Go East Young Man

PARIS – JUNE 07: (FILE PHOTO) Bohumil Hrabal poses while in Paris,France on a promotional visit on the 7th of June 1995. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

England and Western Europe do not have a monopoly on great literature. I love prospecting for interesting writers from Eastern Europe. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I am Hungarian (and Czech and Slovak), and that I feel that the writers of the East have gotten short shrift from the American literary establishment.

I have just finished reading Bohumil Hrabal’s Why I Write? and Other Early Prose Pieces, which consists of his early work, much of which was circulated via samizdat, or underground typescript distribution to bypass strict censorship. There is a freshness to most of the stories within and a sharp attention to dialog as it is actually spoken by common people. Several whole stories consist of stream of consciousness ramblings of Hrabal’s Uncle Pepin, who goes on for pages shifting from one topic to another. Footnotes explain many of the obscure local references to Bars in Prague and people unknown outside of the Czech Republic.

From Ukraine, there is Andrey Kurkov, whose Death and the Penguin fills us in on the absurdity of life in Kiev. His Ukraine Diaries bring us up to date on the tensions with Putin’s Russia.

The former Soviet Union is another good source, such as the literary journalism from Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. I was appalled by her book of interviews on the Russian War in Afghanistan, called (in English) Zinky Boys. I also read Voices from Chernobyl, which gives a Russian perspective on that disaster.

Anna Politkovskaya’s criticisms of Putin cost her her life. She was murdered at her block of flats upon returning from grocery shopping. Her books on Chechnya (especially A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya) and Putin’s Russia earned her the enmity of Putin, who cynically staged a show trial of several stooges who probably didn’t have anything to do with her killing.

Every month I try to read at least one Eastern European book. Often, they are the best things I’ve read that month.

Svetlana: Circles of Hell

A Great Writer Who Manages to Look Like an Average Person

I have now reach three books by Svetlana Alexievich and regarded all of them as superb:

  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2014), about the lives of average Russians after the fall of Communism
  • Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
  • Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991)

Reading each of those books was a profound experience. Very rarely do I ever re-read works of nonfiction, but I can conceive of myself re-reading all three of these books. Why? Because all of them struck me as being definitive, while all three of them represented multiple points of view. In her own words:

I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.

There is something about Russian history that elicits both admiration and dismay:

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath – an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.

I look forward to visiting more of these circles of hell in Svetlana Alexievich’s company. There are two more of her books available in English that I have not read: one about the role of women in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, and another on the role of children in the same conflict.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages and published in 47 countries.

“We Died for the Revolution”

Female Russian Honor Guard, 2018 Victory Day Parade

I have been slowly making my way through Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, in which she interviews everyday Russians about how their lives have changed since the fall of Communism. Alexievich did something it is not even possible to do in America today: She interviewed people of all political stripes, including even those who sided with the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Imagine a book in the U.S. that interviewed not only liberal Democrats, but qAnon and Oath Keeper supporters who showed up in Washington on January 6. I don’t think such a book can be written.

The following passage is from an embittered supporter of Communism:

In my day, people didn’t ask those kind of questions. We didn’t have questions like that! We … imagined a just life without rich or poor. We died for the Revolution, and we died idealists. Wholly uninterested in money … My friends are long gone, I’m all alone. None of the people I used to talk to are around anymore. At night, I talk to the dead … And you? You don’t understand our feelings or our words: “grain confiscation campaign,” “food-groups,” “disenfranchisee,” “committee of the poor,” … “repeater,” … “defeatist.” It’s Sanskrit to you! Hieroglyphics! Old age means, first and foremost, loneliness. The last old man I knew—he lived in the adjacent courtyard—died five years ago, or maybe it’s been even longer … seven years ago … I’m surrounded by strangers. People come from the museum, the archive, the encyclopedia ,,, I’m like a reference book, a living library! But I have no one to talk to … Who would I like to talk to? Lazar Kaganovich [one of Stalin’s henchmen] would be good … There aren’t many of us who are still around, and even fewer who aren’t completely senile. He’s even older than me, he’s already ninety. I read in the papers … [He laughs.] In the newspaper, it said that the old men in his courtyard refuse to play dominoes with him. Or cards. They drive him away: “Fiend!” And he weeps from the hurt. Ages ago, he was a steel-hearted People’s Commissar. He’d sign the execution lists, he sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths. Spent thirty years by Stalin’s side. But in his old age, he doesn’t even have anyone to play dominoes with … [After this, he speaks very quietly. I can’t tell what he’s saying. I only catch a few words.] It’s scary … Living too long is scary.

The Journalist

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

I have only read two of her books so far, but they were both knockouts. First, there was Zinky Boys (1991), about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Now, added to that is Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997). Both books are descriptions of incredible suffering, and they are both powerful disincentives from enlisting in the Soviet military.

Svetlana Alexievich (b. 1948) is usually described as a Belorussian journalist, though she herself rejects the title: She has been known to edit the first person testimonials from one edition to the next, which is a big no-no for oral historians, but the mark of an imaginative writer. I do not mind, because I will accept 99-44/100% accuracy if it involves stylistic or other improvements.

Both Afghanistan and Chernobyl were unspeakable disasters that seemed to go on forever (the latter is still claiming victims), and you cannot hope for a better introduction to both than read Alexievich’s books.

In Voices from Chernobyl, the wife of one Soviet soldier who was involved in the cleanup says:

They say, “Chernobyl,” and they write, “Chernobyl.” But no one knows what it is. Something frightening opened up before us. Everything is different for us: we aren’t born the same, we don’t die the same. If you ask me, How do people die after Chernobyl? The person I loved more than anything, loved him so much that I couldn’t possibly have loved him more if I’d given birth to him myself—turned—before my eyes—into a monster. They’d taken out his lymph nodes, so they were gone and his circulation was disrupted, and then his nose kind of shifted, it grew three times bigger, and his eyes became different—they sort of drifted away, in different directions, there was a different light in them now, and I saw expressions in them I hadn’t seen, as if he was no longer himself but there was still someone in there looking out. Then one of the eyes closed completely.

I do not recommend reading the book on a full stomach. The same with Zinky Boys:

We were combing through a village. You fling open the door and throw in a grenade in case there’s a machine-gun waiting for you. Why take  a risk if a grenade could sort it out for you? I threw the grenade, went in and saw women, two little boys and a baby in some kind of box making do for a cot.

You have to find some kind of justification to stop yourself going mad. Suppose it’s true that the souls of the dead look down on us from above?

I know that we considered the Soviets to be our enemies, but these books describe scenes that one wouldn’t wish upon one’s worst enemy.