Women and War, Women at War. War’s unwomanly face, by Svetlana Alexievich (#AW80Books: Belarus)

For a few weeks now, I’ve been dipping in and out of this book. I doubt I would have been able to read it in one sitting. It is too  intense, but in any case I’ve enjoyed this feeling of having it almost constantly in the backdrop. It gave a distinct colour to the other books I read in parallel.
Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer and journalist, born in 1948 in the Ukrainian USSR. I was given a book of a decent portion of her works (edited after she received the Nobel for literature in 2015), by a friend who knows I’ve been raving about the only other book I had read by her so far,  “La fin de l’homme rouge ou le temps du désenchantement”, for which I think the English title was “Second-Hand” or something, which is a collection of testimonies by people after the end of the USSR, about their lives, about communism, about the changes in the regime, Gorbatchev, disillusions and censure.
I loved that book. It was the first time I encountered a book like that, as she has a very unique writing process, of collecting hundreds of testimonies on a recording tape, and then transcribing them into a clear narrative voice while trying to keep the originality of the voice of the person.
This book, then, published in the 1980s in Soviet Russia (which created a controversy) is the result of 7 years collecting testimonies, by women all across Russia, and the Ex-USSR, about their experiences of the war. And that is mostly the 2nd world war, and entirely women who were conscripted in the army, with a variety of occupations and grades, from the “simple soldiers”- as they describe themselves, doing laundry chores to the lieutenant leading a group of men into landmine zones.
As it is the collective voice of many women, it is in itself polyphonic and contradictory: between two testimonies, but also inside those. Some remember the glorified discourse about “war for the people, war for the land”, about how proud and eager they were to be part of the war, and couldn’t wait to be sent to the front. Other- but also sometimes the same women – remember the violence. The cold. The unending chores. And mostly, how inhuman, how impossible it is to kill another human being.
There is violence, conflicts, incredibly sad stories of heroes of war returning to their homes and not being recognized as such, because they are women. There are funny anecdotes about the lives at the front, with the daily routine going on in spite of everything.
It all builds a portrait of War, as an entity but also as the sum of so many contradictions.
And there is also the question of memory and testimonies, as she also relates her struggles in finding the truth, interviewing people 30 years or more after the conflict: she says there are often tree people in the room: herself, the person she interviews and the person that person was, during the events. And a lot of those tales change, some of the women call her back to retract something, to change their view. It all shows how fragile and polyphonic Collective memory is, and how important it is to record all of these voices. In the end, it states this last duality: War, as an entity, is bigger than Man, but it is made by Man, and Man, or Woman, is often bigger than War. These testimonies are a recording of that, of women being bigger, greater, than the war they were in.
I am trying to find a “read it if you…” ending to this, but it is too universal for that. Sure, I could say, read it if you like historical testimonies about the second world war. But it would be better to say: read it if you are human.

2 thoughts on “Women and War, Women at War. War’s unwomanly face, by Svetlana Alexievich (#AW80Books: Belarus)

  1. What a powerful review! That’s quite an endorsement for what sounds like a very important book. I was browsing at my atlas earlier (as you do) and realised how patchy my knowledge is of the geography of Eastern Europe and how I’ll need to start looking for books that’ll help me explore the region. This will be my starting point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, Browsing an Atlas? What a weird hobby, I definitely never do that;) it has made me realize how little I knew about the Eastern front in the 2nd world war, as most of what we learn are the french/english/american versus german battles.

      Liked by 1 person

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