Journalist, Svetlana Alexievich has done it again after notably being awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. First published in 1985, Svetlana Alexievich’s hinged account of WW2 as seen not only through the eyes of hundreds of women, but the eyes of women on the Russian front line is a wonderfully insightful and harrowing text. With developments and updates since then it has reached that point where has now sold more than two million copies worldwide. Penguin very recently brought it to life in English evocatively providing us with this marvellous account of soldiers, nurses, munitions workers and the women left behind, those we have yet to hear from particularly from the Soviet side.
Born in Belarus just after the war in 1948, Alexievich is renowned for crafting storytelling around witness testimonies. She has written oral histories of several dramatic events in Soviet history: the Second World War, the Afghan War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl Prayer is one of her best known.
As expected from Alexievich, this is an emotionally hard-going text, but it’s worthwhile and certainly stick with this. Along with the emotional frustration in her introduction that strengthens the reason behind hearing these stories, there is much insight to gain from these suppressed accounts, namely the propelled desire and brainwashed need to be on the front line by most of these women. “Women’s’ war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”
The Unwomanly Face of War focuses as what is known as “the Great Patriotic War” in Russian and provides a personified and emotional history to that period in time. Alexievich’s ability to gain so many personal accounts, a stream of consciousness at time, there is a sense that there is an element of displacement with the women and the war, almost as if they are describing someone else’s horrific tale.
The accounts are hinged by chapters of a theme, (“Of Everyday Life and Essential Life”, “Of Death and Astonishment in the Face of Death”, “Of a Loneliness of a Bullet and a Human Being”) but the ones you least expect are about beauty and love. But this is as relevant as those of war, as it is not ingrained in women to fight, they are keen to be wearing summer dresses and falling for soldiers. One sergeant openly informs us that she used to sleep in her earrings as it was her only opportunity to wear them.
Best read in short chapters, dipping in and out, this is a wonderful oral and emotional historical account which is insightful for any reader. With a beautiful translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, this is a book I advise all pick up.
The Unwomanly Face of War was published by Penguin in July 2017.