Vodka + Caesium

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but some people still don’t think her books are literature. In fact, they are collective oral histories, of similar genre, though completely different in tone, to those of Studs Terkel in the United States, whom she has probably never read. Her main influence as far as genre is concerned was the Belorussian writer Ales Adamovich, who in the 1970s (with Daniil Granin) collected the testimonies of wartime Leningrad survivors in Blokadnaia kniga, but that’s not very helpful in a Western context since nobody has heard of him. Lately, Alexievich has taken to citing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as an inspiration. Her first book, with methodology already honed, was finished before Shoah was made, so that obviously can’t be taken literally. But it’s a way of letting a Western audience know that what she’s doing is exploring suffering and loss through the voices of the sufferers.

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