The Nobel prize-winning author on using oral history to convey the horrors of war
Svetlana Alexievich gave a lecture last week commemorating the work of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Alexievichs book Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories was published in June in the UK, more than three decades after it first appeared in the USSR to critical acclaim. It is based on interviews with a Soviet generation that experienced the second world war as children and has lived ever since with trauma. In 2015 Alexievich, now 71, won the Nobel prize for literature. The committee praised her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time. She lives in Minsk, Belarus, and is currently writing books about love and death.
Why are you in the UK?
I came because of Anna [Politkovskaya]. I loved and respected her so much. We met in 2005 at a prize ceremony in Oslo. There were many people there but Anna was somehow on her own, separate from the others. She was a person of extreme integrity bordering on fanaticism. We had a coffee, talked. There was one theme that united us: war. She was traumatised, at that point very close to a nervous breakdown, and full of pain and frustration. Anna was unhappy that she couldnt explain the situation [in Chechnya]. She wasnt able to make the west understand. She told me about the threats she was receiving. Her assassination [in 2006] came as a complete shock. I knew from our conversations that she was more or less prepared for this to happen. As a writer, I imagine what she was going through when she entered the lift of her apartment and the killer was there. Its hard to imagine.
What made you write Last Witnesses?
When I grew up the main topic of conversation was the war. I was so impressed by all these stories. I never found anything like them in books, even though my parents were village teachers and their house was full of them. I heard about war whenever I stepped out of my house, or talked to my Ukrainian grandmother. As a student at university in a militaristic state, our victory was everywhere. It overshadowed things like the gulag. I couldnt reconcile this official version of the war with what I knew from my own experience. I was travelling across the country, gathering material for my newspaper, when I spoke to a mother and her daughter. My feeling was that you could make a new form of novel just from these voices. You could tell the story of the war in a slightly different way by creating a sort of epic work. I realised there was a different level of pain from children who were there.
What stories stick with you?
The Germans thought that blood taken from children would help the wounded. I tell the story of how German soldiers fragrant and well-dressed turned up at an orphanage. The children thought they were their daddies. They were rushing to the soldiers, trying to be as close to them as possible. Soviet literature talks about children as pioneer heroes or sons of the regiment. There is a male culture which legitimises war. My idea was to write a book in such a way that even generals would feel disgusted by the idea of war. War is a monstrosity, a form of cannibalism.
What happened to your subjects in later life?
Most children caught up in war die early. I wrote my book at the right time. One man told me to put his memories down before it was too late. It was important for them to leave something behind, to give their testimonies.
What books are on your bedside table?
Im writing two books now. One is about love, about men and women. The other concerns old age and at what point human beings feel it is time to go to the darkness. Love is tricky. In Russian literature we only have love at the early stage. After that, the man either goes to prison or to war. Its a big problem. Our culture is one of conflict and barricades. Im reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And The Hour of Our Death by the French historian Philippe Aris. Im also reading Jonathan Littells The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir of an SS officer.
Which writers working today do you admire the most?
Russian poet Olga Sedakova. She has a broad vision of the world. Her work is written in vers libre. This is unusual for Russia. Shes a complicated individual, very well educated, a religious person and a very interesting poet. Also, Haruki Murakami. Hes been waiting for the Nobel prize for a long time and Id like him to receive it. I dont know world literature that well. There are not so many good quality translations into Russian.
Which book or author do you always return to?
Dostoevsky. His Crime and Punishment and Demons. He goes deep into human beings, the way he sees the darkness inside the soul and illuminates it. My favourite literary hero is Dostoevsky himself. Hes both hero and antihero. Its an awful thing that Russian writers dont generally live much beyond 50, with the obvious exception of Tolstoy. Chekhov was dead by 44.
What book would you give to a young person?
Marina Tsvetaevas diaries and notebooks. She manages to catch what she feels, to write words that have already been purified, to record what we whisper to ourselves before we wake up and this vanishes. She deals in what I call alive words.
How do you feel about our troubled political era?
People have gone back to the middle ages, to medieval prejudices. Those who come from the USSR or Russia and move to the west take their prejudices with them. They are a deeply conservative bunch. If you switch on Russian TV it says that Europeans are decadent, that everyone in the west is gay.
Your book Chernobyl Prayer features harrowing monologues from those caught up in the 1986 nuclear disaster. What did you think of the HBO drama Chernobyl?
Its fantastic that millions of people have watched it. A new environmental consciousness is starting to be shaped. Its timely. People have watched this show in every country I visit. Greta Thunbergs activism is no accident. Young people have their own environmental philosophy. I look at my granddaughter who is 14. She isnt interested in Putin or the war in Syria, sinful though this is to say. But she would go to the end of the world to save a penguin. Her friends are like that too.
Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories by Svetlana Alexievich ispublished by Penguin Classics (12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99