Something momentous has happened in the history of literary genre: A nonfiction writer has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. She is Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist whose books document the suffering of everyday Russians in the wake of World War II, Chernobyl, the Soviet-Afghan war, and the collapse of the USSR. Alexievich practices an idiosyncratic type of nonfiction. Her subject is feeling as much as fact, her technique polyphonic. After conducting hundreds of interviews, she arranges people’s intimate testimonies into a choir of almost impersonal witness; the resulting works have been called “novels-in-voices,” immersions in experience that are governed by a fierce, purposeful intellect.
“For the past 30 or 40 years [Alexievich’s] been busy mapping the Soviet and post Soviet individual,” said Sarah Danius, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, “but it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions—what she’s offering us is really an emotional world.”
Alexievich’s first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, interwove oral histories from female soldiers, snipers, doctors, and wives during World War II. Her second book, Zinky Boys: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation, did the same for conscripts in the Russian-Afghan conflict. (The title refers to the zinc coffins in which dead young men were returned to their families—in an essay for the London Review of Books, John Lloyd called Alexievich’s verbal collage “sad, sometimes unreadably sad.”) Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005. It presented a sequence of short, first-person narratives: the firefighter who gave his helmet to his son, only to have his son die of brain cancer; the woman who cradled her dying husband in her arms while a nurse cautioned, “that’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor.” To demonstrate how our usual journalistic methods can fail to capture the unreality of trauma, Alexievich once tried to describe a scene from Chernobyl’s aftermath:
A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to make sure that she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread; it was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects. Thousands of soldiers sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone who was involved turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation.
How do you convey the truth of something so radically strange? “The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life,” Alexievich concluded. “This is the only way to chase the catastrophe into the framework of the mundane and attempt to tell a story.”
Second-hand Time, which publishes in 2016, gathers up testimony from Russians psychically dislocated by the fall of the Soviet Union. These tales of estrangement and despair are not stories that Russia’s current leadership wants told, and Alexievich has faced censorship, persecution, and exile at the hands of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. (Not only did he suppress her books’ publication, but he banned them in schools, forbid the author from appearing in public, and tapped her phones. Alexievich fled Belarus in 2000 and returned to Minsk in 2011.) A mere five hours after she received the Nobel, Alexievich was already speaking out against Lukashenko and Putin. “I’m not a barricade person. I don’t like them,” she said. “But time leads us to the barricades, because what’s happening is shameful.”
Whether or not the new Laureate can use her vision and moral credibility to dent the “collaborationist culture that authoritarian leaders count on so much,” in her words, she has already torn down one barrier. Last year, Philip Gourevitch decried a “lingering snobbery” that wanted to exclude “nonfiction from the classification of literature—to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention by comparison to fiction.” (He is not the first to deplore the genre’s status as redheaded stepchild: Gay Talese once referred to nonfiction scribes as “second-class citizens.” John McPhee groused that “nonfiction—what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning.”) But Alexievich, investigative journalist, has just bagged the freaking Nobel Prize in literature. Anyone who doubts that real details, curated with care and imagination, can sometimes add up to artistic truth should take note.