The world should thank the Nobel committee of 2015 for calling its attention to Svetlana Alexievich. A previously little known Belarusian journalist with a remarkable talent for oral history, Alexievich is an unconventional choice in a field of novelists and poets. Yet her books have the complex plots, memorable characters, lyricism, pathos, and truth of any great literary work. This is especially the case with the wrenching Secondhand Time (Random House, $30). Assembling hundreds of interviews conducted since the end of the Soviet era, Alexievich worked to “admit feelings into history.” As she talked to workers and students, victims and executioners, heroes and parents, she tapped into an almost overwhelming vein of emotion; her subjects laugh and cry at once. They give way to cathartic outbursts worthy of the classical tragedies. They exclaim that they’ve never told anyone these things before. Some stories have been repressed for decades, other are as fresh as the ethnic divisions of today’s headlines; all carry an irresistible intensity and urgency. Together, they reflect the “sheer schizophrenia” of this moment in Russian history, when the older generation regrets the lost idealism of communism, defends the “socialist idea,” and wonders if “instead of a motherland, we live in a huge supermarket,” while younger people are impatient with tradition, dismissing the great “Russian novels” because they ”don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich.” Can a land of such sharply discordant views cohere? Maybe. When Alexievich abandons individual interviews and records the diverse statements she overhears at public events, the result isn’t incoherence or non sequitur but a monologue as eloquent and compelling as any.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets - Svetlana Alexievich, Bela Shayevich
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Published: Random House - May 24th, 2016
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Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - March 21st, 2017