had jobs, but rarely careers. Women writers wrote exquisite poetry and prose, and they were officially recognized as the equals (well, almost) of their male peers; but they tended to avoid certain topics – and war was a man’s business. And thus Alexievich begins War’s Unwomanly Face, “There had been more than 3,000 wars in the world, and even more books. But all we know about war is what men told us.”

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And men told us a lot. “We always remembered the war,” Alexievich recalled, “at school, at home, at weddings and christenings, during holidays and funerals. War and post-war lived in the home of our soul.” Indeed, I had heard so much about the war by the time War’s Unwomanly Face came out, I had little interest in hearing more about it – whether the suffering and sacrifice or the heroism and triumph – from any perspective.

Fast-forward almost a decade. America was big on gender politics, and, as a graduate student there, I was embarrassed to be behind. So I finally read War’s Unwomanly Face.

To my surprise, it was not WWII that I learned about; rather, I got my first glimpse into the emotions that my own relatives experienced, as they fought and survived the war. People like my grandmother had recounted only the oft-repeated male story, completely denying her own experience. But her experience mattered, and Alexievich recognized that. I was so inspired by War’s Unwomanly Face that a few years ago I wrote my own book detailing the endurance of women in my family in the war-ravaged Soviet Union.

Other books by Alexievich were similarly inspiring. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991) spoke of a distant fight – the nine-year Soviet war in Afghanistan – that eroded Russian culture and humanity, while Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997) meditated on the global significance of the nuclear disaster. Public reaction to both was mixed. Neither the state nor the people quite knew how they felt about Afghanistan or Chernobyl – one a lost war, the other an incomprehensible catastrophe.

Alexievich has described herself as “an ear, not a pen.” She listens and builds a story, before writing it down. Her talent is to make the private public, to expose the thoughts that people are afraid to think.

Alexievich does not shy away from the horrific aspects of her subject matter, exemplified in a passage from War’s Unwomanly Face: “We didn’t just shoot [prisoners]… we pinned them up, like pigs, with ramrods, cut into pieces. I went to observe… I waited for that moment when their eyes would start bursting from pain.” While this brutally matter-of-fact tone can make readers uneasy (indeed, it was one reason why I took so long to read the book), we cannot afford to be ignorant of the truth, even – or perhaps especially – if it makes us squirm.

Honest, daring, and sad, Alexievich’s books – containing stories in which life, broken and stolen, is worse than death – show how a woman’s perspective can humanize world problems and make them understandable to all. In some ways, Alexievich’s literary contribution, which the Nobel committee called “a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” is equal to that of the Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, whom the committee recognized in 2004 for her work’s feminist critique of Austria’s Nazi past and patriarchal present.

Now, like Jelinek, whose work was largely unknown to non-German readers until she won the Nobel, Alexievich is finally being recognized for her profound impact. Her award sends a powerful message – not only about her talent, but also about the importance of the female perspective in the public sphere.

To be sure, Alexievich was far from invisible before. Her books have been translated into 20 languages, with millions in circulation. And, like many other Nobel laureates, including Jelinek, she has played an active role in civil society, most recently taking a stand against Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Interestingly, the frequency with which Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women has been increasing. In 1991, Nadine Gordimer was the first woman in more than a quarter-century to receive the literature prize; now, women receive it every 2-3 years. Moreover, this summer, the writer and literary critic Sarah Danius became the first woman in 200 years to serve as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel laureate in literature.

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But the patriarchal culture from which Alexievich emerged is far from dead. Recognizing the ways in which she has enriched people’s thinking about difficult – and historically masculine – subjects can only be good, not only for the women she inspires, but also for the men she influences.

I have just finished Alexievich’s latest dreadful masterpiece, Secondhand Time, a brutal account of the chaotic Russian capitalism of the 1990s. In recent interviews, Alexievich has said she is working on two more books – one about love, the other about aging. I don’t want to read either of them, but I will.