‘I’m Searching for a Language: a Review of Svetlana Alexievich’s “Secondhand Time”’, by Katherine Brabon

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I. Through the Snow

Varlam Shalamov survived seventeen years in the Soviet Gulag and afterwards grappled with the task of writing about it. In the opening to his collection Kolyma Tales, he describes a group of men carving a path through snow:

The first man has the hardest task … [he] must beat down a section of virgin snow, and not simply follow in another’s footsteps. Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.

The writers are the first through the snow.

It is striking, then, to also read this from him, in a letter to fellow writer and labour camp inmate Georgii Demidov: “I hate literature. I do not write memoirs; nor do I write short stories. That is, I try to write something that would not be literature.” Shalamov wrote a kind of documentary prose that strives to preserve and remember the experience of camp imprisonment, at the same time as question the point and possibility of writing in the aftermath. His works pair meticulous descriptions of camp life with symbolism and artfully orchestrated links between stories. Shalamov called his writing “new prose” – “not the prose of the document but the prose of the ordeal borne out as a document.” He created literature, but he made it anew. He carved a path through the snow.

With her body of work, Svetlana Alexievich is a writer also beating down a section of untouched snow. She has taken a different path to Shalamov, as he expected of writers. Though she began work as a journalist, Alexievich rightly refuses this label now. In her words, she is a “historian of the soul.” It did not surprise me to read that her favourite twentieth -century writer is Shalamov.

Alexievich has interviewed officers, veterans, nurses, mothers of soldiers killed in the Soviet-Afghan War (Zinky Boys), women who fought, nursed, endured through World War II (War’s Unwomanly Face), victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Voices from Chernobyl); thousands of voices. After the task of collection, the labour of form begins as she arranges the voices to capture a kind of emotional reality; the result is a collective expression told through the amplified, painfully honest prose of the individual. For this work she received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Secondhand Time: the Last of the Soviets, first published in Russian in 2013 and now in English, she calls “my diagnosis of the era”, meaning her contemporaries and the experience, condition, and legacy of the Soviet Union.

II. Moscow Diary

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Books and cities both give voice to the past, but are read in different ways. In cities, battles of memory take place on bitumen and concrete, in granite and bronze. A monument can commemorate one story, person or event, while forgetting thousands of others. I tried to read the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg as I travelled through them in autumn 2015.

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I saw the legacy in stone of the Soviet years. In Gorky Park I walked through the “Graveyard of Memorials” where stunted statues of former leaders line a wooden-planked walkway. I think now of a section in Secondhand Time, called “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations.” One voice says, “I hate Gorbachev because he stole my Motherland. I treasure my Soviet passport like it’s my most precious possession.”

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But I also saw a kind of silent memory war taking place, suggesting the potential for art to retaliate with another story. Near the Graveyard of Memorials is Evgeny Chubarov’s three hundred stone faces, beset by expressions of pain or death, encased in barbed wire – a memorial to victims of political persecution. Another voice in Secondhand Time says: “My mother is a frightened woman – everyone in this country is frightened. Show me one elderly person who isn’t.”

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As a strange kind of tourist, I looked for such markers of the past, for memory battles fought in stone. There is no particular guide, map or narrative for those setting out to see such places. In Secondhand Time Alexievich visits the basements of Moscow, hearing from the Tajiks and Uzbeks who live twenty to a room. They recall the horrors of life above the street, the violence and poverty: “I’ve never been to Red Square. I haven’t seen Lenin. It’s all work! Work!” Alexievich says: “We ascend from the underground. I look at Moscow with new eyes – its beauty now seems cold and uneasy. Moscow, do you care whether people like you or not?

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III. Searching for a Language, Part I

“I am searching for a language …” says Alexievich in the introduction to Secondhand Time. “Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world?” asks a man in Voices from Chernobyl. “Words stand between the person and his soul.” In a way, Alexievich works at the borders of knowledge and feeling. To attempt a summary of the infinite spectrum of memory, sentiment, and belief seems to undermine this complex chorus of life, and betray the essence of Alexievich’s work. And so in writing this, I was also searching for a language.

In his memoirs, Shalamov holds that, “the analysis of Kolyma Tales lies in the very absence of analysis.” This is no paradox. It is literature; its power is in the experience of reading. In resisting analysis, perhaps this is not a review so much as a story of reading, and of considering Alexievich’s method and philosophy.

The question of reality, and the complexity of representing it, absorbs Alexievich. In a video interview, Alexievich calls non-fiction literature “a living entity” that “includes numerous time spaces.” Because a single event can be viewed in so many ways, in our quest for representation we often reach only a “superficial reality”. Alexievich is searching for depth: “I collect many different stories, thus creating a kind of tension” – tension born of a “high temperature of pain”. This culminates in a moment where the temperature is so high it “burns all that is false.”

In another interview, Alexievich calls her books “novels of voices.”She spends two or three years collecting interviews. Each book has a different voice; it all depends on the material. The content gives her the “tune of the book.” It is “non-fiction done by the laws of literature … I wrestle with time. I take the waste that life leaves behind. I start cleansing it. I make art out of it.”

Art is a balance of presence and absence. Creating gaps, constructing negative spaces into which flow emotional knowledge and truth, is an infinitely difficult task when the snowy blank page asks for words. Tone is vital to this balance. Shalamov said he belonged to a modernist tradition of “verification by sound … documentary brought to the extreme artistic degree.”

Alexievich is very careful about this. “I do not try to make evil more aesthetic,” she said in 2013. “I try to write about it in the least abominable manner, to provide a human being with the space to ask questions about life.” Despite rafts of harrowing material, she says, “To be honest, I wouldn’t like to transform my books into horrors, this is not my task. I collect human emotions.”

In Russia last year I was finishing a novel about this time period—the disillusionment, longing, dissatisfaction, anger and love of living through and beyond the Soviet era—and these concepts of tone and absence were integral to my own writing.

IV. St Petersburg Diary

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I took a train from Moscow to St Petersburg. It departed late afternoon, on dusk. I met up with Katya, my Russian teacher from five years earlier. She told me about a new art gallery, Erarta Museum, out on Vasilievsky Island. I went the next day. I stood close to this painting and at first I didn’t see Lenin’s face.

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It is Dmitry Yanovsky’s From ‘The Walls’ Series (2006): browns, greens, white, are layered over four rectangular canvases. The painting is a palimpsest. The museum commentary fittingly likens each layer to a different story. It was painted by a young artist, and speaks of the traces of the Soviet years— represented by their first leader—upon the personal expression of those in the present.

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Before leaving St Petersburg I went to Robespiera Embankment to see Mihail Chemiakine’s sculptures. Two sphinxes face each other and the embankment faces Kresty Prison, built in the 1730s.

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They have emaciated bodies, half-skull faces, and quotes from poets and activists etched into their plinths. Another memorial to victims of political repression faces the prison: roses in barbed wire upon blocks of stone, forming a glassless window, an echo of a prison cell.

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V. Searching for a Language, Part II

What struck me reading Voices from Chernobyl was how often interviewees were troubled that they had never read about their experience. “But there are no books,” says one voice. “It’s hard even to explain,” says another, “it doesn’t fit into the imagination — it’s — [He thinks.] You know, a second ago I thought I’d caught it, a second ago — it makes you want to philosophize.” In many ways Alexievich has enabled generations to see a vanished life and a troubled present be given form, but not in a way that demands conclusion or understanding. It demands only listening.

Even towards the end of Secondhand Time Alexievich is still searching for language: “I don’t even know what to call the people who lead me on my travels through people’s worlds.” These narrators or interlocutors usually speak about one particular person’s life but tell us of many. Sometimes that person is dead, as in the case of a young woman killed in the war in Chechnya. We hear from her bereaved mother. Or Ravshan, a twenty-seven-year-old migrant who committed suicide in Moscow. His story is told by the Director of Moscow’s Tajikistan Fund. Representation is layered; our identity to the world and perhaps to ourselves is formed by these layers. I am reminded of W.G. Sebald’s works, particularly The Emigrants, a book of voices in which the lives of people affected in different ways by the Holocaust are relayed to the narrator by several interlocutors.

Just as travelling to see silent monuments one has no guide, we are essentially left alone with Alexievich’s protagonists in Voices from Chernobyl. This is less so in Secondhand Time, where Alexievich intersperses the text with her own in italics, usually brief descriptions of setting or background on her interviewee. There are many ellipses, showing us where she has edited a transcript, or that a story has come to a relative end. Bracketed observations are striking and often sad: “[She falls silent]”, “[He takes a long time to regain his composure]”, “[She beats her fist on her chest]”, “[He laughs]”.

We are left alone but reminded of our presence. A woman in Voices of Chernobyl recalls her boyfriend asking her to describe the events she has endured. She hated this, feeling used as fodder for his art. She says to Alexievich, “I don’t know if I’d want to meet with you again. I think you look at me the same way he did. Just observing me and remembering. Like there’s an experiment going on.” This speaks to the reader, dismantling any walls of spectatorship made by our distance, as we read safely in our homes or in cafés or on the train, years and oceans away from her experience.

In trying to describe the art of her books I am drawn to the language of physicality. Alexievich builds structures from the figurative sheet metal, bricks, mortar, wood-beams of life; from relationships, street noise, loves, traumas, suicides. We enter these buildings and rooms and we hear our neighbours, fellow human beings rather than subjects of history.

This is a book that could never end. I think of the woman in Secondhand Time whose daughter was killed in Chechnya. She tries to choose which horror of memory, of the many rising to the surface, to tell Alexievich: “There’s so much I want to tell you! So much! But what’s the most important thing?”

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Katherine Brabon is a writer from Melbourne. Her debut novel The Memory Artist won the 2016 The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award and is published by Allen and Unwin.