Literary Review

Transforming life into literature

Second-Hand Time; Svetlana Alexievich, Juggernaut, Rs. 699.  

Growing up in Calcutta in the 70s and 80s, when your father drove a two-door Standard Herald and one of the first dates you went on was to the AAEI Club to watch Battleship Potemkin, when the most delectable piece of clothing you owned was a sky-blue “foreign” nylon slip, and you read Russian fairytales from dirt-cheap books with beautiful drawings, you were likely to take the collapse of the USSR personally. I would open the newspaper with a sinking hollow in my stomach. To read Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, the latest of her books to be translated, is to relive those days. Not just because it is the poignant story of a naive and brutal utopia that came undone, but because the stuff of Soviet Russia is so familiar — the fascination with perfumed soaps and tinned foods, with blue jeans and cosmetics — we knew these well in our pre-Liberalisation life.

The Nobel Prize winner proves why she is one of the most significant writers today with this gut-wrenching whirlpool of a book that sucks you into the days just after the crumbling of the Soviet Union. Alexievich specialises in a genre she calls “novels in voices”, and like her books on the Afghan war and Chernobyl, this book too is a parade of people who describe in first-person what it was like to live through the fall of socialism, one of the most defining moments of our times. Alexievich has created a powerful alternative way of chronicling history that is easily more searing and multifaceted than a straight account.

By focussing on ordinary people living through extraordinary times, Alexievich redefines what has traditionally been considered ‘worthy of telling’; where history and literature have emphasised great, outdoor affairs — politics, nations, heroes, battles — but people and indoor lives and social minutiae have been largely ignored as unimportant. Second-Hand Time, as Alexievich has said, is thus a book about “domestic socialism”. If 19th century Russian culture was played out on aristocratic estates, the 20th century was lived in Khrushchyovkas, the first-ever private apartments built under Khrushchev, in whose kitchens Perestroika was born. One wonders if this first experience of privacy, to own lives and thoughts distinct from the commune’s, was the catalyst for the idea of freedom in Soviet Russia.

But when freedom arrives, it punches ordinary people in the guts. ‘This is not what freedom was supposed to look like’, they cry. Voice after disillusioned voice from this cloistered, unreal, tormented society agonises about how they imagined that freedom simply meant a gentler, kinder socialism — the freedom to read Dovlatov and listen to Galich, to just read and talk. But when they awaken in post-Yeltsin Russia, their motherland has morphed overnight into a crude marketplace. “I stood in front of a tank,” says a construction worker, “but I did it for freedom, not capitalism.” For the generations that came of age in the 40s and 50s, who worked in Siberia and the Taiga, on rail lines and in brick factories, the rage and sorrow run deep. “I spent my life building a great nation,” rues an old woman, “Turns out it was all in vain.” For these people, the tragedy is not so much Stalinism as emerging from a horror that promised redemption into a tawdry ‘supermarket’ society; to see their “great nation defeated by salami”.

Did you believe in Communism, Alexievich asks a narrator. “I believed in the possibility of life being governed fairly,” he replies.

But someone else responds, “Communism is like Prohibition, only good in theory.”

“Have you forgotten?’ Anna asks her friend Elena, “When I’d visit Kaluga from Moscow, I’d carry flour and noodles as presents. And they were grateful.” For these people, the country didn’t fall apart because people learnt the truth about the Gulag, but because there was no toilet paper, no oranges, no meat or detergents. “We don’t want great, we just want normal,” they say.

Blue jeans and salami. Oranges and VCRs. Potatoes, cabbage, bread. Supermarkets and Pepsi. Black vodka and sweet tea. Books, poetry, songs, kitchen conversations. Perfumes. These images recur endlessly, symbols of prosperity or metaphors for a world gone by. Narrator after narrator invokes them, transforming the book into a litany of grief sung by the lost generations, a communist people coming to terms with a capitalist country. “My mother, me, my son — we live in three different countries.”

The leitmotif of this almost Wagnerian opus is of a displaced future; of a people emerging from a dark tunnel into a much-awaited epoch to realise, bewildered, that it is not “standing in its proper place” after all, the idea encapsulated in the title Second-hand time. Past and present and the absent future fuse into several terrifying dystopias that make this book a harrowing read at times. No amount of Solzhenitsyn ever prepares you for a retelling of mesmerising evil, the ‘little people’ who tore off fingernails saying ‘It wasn’t me; it was Stalin and the system.’ I had to put the book down frequently to collect myself and gather the spirit to continue reading.

These are painful monologues, difficult to narrate and difficult to hear, thrusting into our consciousness because they are the voices of real people who don’t live very far away, either in spirit or geography.

With one catch though: Alexievich gives you 570 pages of painstaking reportage but the sheer volume of narratives makes the book repetitive and overwrought at times, forcing it to lose steam towards the end. One wonders if culling out some voices might have worked better for the purpose of storytelling.

Finally, though, it is enormously appropriate that this story should be told through monologues. In communist USSR, the word was the deed. Just standing up and speaking the truth was dangerous, a declaration of war. Today, in Russia as in the rest of the world, there is no word. You can say anything but it means nothing because the word has been devalued. It has fallen through the gaps of the shopping trolley.

Second-Hand Time ; Svetlana Alexievich, Juggernaut, Rs. 699.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 1:03:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Transforming-life-into-literature/article14477853.ece

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