May artefact – a tape recorder

Every month one or several of the objects held at the Nobel Museum’s collections will feature here as Artefact of the month.

Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

To call her work polyphonic is actually a very good description, her writing is based on voices from collages of thousands of interviews. One could say that Alexievich combines journalism and fiction in her books that she describes as documentary novels.

When visiting the Nobel Museum in December 2015, she donated a dictaphone, used to interview Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan for her first book Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, and people in Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster in 1986 for her book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. The titles of both books emphasizes the oral material and the voices of hundreds of people that speak about what Alexievich call the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual.

Together with the dictaphone Alexievich donated three tapes with interviews. She always records her interviews, and since every interview is a long process every book means many hours of recorded material. Sometimes a whole day's interview is carefully concentrated to only one paragraph, like this short but shocking story from Voices from Chernobyl:

And the chickens had black cockscombs, not red ones, because of the radiation. And you couldn't make cheese. We lived a month without cheese and cottage cheese. The milk didn't go sour – it curdled into powder, white powder. Because of the radiation.

Alexievich's five great prose volumes Zinky Boys, The Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildlike Stories, The Unwomanly Face of War, Voices from Chernobyl and Enchanted with Death all shine light on important historical events such as the Second World War, The Chernobyl disaster and the rise and fall of the Sovjet Union. But instead of focusing on the political dimension of the events she gives voice to the experiences and fates of individuals, in that way showing a more complex and uncomfortable picture of the human nature and it's history.

Alexievich is currently finishing her book The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt, made up of love stories from interviews with men and women of all ages. She uses the same technique as always, a slow and demanding way of working that she describes like this:

It’s non-fiction done by the laws of literature. Russia has this tradition. Rodin was once asked: ‘How do you make your sculptures?’ He answered: ‘I wrestle with stone.’ It’s the same with me. I wrestle with time. I take the waste that life leaves behind. I start cleansing it. I make art out of it.”

/Ebba Holmberg, Nobel Museum

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