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?

A feature in Roamer Magazine

Hello everybody!

I just wanted to share with you this new project, a magazine for backpackers with an eco-conscious mindset. An article I wrote about the town of Tortuguero in Costa Rica is featured in their first issue and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you to everybody at Roamer for making this happen 🙂

Staying at home is a great opportunity to plan new adventures and reflect on our ecological impact on the planet, so give it a read if you have a chance! Here it is:

Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

IMG_5554 2

Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.

Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

IMG_8843

If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.