One doesn’t need modern tools of computational analysis to determine that the most common words in Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses are ‘mama’ and ‘papa’. The stories it contains of the Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian children who encountered the Nazi invasion in June 1941 are unavoidably tied to the experiences of their parents. Despite the adult content of their narratives of brutality and suffering, these are childlike tales. Their narrators track events not through dates or names of battles but through when papa went off to the front or when mama was shot for aiding the partisans.
Alexievich is famous for her technique of weaving together oral accounts into a documentary form that she has referred to as a ‘novel in voices’. Born in what is now Ukraine to a Belarussian father and Ukrainian mother, she grew up in the Soviet Union. Her works trace the shocks and ordeals that have jolted Russia and its neighbours over the last eighty years, from the Second World War through the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster to the collapse of the USSR.
Last Witnesses, first published in Russian in 1985 and now expertly translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, was Alexievich’s second book. Like her first, The Unwomanly Face of War, it draws on a decade’s worth of interviews with those who endured the Second World War and eschews the traditional adult male perspective. Alexievich’s technique exposes details of the conflict omitted from official histories, with their focus on high politics, strategy, battles and ideology.
Arranging carefully condensed accounts in roughly chronological order, Alexievich takes us from the shock of a sunny summer day ruptured by bombings to scenes of flight, occupation, hunger, execution, resistance and ultimately victory. Last Witnesses sheds light on aspects of the war involving millions of ordinary Soviet citizens that will be unknown to most Western readers. We read of ten-year-old children being deported to the Reich to work as slave labourers on farms and in factories, and of the trainloads of refugees evacuated to the east and dumped in rural Central Asia to forage for themselves.
Alexievich’s witnesses were as young as two and as old as fourteen when war came. Each tale carries the name of a child (often a childhood nickname), the interviewee’s age in 1941 and his or her subsequent profession. The stories read as if a hypnotist were pulling out repressed memories. The no-longer-young respondents recall the smells of war and of home – of the wood cut for coffins, of the swamp hay that marked their return from evacuation. They summon up the sounds of war – a bell ringing in a church that had long ago been turned into a warehouse, a Red Army soldier on his way to execution shouting out his name.
Each short account is like a polished bead strung on a chain. Alexievich’s method is to trim and rearrange oral testimony into concise and vivid prose. In Last Witnesses, she brings to the fore the children’s wonder and horror at the brutality of war. She reproduces their misapprehensions and childlike wisdom. We read of one little girl who thought that war was something that happened in ‘a big black forest’ since ‘in fairy tales the most scary things happened in the forest’. Another, having been taken in by a kind ‘auntie’ and helped by partisans, rejects the concept of the stranger. ‘All people are one’s own,’ she tells Alexievich.
Last Witnesses is compelling reading, not only on account of the microcosms of pain it presents, but also because it captures the reflections in adulthood of the war’s survivors. Their stories force readers to contemplate the way that survivors continue to suffer from what they saw and their sense of what they lost. ‘The war is my history book,’ one man explains. ‘I missed the time of childhood, it fell out of my life. I’m a man without a childhood. Instead of a childhood, I have the war.’
Although Alexievich has been known to revise her books, moving sections around and adding or deleting fragments, a careful observer may note that Last Witnesses reflects the times in which it was first written, the last years of the Soviet Union, and the attitudes that prevailed then towards what was known as the Great Patriotic War. In keeping with the puritanical norms of Soviet literature, only one story hints at sexual assault and certain issues are skirted over. As Catherine Merridale noted of the male veterans she interviewed in the 1990s for Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, ‘they knew the way they liked their war to be … Their favourite writers were war writers, but no Soviet book on the war ever mentioned panic, self-mutilation, cowardice or rape.’ Alexievich’s focus on children and her elimination of the questioner allow her to pass over controversies about the war while creating stories that seem both raw and sculpted.