World War II, through children’s eyes

Luc Sante:

Last Witnesses was the second book by Svetlana Alexievich, originally published in 1985, the same year as her first, The Unwomanly Face of War. Both of them, like the three major works that followed—Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013)—could be briefly and superficially described as oral histories. They indeed consist of testimony, recorded and transcribed, by witnesses to major events and periods in the history of the former Soviet Union.

Oral history is an important research tool, but it has not often been treated as literature. Although it obviously harks back to the oldest means of transmission, its publishing history is for the most part recent. Many of these published accounts consist of lengthy, unstructured, often repetitive monologues; they seldom make for good reading. In her books, Alexievich transforms the genre, turning it into literature through her editing and orchestration. That word is not idly chosen; there is a distinctly musical flow to the way she groups speakers and subjects. In Voices from Chernobyl, among multipage individual stories, she composes “choruses” of single-paragraph accounts by multiple people who underwent similar experiences. In Secondhand Time she assembles two chapters, both called “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations,” that replicate the experience of ambient talk and circulating notions; the speakers are distinguished from one another only by punctuation and sometimes speak only one line.