Before stepping onto the stage, Svetlana Alexievich left me with her grayish-beige leather coat, as unfashionable as the rest of her. We had met by chance in March at a literary festival in Austria where the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in literature—a stocky woman in her late 60s, barely 5 feet tall—was being honored. “Hold it for me,” she said, and there was something touchingly Soviet in the gesture: You trust your own to keep an eye out for you. I, too, am a former Soviet citizen; we share the experience of surviving in a world that was “making war all the time, or preparing for war,” to quote from The Unwomanly Face of War. One of the saddest books you may ever read, it was the work that launched Alexievich’s 30-plus-year career of “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” as the Nobel citation put it.
“Historian of the soul” is the way Alexievich, writing in her journal, described her vocation as she worked on the collage of Soviet women’s memories of World War II that first won her an audience, in 1985. “Listen,” begins a former sniper (one of roughly 1 million women who served in the Soviet army, in every capacity). Alexievich does just that, and then records the tale, strewn with ellipses and distilled to its haunting essence—one fragment of testimony among many:
How long was the war? Four years. Very long … I don’t remember any birds or flowers. They were there, of course, but I don’t remember them. Yes, yes … Strange, isn’t it? Can they make a color film about war? Everything was black. Only the blood was another color, the blood was red …
Published at the dawn of perestroika, The Unwomanly Face of War was read by millions in the U.S.S.R.; an English-language version was issued in 1988 by the Moscow-based Progress Publishers (and recently could be found on Amazon for $400 and up). Now a wider non-Russian-speaking readership can welcome a timely new English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They artfully render the slow flow of first-person narratives that fill the book, and that became Alexievich’s signature approach in her accounts of the Russian Communist experience—a series that she calls “Voices From Big Utopia.” (These books include Last Witnesses, stories of those who were children during the war—published the same year as The Unwomanly Face of War—and extend to Voices From Chernobyl in 1997 and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets in 2013.) Weaving an introductory section out of the author’s journal excerpts and other material, this new edition also provides a chance to eavesdrop on Alexievich discovering her path.