Histories of the Soul

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When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, the world was intrigued. Dylan himself wondered exactly how his songs related to literature. The Nobel committee’s explanation, that he had ‘created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, seemed to satisfy most people. (The laureate later quoted his literary influences as Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and the Odyssey.)

A more interesting choice for the prize, however, was the previous year’s winner, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian journalist. This was odd, not because she was a journalist – although it is unusual for journalists to aspire to ‘literature’ – but because hardly a line of what Alexievich writes is her own.

Her books consist almost entirely of other people’s words, which is why the Nobel committee described them as ‘polyphonic’. What Alexievich does is to tape long interviews with chosen subjects, record group conversations and make notes of random remarks overheard in the marketplace or on the bus. She then edits the material and stitches it together. She is not the first to use this technique. The late Studs Terkel collected the stories of ‘ordinary’ Americans, and oral history has become a recognized discipline. But she is certainly its most powerful – and political – exponent.

By getting people to describe the seismic events of their own times, she aims to counter the official lies of the Soviet state and uncover the truth of what it did to its people for seventy years. Following the recent publication in English of her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War (the Second World War), we now have translations of all four of her major works. The other three are Boys in Zinc (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979‒89), Chernobyl Prayer (the nuclear reactor disaster of 26 April 1986), and Second-Hand Time (the collapse of the Soviet Union).

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About the contributor

Christian Tyler wrote a weekly interview column for six years during a thirty- year career at the Financial Times of London. He knows how hard it can be to get people to open up.

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