Why Do We Remember?: Svetlana Alexievich’s History of the Soul

In 2015, the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Back in the day, as a Literature undergraduate, I was very interested in a non-fiction writer, a historian and someone whose work could be labelled as journalism had won the award.

Svetlana Alexievich

The Swedish Academy remarked in their speech the “polyphonic” quality of Alexievich’s work and I, at the time reviewing that concept concerning Russian literature, was very intrigued, so I bought myself two books by Alexievich: War’s Unwomanly Face and Voices from Chernobyl. I read the first one in 2015, but it wasn’t until last month that I picked up the second one. It was not because I didn’t want to read more by the author, but because War’s Unwomanly Face proved to be a very intense and challenging read.

In War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich describes her work as a “history of the soul”. Although booth books are framed within historical events, Alexievich makes it clear that she’s more interested in the stories, feelings and sensations of those involved in the events.

War’s Unwomanly Face focuses on testimonies from women who participated in WWII under the URSS. These women were nurses, soldiers, pilots, bombers… and yet their names were forgotten, their stories silenced for decades. Interviewed by Alexievich, these women recall little incidents, vague feelings, vignettes that have nothing to do with the glorified portraits of war we often see in [especially male] literature and film. This is where the “polyphonic” nature of her work comes in: she does not unify and generalize these experiences under a single narrative voice, she does not homogenize all these voices under a label like “female perspective on war”, she instead gives each voice the space to tell her own story, without judgment or censure.

In Voices from Chernobyl, we have the same exercise: we are presented with testimonies from survivors of the nuclear catastrophe: bombers, soldiers, residents of the town of Pripyat, wives, daughters and sons of the deceased. In both books, Alexievich introduces us using her own voice, never disguised as an authority in history. We get an introduction and more essays or, as she calls them, monologues by the author in which she discusses her own experience interviewing these people, as well as some reflections on what it means to remember, on patriotism, pain, grief, nostalgia.

In Alexievich’s works, the very well constructed fantasy of a “history” crumbles. We are left with the raw memories and vague feelings of those who experience what we now call “historic events” first hand. We are left with pain, pride, sorrow and perhaps above all, love. What good are, then, the so-called facts we learn in school?

If I was left with a question after reading Voices form Chernobyl, it is this: What is history if we take feelings out of it? We pride ourselves now in “scientific” discourses and often forget they’re just that: a discourse, a specific use of language. Alexievich gets shakes us out of that delusion and confronts us with the hard questions.

It’s no surprise for me that those things that can’t be history by science are left to literature; it is in art we can both understand and feel understood in our fragility, it is in literature we can open the doors which science, politics and history dare not enter. For what good is remembering dates if we forget the stories of those who came before us? What good is to know the names of battles if erase the faces of those who fought? What good is remembering and why must we remember?

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