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Culture

Belarusian writer dares the unknown

Belarusian journalist and prose writer Svetlana Alexievich was honored with the Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association for tackling modern Russian history in her chronicles of human feelings.

For Svetlana Alexievich, living and reading are one and the same. She is part of a generation that was "learned about life from books, not from reality," she once said. This is the generation one also encounters in her latest book, "Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man." Through a series of monologues, the book gives a voice to people shaped by the last 20 years of Russian history - penned by the author during her travels through the post-Soviet region in the past decade.

They tell of life in the ruins of a collapsed Soviet Union, of shattered dreams and biographies that were anything but linear. This was also a world in which books kept people alive. A world in which books were existential. It was a time when people sat around the kitchen talking about Russian poet Osip Mandelstam; they cooked soup with a novel in their hands.

And while both the world and Russia have changed dramatically since the end of the Soviet Union, in which books are often mere products brought quickly to the market, writing and literature can still make a difference.

It is not surprising, then, that investigative journalist turned prosaic storyteller Alexievich would be honored with the Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. The literary award, given each year since 1950 at the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair, has often gone to courageous, controversial writers.

Alexievich writes about people behind the scenes, behind the Iron Curtain Copyright: DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images

Alexievich writes about people behind the scenes, behind the Iron Curtain

Topography of death

Alexievich, for her part, has often rubbed salt in the wound of Russian history, while also aiming to create a new genre with her writing. Having experimented with various prose styles, she ultimately settled on her signature method: gathering a chorus of individual voices and interviews to create a written collage of contemporary experience and opinion. That is reflected in her lastest book, "Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man," the fifth book in the her seven-volume "factional " chronicle titled, "The Autobiography of a Utopia, or the History of the Red Man."

Born in 1948 in Soviet Ukraine, she grew up in Belarus, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources during that time. It was Alexievich's writing about the "topography of death and the fight for survival" within this context that garnered the praise of historian Karl Schlögel during his laudatory address at the Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association ceremony. "I have written five books, but really I have been writing only one book over nearly 40 years: a Russian-Soviet chronicle of revolution, the Gulag, war, Chernobyl and the collapse of the 'Red Imperium,'" the author said in her own speech.

Grains of sand

She tells tales of life behind the Iron Curtain, reveals castastrophes that were often dismissed or hidden away. "A sea of blood and a massive grave of compatriots lie behind us," she said during her speech in Frankfurt's Paulskirche. "The 'little people' speak out in my books. They are grains of sand in history. They are never questioned, never asked. They disappear without a trace; take their secrets to their graves," she noted. "I go to them and listen to them, listen in. The street is a chorus for me, a symphony. It's such a shame how much just gets lost - spoken, whispered, shouted out into a vacuum."

During her speech, she also depicted some of the 'hellish' sides of human beings Copyright: Arne Dedert/dpa

During her speech, she also depicted some of the 'hellish' sides of human beings

Descending into Hell

Just as in her books, Alexievich relates events in collage-like form during her speech - sharply and precisely, like splinters of history. Like this observation in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1988: "A young Afghan woman, holding a child in her arm: I go up to the child and hold out a teddy bear. The child takes it with its teeth. 'Why is the child holding it in its teeth? ' I ask her. The woman pulls off the thin blanket wrapped around the child, and I see a torso, without limbs. 'Your Russians did that, ' she says.' She doesn't know what she' s talking about,' a Soviet captain, who's standing nearby, says: 'We brought them communism.'

This is just one of the many meticulous observations Alexievich has chronicled in her works - works about real people. "I don't just record a dry history of events and facts, I'm writing a history of human feelings," she writes on her website. And during her speech, she noted what she's had to do to write that history: "Sometimes I ask myself why I have often descended into Hell. And the answer is: to find the people down there."

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