Conversation — October 3, 2016, 11:00 am

Unofficial Stories

“The suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why,” says Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature and author of Secondhand Time.

Svetlana Alexievich is someone who often answers a question with a story about other people. She has no lack of these stories, having spent more than three decades interviewing citizens of the U.S.S.R. and ex-Soviet states about their daily lived experience. In her books, each of which revolves around a central event—the Soviet-Afghan War in Zinky Boys; the aftermath of nuclear catastrophe in Voices from Chernobyl; the end of communism in Secondhand Time—history is presented as a chorus of voices, carefully arranged monologues distilled from thousands of interviews conducted over several years (in the case of Secondhand Time, from 1991 to 2012). Alexievich is continually surprised by her characters—by their willingness to talk, by their fortitude, by the depths of their love, by the immensity of their suffering. Her outlook is no less bleak for the vast range of humanity she has been witness to; evil, she says with conviction, is always present in our lives. I spoke with her via an interpreter about her acts of witness.

Each of your books covers such an immense thematic topic. How do you begin such a project?

This is really one large project. For the past thirty years I have been writing a history of the red epoch, the red era of Communism. I chose the main points of that story, the pivotal junctures: war, Chernobyl, disintegration of the empire. We can perhaps talk about how this larger project came about. When I was working as a journalist I was traveling quite a bit, I was on the road, and people talked a lot about the war. But they talked about the war in a very different way from official state-sanctioned memory—especially the women. Women offered another version of the war, and it became clear to me that we lived in a very different world. I realized I had been hearing these stories from early childhood—I grew up in a village—and they were stories about death, while the official story of the war is a story of victory. The unofficial story: War is a story about loss. Meaning that there was nothing beautiful that people saw in it.

And where do these stories end? After you’ve conducted hundreds of interviews, at what point do you say, “that’s enough”?

When I understand that I cannot ask anything new.

You’ve spoken about the superiority of the document to fiction, saying that “art has failed to understand many things about people.” What dissatisfies you about fictional representation?

Those are not exactly my words; those are the words of Dostoevsky. He writes about the fact that art does not expect an awful lot in a man. I agree with him completely. After a book you return to life, and you find more variance, more options. A storyline is eternal: it’s good, evil, death, love, but in life you have nuances. The point is to not repeat something that is already known—one wants to learn something new, something more about a person, about their humanity.

I notice that your interview subjects often protest your involvement; for example, in Secondhand Time, a man says, “What do you care, what do you need a stranger’s grief for?” A mother of a soldier that you interviewed for Zinky Boys told you, “I don’t need your scary truth.” How do you convince people to open up to you, to trust you with experiences that are traumatic or painful?

When people decline to talk it is because they do not want to relive their nightmare. And a person who comes back from war is in a way very lonely because he feels that he cannot share this experience completely, he cannot tell everything. Here I’m very honestly telling them why I need this. I tell them that the suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why. And in order for people to open up you need to be an interesting person for them as well; they need to imagine that in the course of the conversation something will happen that will help them, that they will learn something. For example, if somebody is tied up in love and they’re torn by this feeling, they do want to share with somebody, they do want to make sense of it. And especially when you are not there out of curiosity, you are not there to poke in somebody’s wound, but you genuinely want to try to understand, then this is a way for people to gain that understanding.

So do you see your own role as a facilitator, as someone who empathizes, or do you sometimes feel like an intruder, like a voyeur?

You know, there is also a dark side of art. In order to write something you need to kind of peek at what is happening. A good example of that was Leo Tolstoy. When he was writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he would go to his acquaintances’ houses when he heard that somebody was nearing death, and he would try to look and try to learn, and at some point one of the men told him, “Get away from here you evil old man, I want to be alone, this is my time.” When Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina he asked his female cousins to tell him how a woman would react to this and feel that, and he asked them to share their letters and their diaries, and then they later were upset when they recognized themselves in his writing. Similar things happened to Chekhov. I think this is a part of art where you sometimes do need to intrude. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of, if you will, a certain absence of morality of art. You know, in my book Voices from Chernobyl I write about a woman who was taking care of her dying husband. He was literally disintegrating—she had to scoop out his insides—but at night for one hour they made love and that was the only hour that he did not cry and he did not scream—he screamed continuously—and when I finished the book, I changed the name of this woman to protect her privacy, and she called me up and said, “No, I want you to include my name because of how much he suffered.” I don’t think that a document is something that should have any prohibited topics. I think all topics are open, but I do not want to hurt people—I would change names, I would do things to avoid making people suffer or feel bad. On one hand, I need a last name for it to be documentary, to be evidentiary, but on the other hand, when we talk about the truth of feeling, the name doesn’t really matter.

So much of your work is about suffering—we view these lives, even everyday life, through the lens of suffering. But is suffering really the most important human experience? There is also joy, and love, in your work.

Unfortunately, we now have more suffering than oil.

In Secondhand Time, your interviews are mostly with people of your generation, people who have lived through perestroika, the fall of the U.S.S.R., and emerging capitalism. But I get the sense that the book is for the younger generation, that you wrote this with the youth in mind.

When I was selecting my characters, the principle was that these should be people who have had the Soviet experience, who were formed there, and who could talk about that life. But there are also young people, and those who are just entering life.

What defines their daily experience, their psychology? What are the events of their generation?

They are perhaps more capable, even with just the biological difference, they are more prepared. But outside of Moscow, there is a phenomenon of nostalgia for the past among the young that is more and more prevalent. Not even nostalgia—it’s the desire not to live in a small country that is put down. That was a perpetual refrain: We do not like this, we are put down, our parents let the country go, they lost the country. I was asking them a question that I thought was very important: “Which country do you want to live in, a great country or a normal country?” and about 80 percent would answer, “A great one.” That is Putin’s electorate and that is the soil that he appeared on. There is no Putin, really, there is a collective Putin, because he united the desires of these people.

To me your work demonstrates the power of documentation, and if there’s a quality that defines young people today, I think it’s a comfort with documentation, with self-publishing, with self-confession, with documenting everyday banalities on social media. Do you think that the younger generation is poised to be more engaged with their fellow citizens because of this? Maybe more thoughtful, maybe more questioning of themselves, more attuned to their personal, emotional landscapes?

I think it’s very difficult to say what this will lead to, because on the one hand we do have the emergence of, for example, volunteerism, and people are very happy about it. But this idea that Putin is offering them, their idea of a great Russia, their idea of a Russia that is listened to, that is respected, is important to them. It is something that fills their lives. Russian culture is always in search and in need of a superidea, a national idea. The value of human life, the value of a normal life, those are not the values in this militarized culture.

So what is the way forward for Russia today?

I’m not an astrologist—I can’t really predict! Today it’s impossible to predict America’s future, much less the future of Russia. My friends and I are reading books about 1930s Germany and books about the years that preceded the Russian Revolution. Everybody is afraid of fascism or civil war, and when a national leader is introducing words into the everyday lexicon such as “national traitors,” that is troublesome. There is also an obsession with spying, people are again sort of looking after you and over you, and people being put in jail for spying. I’d like to imagine what would happen in the United States if Obama at one point would proclaim, “Those who do not agree with our course are national traitors.”

Well, Trump, unfortunately, has approached some of these statements.

Then it’s on you to predict the future of the United States. What is being now boiled in the Russian pot is impossible to know. Recently the Church brought some holy relics to Minsk, and people were waiting in line for hours through the night to come and venerate them, and when I walked out to look at this line, I was very surprised. I never knew these people existed, these fanatics. Everyone who wanted to come and venerate was not able to, so what they decided is that the relics would be flown around in a helicopter—absolutely crazy.

Your two books in progress concern love and old age. This approach seems like a departure from what you’ve done before because you’re not organizing the work around a single tragic event. How is the process going?

I want to show a person, a human, when he’s not under the power of an idea—can a person live without it? This is a new time in our countries. People are traveling, people are looking around, and I want to find out how they think about this—life, happiness.

And this outlook has only become possible now?

Yes, because before we either were building socialism, or we were fighting socialism, or something was happening. Recently, I went to Moscow and got in a cab and talked to the driver, and I asked, “What’s happening here with you guys in Moscow?” He said, “We’re building capitalism under the direction of the KGB.” This is a continuing experiment, to see how a person survives, with what, and by what.

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October 2018

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

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Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

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Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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