Svetlana Alexievich was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for literature for her uncompromising treatment of difficult topics, from World War II to nuclear disaster. The award sends a powerful message – not only about Alexievich's talent, but also about the importance of the female perspective in the public sphere.
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.”
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.