Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature is this year’s Bartels’ World Affairs Fellow at Cornell. On Monday, she gave this year’s Bartels lecture, followed by a book signing at Statler Auditorium. She spoke in Russian and the English translation was supertitled on a screen beside her. In her lecture, she spoke about her books Secondhand Time, Chernobyl Prayer, War’s Unwomanly Face and Boys in Zinc.
She explained her very unique genre, of writing from the perspective of witnesses. Several of her books are about war, from the experience of common people who risk (and even sacrifice) their lives or families for a greater cause. In historical accounts of war, we are told about the great causes and the leaders, but never the people whose reality it was. This is what, from my observation, Alexeivich set out to do and has accomplished in her career. Her stories are about the little men and women embroiled in the big causes.
Earlier this year, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”. It was the first time I read an account of the frontlines of war in the first person. It was the first time that I had encountered soldiers not characterized as brave heroes but as powerless young men, or even boys. In Slaughterhouse Five, pain, suffering and the futility of war took precedence over patriotism, victory, glory and ideology.
Then last month, I read Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans”, a family history spanning nearly all of the 20th century. The personal narratives in it are inextricably tangled with the political history of China. For the majority of the book, it’s a heartbreaking account of a family that believed in and lived the ideals that Communism embodied, but was engulfed in the horrors of the paranoid, dogmatic religion that Communism became.
With many questions, doubts and dialogues motivated by these books still fresh in my mind, Alexievich’s lecture and her books were even more relevant and moving. What I was reading in these books is not a matter of history and literature, it is reality for millions of people around the world right now. Alexievich explained that it was not her intention to overwhelm readers with the horrors of war and political strife. Even in these accounts, she occasionally finds beauty. She hopes that her writing arouses deep thought in her readers. I haven’t read any of Alexievich’s works yet, but hope to do so soon.
Although I greatly respect and admire the author, I was uneasy about a few things. First, when the author talked about her book War’s Unwomanly Face, she observed that publicly, women tend to mimic men’s language for war. In this language, serving in war is a call from the motherland; it dwells on duty, bravery and heroism. There is no room for the individual, the ordinary or the human experience. But after she had established trust with women who had served in the war, they told her about the suffering, the ordinary, the beautiful, the moving and the terrifying experiences of being a human at the front line. Alexievich classifies this as the woman’s experience and language of war.
I found this line between women’s and men’s experiences of war hard to accept. Surely, even the men serving in the armies also learnt the “men’s language of war”; it couldn’t be innate to them. Social constructs of masculinity may prevent them for sharing their most vulnerable experiences and force them to adopt the language that Alexievich deems manly. Slaughterhouse Five, written by a man, is a counterexample to this classification. It is full of glimpses into the human soul and fiercely critical of glorifying war and soldiers. Perhaps I will better understand what Alexievich meant after reading her works.
After the lecture, Alexievich took questions from the audience and many of the questions focused on her political views about the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. After a brilliant lecture on her literary works, this was a let down as it underlined the political agenda of the Nobel Prizes. It is not a novel observation on my behalf that a Nobel Prize in Literature is also a medium to make a global political point. But the nature of our questions after the lecture somewhat impaired the integrity of our celebration of a phenomenal writer and her deeply impactful work. As though, we were also just pushing a global political agenda.