Svetlana Alexiévich, or the hidden voice

Susana Torres. Professor. IE University

30 October 2015

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is a brave woman who has given a voice to those whom officialdom has tried to silence and forget.

Don’t get me wrong, it must be terribly difficult to award prizes, of any kind. It must be, therefore, even more difficult to award one as important as the Nobel, and in a discipline as unmeasurable as literature. This year’s laureate, Svetlana Alexiévich, has been awarded a distinction previously granted to Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, Mann or García Márquez, to name but a few. Only 24 hours before knowing the name of the winner, we were remembering the killing of Anna Politkóvskaya nine years ago, shot by a professional killer in the lift of the block of flats where she lived in Moscow. Could both facts be related?

Judging literature has become increasingly difficult since the dawn of post-structuralism and deconstruction. Despite the best efforts of critics such as Harold Bloom, the search for anything that might resemble an official, or uncontested canon, is often met with suspicion by those who prefer to be conceptual, or simply mistrust any sort of cultural dominance on the part of followers of traditional trends. Certainly, one could tell the story of two young lovers whose families disapprove of their love in a Tweet, or in three acts of a full play by Shakespeare, but the difference between the former and the latter is only whether you actually want to know what Shakespeare, in the mentioned case, thought about forbidden love, and how good he was at keeping your attention going so the audience would not leave the theatre. The difference is what we usually call literature. As A.C. Grayling mentioned in the last Hay Festival in Segovia a few days ago, listening, letting the text speak for itself, is one of the great adventures of the human spirit, being able to converse with those long gone, or, indeed, as he so graphically put it, being able to “go to bed with Jane Austen” from time to time.

Enjoyment is an essential part of any art, and the same goes for literature and too often we tend to forget that literature is made with words, words used differently, words placed differently, words saying something different and in a different way to our everyday conversations. If that were not the case, we would all be Nobel laureates.

Svetlana Alexiévich is a brave and courageous woman who has always tried to give a voice to those whom official accounts of history and propaganda have tried to silence and forget. Her books on uncomfortable issues of the Soviet past of her native Belarus, Ukraine and Russia have not granted her much official endorsement in that part of the world, and she obviously writes in the style of a Russian literary tradition that is very different from the great 19th century novels, clearly going back to the “social sketches” introduced by Aleksandr Bestuzhev, Marlinsky (1797-1837) and taken to unexpected levels of artistry by Anton Chekhov. It was a form of literary realism that denounced the poor conditions of the majority of the population by focusing on everyday, unimportant and monotonous details, and which, maybe thanks to its  brevity and apparent lack of open criticism of the government, managed to bypass, unnoticed, the censorship of Soviet authorities. It is a form of literature which both Mikhail Bulgakov and Ryszard Kapuściński, to name but a few, learnt to write, both with excellent results.

Svetlana Alexiévich shares with the much mourned journalist Anna Politkóvskaya her permanent commitment to those officialdom wants to leave behind and make them disappear from history, like the characters in George Orwell’s 1984. Anna died in Moscow, Svetlana now lives in Germany, but their fingers point at the same direction. Whether that incredible merit is to be endorsed by a Nobel Prize of Literature is another matter.

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