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Recognising the power of oral history

THE FULL PICTURE: Alexievich’s work has been called ‘polyphonic’, drawing attention to the variety of rare voices that it balances. In her oeuvre, these voices are mostly of women. Picture shows the author at a news conference in Berlin, Germany. Photo: AP

THE FULL PICTURE: Alexievich’s work has been called ‘polyphonic’, drawing attention to the variety of rare voices that it balances. In her oeuvre, these voices are mostly of women. Picture shows the author at a news conference in Berlin, Germany. Photo: AP

The awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to Belarusian journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich is gratifying for, among other things, its recognition of non-fiction as an integral and dynamic sibling to literature. But the Literature Nobel has gone to non-literary genres before. For example, it was given to the Classical Greek and Latin scholar Mommsen in 1902 (the second year of the Prize), peace-activist and philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1950 and, rather more unfortunately, to imperialist historian and biographer Winston Churchill in 1953. But these remain exceptions. Even within literature, the committee has had to soothe the competing claims of various genres — poetry, the novel, drama and the short story.

What seems vital is the perception that even as types of writings and genres proliferate, the underlying aesthetic and ethical values are what count. Superficially, the novel is about a fictional world and journalism is about the real world. But the deeper unity of the novel and journalism may lie less in fictionality and more in their ability to compellingly imagine and get across startling truths to the reader. The Nobel committee called Alexievich’s work “polyphonic”, drawing attention to the variety of rare voices that it beautifully balances. In her oeuvre, these voices are mostly of women. Instead of the standard fare of women victims, Alexievich enters the risky and ambivalent moral terrain of women soldiers and discusses, among other things, how women veterans found it hard to get married.

This level of detail and insight is only possible in long-form journalism or book-length oral histories. At its best the short journalistic article might have the bite of the excellent lyric poem. But it is the longer form that can take up the more sustained game of submerging the reader in a world. Alexievich’s work on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zinky Boys (1992), focussed less directly on the rhetoric of either a heroic war or a purely moralist peace, but found the unusual angle of seeing it from the perspective of Soviet mothers of soldiers — the soldiers had lost their lives but the mothers often gathered in cafes and talked of their children as if they were still alive and serving the country.

Alexievich’s technique is essentially that of empathic interviewing, where the slow unspooling of torment makes the reader gasp at the vast mental wasteland of war. Reading a painstakingly detailed book on the subject may be the only way to truly understand war or insurgency — reading here is the closest an outsider can come towards imagining an ethical responsibility. It is a far cry from simply watching bombings on live television. With the visual medium, it is hard to entirely forgive oneself for being a detached voyeur of destruction.

Zinky Boys (published in a freshly dissolved USSR) takes its title from the fact that the Soviets never quite recognised the war in Afghanistan. The bodies of soldiers were shipped back in anonymous zinc coffins and funerals were often held in secret. In totalitarian regimes which target free speech, a work such as Zinky Boys is awfully risky both for the author-interviewer as well as those who are interviewed. Such a situation has resonances in India where too unacknowledged state violence doubly victimises. First is the violence itself, and second, there is no recognition of the violence and loss. Writers in India working with, for example, Partition testimonies, often speak of how victims felt deeply betrayed that neither India nor Pakistan would officially commemorate the dead. Unlike the Holocaust, openly acknowledged and openly mourned, a lot of violence in India (like Alexievich’s Russia) can never be properly acknowledged as, officially, the state likes to downplay regional violence and death in the name of nationalist integration and the greatness of the freedom movement.

Alexievich’s oral history complements the great novelistic tradition of Russian dissent (most famously, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won his Nobel in 1970) and the equally great Russian tradition of dissent in poetry (Joseph Brodsky won his Nobel in 1987).

It is being increasingly realised that a full picture of the assorted shades of violence can only be achieved by the complementarity of different genres. What unites them is the theme of a citizenship that has to often rise and wrest power from a perverse state or set of states — Alexievich is part-Ukrainian and part-Belarussian, but the key centre of power that shadows Eastern Europe is the USSR/Russia.

This context holds true even today, with Russia largely inheriting the mantle of the USSR. In such centralised systems, violence emerges not only from direct conflict between groups, but also from ill-thought out, top-down initiatives — her book on Chernobyl chronicles not just the disaster, but equally the disaster of the “clean-up” — corrupt governments tend to also be incompetent.

It is a vote of confidence that oral histories and long-form journalism are getting the esteem that once belonged exclusively to literature. While the cumulative narrative and dramatic techniques of literature offer much to media, media too can replenish the literary with the detail and analytic bite of the best kinds of journalism.


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Printable version | Jul 6, 2022 10:48:26 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/nobel-prize-for-literature-awarded-to-svetlana-alexievich-recognises-longform-journalism/article7872657.ece