The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.

 

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