Alexievich, the Nobel and Chernobyl

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Svetlana Alexievich (Image courtesy of

The Nobel committee did it again, caught me completely off guard.  The award for literature this year went to Svetlana Alexievich, and I was like… who?  Now I hold the Nobel prize for literature in high esteem, not only because it is awarded based on a writer’s oeuvre, but also because I often do like the works of the winning writers.  And the ones I do not know, I eagerly anticipate discovering their work.

So, naturally, I googled Svetlana Alexievich and found a lot of information.  I am not surprised I did not know anything about her since she is a journalist, and writes mainly non-fiction… wait, what?  I know of creative nonfiction and I know of nonfiction endowed with literary style that reads as smoothly as fiction, but a Nobel prize awarded for nonfiction?  This article of The New York Times sheds light on the matter, she’s not the first to win the Nobel for primarily writing nonfiction, but it is indeed rare.   However, her reportage is highly praised:

Ms. Alexievich’s work fits into a longstanding literary tradition of deeply reported narrative nonfiction written with the sweep and the style of a novel.

And of her work, she says:

I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings.

That she does.  After a quick search I am at The Paris Review reading a harrowing piece of reportage: Voices from Chernobyl.  Well, well, not only do I have an opportunity to read Alexievich’s writing, but I finally get to read about the people involved in the Chernobyl disaster.  I remember ever since I was a kid being curious about this catastrophe and how communist Russia would have dealt with the situation.  What kind of lies did they spur?  How did they spin reality with propaganda?  Were humans expendable yet again?  I finally have my answers… and much more; perhaps a little too much.

In prose that is simple yet elegant, concise yet fluid, Alexievich introduces readers to the horrors that the victims and the officials have told her of concerning their plight.  And as I read accounts of civilians, nurses, soldiers, communist committee members, I had to hold back the tears.  Truly, the human race can be seriously misguided and downright stupid.  Why we still have nuclear energy and weapons after Chernobyl (and Fukushima) is beyond me.  Why a nation as large, technologically advanced and historically rich as Russia, still feels the need to be a bully or warmonger rather than a pacifist nation is beyond me.  Why countries or people feel the need to harm one another is beyond me.  Yes, Alexievich’s topic stirred up much unwanted pessimism, but her style made me read the entire text, something I would not have been able to do with a history book or a dry article.

Samir Rawas Sarayji


2 thoughts on “Alexievich, the Nobel and Chernobyl

    1. I hope all is well Jilanne. It’s certainly an interesting read, but the themes can sometimes wear me down. It’s too tragic reading about other’s tragedies.

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