Photo: sino-us.com and uschinapress.com by Zhong Ying
Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel prize-winning Belarusian writer recently visited Shanghai and Beijing and brought along the Chinese version of her new book Second-Hand Time. It is her second time to come to China since 27 years ago, when she briefly toured Shanghai as a member of a writer’s delegation from the then Soviet Union.
Alexievich, who is called by her Chinese fans as “Alex”, said that unlike the country that she comes from, China has gone through remarkable changes during the years. Twenty-seven years ago, on the eve of China’s economic take-off, all skyscrapers featuring Beijing and Shanghai only existed in blueprints and Soviet Union was heading toward its dissolution.
The 23rd Beijing International Book Fair was the first public engagement of Alexievich in Beijing. She appeared to be a bit weary, but still listened to people in an attentive way, with a serious-looking face reminding people of the intensely serious and solemn Russian literature.
“We had rushed about calling out ‘freedom is here!’ on the square; but till today, we don’t know what freedom is. Why are there the Gulags? Why is it that our pain has failed to bring us freedom? Why couldn’t we build an idealistic capitalism? My works are based on hundreds of people and I’m seeking to find out what people are losing,” Alexievich thus described the force that propelled her to write.
When composing Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, she visited the danger zone. “There, you’re surrounded by a feeling that you’ve forgotten your nationality or ethnicity. Only thing you could feel is that you’re a human being who may disappear from the world due to such a disaster.”
“I need to hear the voices. They are on the street, in some restaurant, anywhere,” she said. She talked with every interviewee for more than three or four hours, with some interviews even lasting for a whole day. When the topics are of significance, she would visit people several times.
She chooses to use a recorder instead of making notes, “when you write things down, you tend to add personal perspectives in. The notes would lose accuracy and objectivity.” She believed that her thoughts would not be limited to specific facts of such disastrous things; instead, she aimed more to reveal the humanity in those who experienced the catastrophe.
For the book, Alexievich used three years to interview survivors of Chernobyl disaster, who include wives of rescuers who first arrived, photographers, teachers, doctors, peasants, government officials, historians, scientists, those evacuated and those relocated. The voices reflect anger, fear, tenacity, courage, compassion and love. From Alexievich’s point of view, history doesn’t exist in “truth”, but in depiction of individuals.
The writer is known to chronicling sufferings of human beings, though she emphasized multiple times that she hopes the books could spread love instead of shocking readers with shady and horrible events. “I belong to the era and write for love. If you could feel not hatred and evil but love in my book, it would be the most cherished compliment to me,” she said.
The writer’s most recent work Second-hand Time goes beyond nuclear accident or war—it concerns memories of the whole country since Soviet Union’s dissolution. For composing the book, Alexievich began interviewing in 1991 and the process continued till 2012. It is regarded as her most ambitious book that took the longest time to finish. “It is a prescription for my country. Since we disjointed with the Soviet Union, we need to have new concepts, systems and ideas,” she said.
In Second-hand Time, Russian people experience drastic social changes and suffer from both hopes and frustration. Everyone is pushing forward the wheels of history, with history also reflected in their lives.
In the book, people from all walks of lives from dustman to general are searching for significance of their lives. The history is pictured by all kinds of faces. In the writer’s words, she is not writing about “grand socialism” but the “families’ socialism.”
General, oligarch, banker, worker, teacher, girl abandoned by rich people and truck driver with Stalin’s picture hanging in his vehicle—the writer finds different figures and records the fragments of the group memory.
Alexievich treats her interviewees with respect and even admiration. “I look for those who reflect on the past, think about the present and have expectations from the future.”
In her depiction, two interlocked forces manipulate today’s Russia: one is heading toward future in an incredibly fast-paced way while the other is sighing in despair and degradation. In people’s eyes, there was a war without gunpowder, with oligarchs and bankers becoming winners while more people losing their games and stuck in second-hand time.
“I know that they have won, but why the TV programs are all about them and why we’re forced to see them prosper,” wrote Alexievich, “We’re Russian and we live for something noble. In spite of the tribulation, people could go on as long as there is room for their soul and spiritual loftiness to look forward to.”
Solid interviews have endowed her works delicate details and thrilling stories. The nonfiction writing based on interviews constitutes her unique style. Her "polyphonic writings (are) a monument to suffering and courage in our time", the Swedish academy announced last year.
Talking about themes that her works explore, Alexievich said, “We’re talking about emotions of our time. I’ve been looking for an answer. Why did we build the Gulags? Why couldn’t our pain bring freedom? And why couldn’t we construct a realistic socialism?”
“Unimportant people have provided their thoughts when talking with me, which are the true answers. I let communists, liberals, homeless people talk on their own behalf, thus constructing a worldview. The authenticity of the material lies in the fact that it was not composed by one person but hundreds of hands,” said Alexievich.
Chinese writer Ge Fei engaged in a talk with Alexievich. She quoted her favorite line in the Second-hand Time, “Maybe our memory would fade, but the soul would record all that happened.”
What the Nobel prize-winning writer is doing is to collect and compile a history of human emotions, restoring and creating a forgotten history. She focuses on human sentiments in wars and how people spiritually react to tribulation, death and killings.
When asked how she would like to respond to the accusation that her book was awarded for criticizing the Putin administration, Alexievich said, “Six Russian writers have won Nobel prize in literature and five of them are labelled as traitors. We could say it’s a characteristic of Russia. So, I still do my things quietly.”
The article is translated and edited by Rebecca Lin.