Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
“I’m sorry for those who will read this book, and for those who won’t.” These are the words of just one of the many hundreds of women Svetlana Alexievich interviewed for The Unwomanly Face of War, an extraordinary oral history of the women who fought as part of the Soviet forces during the Second World War.
Narratives of war are rarely told from the woman’s point of view and so, over the course of seven years in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Alexievich met with hundreds of Soviet women who served as pilots, snipers, partisans, surgeons, paramedics, traffic controllers, and radio operators in the Second World War. Her project was to collect and document the oral testimonies of these women, preserving the “small details” they remember: wearing clothes that were too big; the shame of menstruating; getting their braids cut off.
The book opens with an essay about Alexievich’s method, which involved giving the veterans—in their fifties and sixties when they were interviewed—time to feel comfortable enough to talk.
I sit for a long time, sometimes a whole day, in an unknown house or apartment. We drink tea, try on the recently bought blouses, discuss hairstyles and recipes. Look at photos of the grandchildren together. And then… After a certain time, you never know when or why, suddenly comes this long-awaited moment, when the person departs from the canon—plaster and reinforced concrete, like our monuments—and goes on to herself. Into herself. Begins to remember not the war but her youth. A piece of her life… I must seize that moment. Not miss it!
The rest of the book is made up of statements from these women. These statements are loosely organised by theme—love, beauty, death—and range from a few pages in length to no more than a few lines. Occasionally Alexievich interrupts this flow with her own commentary, reiterating how difficult the women found sharing their memories. Alexievich describes how a lot of her interviewees didn’t want to meet her, only to start speaking and find themselves unable to stop. She describes how, once her project was underway, women started approaching her, keen to be involved.
The Unwomanly Face of War is a tough read: devastating; raw; and often overwhelming. Many of the stories included are almost too harrowing to get though. In one statement, a soldier recounts a love affair she had with a commander. “I loved him, and he had a beloved wife, two children,” she explains. “And I knew that after the war, if he stayed alive, he would go back to them…” In another, a sniper recounts what it was like to return home from war only to be rejected by men who felt she’d lost her femininity. In one of the book’s most disturbing passages, a resistance fighter describes how she watched a fellow soldier drown her baby so that its crying wouldn’t attract attention from the approaching Nazi soldiers.
“Women’s war has its own colours,” Alexievich writes, “its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings… There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.” In 2015, Alexievich became the first writer from Belarus to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her artful construction and sensitive narration, paired with the incredible stories she bears witness to, make The Unwomanly Face of War a truly remarkable feat.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Penguin Classics, 2017 / Mastatskaya Litaratura, 1985)
More books by Belarusian authors:
Here’s a short list of the other Belarusian books I was recommended this week
Alindarka's Children by Alhierd Baharevich, tr. Jim Dingley and Petra Reid
Paranoia by Victor Martinovich, tr. Diane Nemec Ignashev
A Large Czeslaw Milosz With a Dash of Elvis Presley by Tania Skarynkina, tr. Jim Dingley
A Window on Another Life by Tania Skarynkina, tr. Jim Dingley
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but as you’ve seen this week I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Tsikhan Charniakevich from the Union for Belarusian Writers for his recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!
It sounds grim but fascinating.
I came across this book when it was first published and nearly bought it several times. I always ended up shying away from it - reason being the accounts of the things that were done on the Eastern Front in WWII are often too ghastly to think about.
Anyway, thanks for your review, Tabatha, Time for me to bite the bullet, I think and buy it.