Miriam Cosic reviews 'The Unwomanly Face of War' by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015, the response in the Anglophone world was general bewilderment. Who was she? The response in Russia was the opposite: intense, personal, targeted. Alexievich wasn’t a real writer, detractors said; she had only won the Nobel because the West loves critics of Putin.

Alexievich is kind of a journalist, kind of a social historian. What makes her work different, and important, is that she collects the voices of real people, collates them, and redistributes them, without imposing narrative or explanation. Even biographical information is scant. There is enough to give the speaker authority, but not enough to construe character or personality.

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Published in November 2017, no. 396

Comments (1)

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    Having been reduced to skip reading to get through the 470 pages of transcribed recorded interviews that make up Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, I was eager to read Miriam Cosic’s review of The Unwomanly Face of War to get a professional critic’s explanation for the Nobel Prize in Literature, to which, as she reports, “the response in the Anglophone world was general bewilderment”. But rather than enlightenment, Cosic refers to the familiar shortcomings- “barely edited”... “without imposing narrative or explanation. Even biographical information is scant.”…
    Miriam Cosic does suggest there might be an explanation for awarding this prize in literature to a “kind of a journalist, kind of a social historian”- the first non fiction, she might have pointed out, since Churchill in 1953- “The response in Russia was the opposite: intense, personal, targeted. Alexievich wasn’t a real writer, detractors said; she had only won the Nobel because the West loves critics of Putin”. And if she wasn’t so hostile to Putin’s Russia, Cosic would have followed this up.
    Alexievich has no popular following in Russia. By contrast, previous Russian winners of the literature Nobel— Bunin, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sholokhov—are
    still household names. She is regarded as an ethnic Ukrainian with Belarusian citizenship writing in the Russian language, whose output consists mainly of poorly disguised political polemics.
    Monday, 20 November 2017 23:19 posted byL.J Louis

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