The front page reports 120 soldiers were killed the war was long you get used to it [...]
Second-hand Time is a collection of personal stories compiled by Svetlana Alexievich, the outcome of her interviews with people who lived their lives under the Soviet Union, its fall, and the aftermath of the fall. The majority of the stories revolve around the theme of suicide, but somehow this never strikes one as at actual subject of the text. It is much rather a book of personal tales, an emphatic homage to human tragedy in general. All of the stories are narrated by sovoks1: “I feel like I know this person; we’re very familiar, we’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person.” Or, as she explained at the most recent Louisiana Literature Festival, her book is narrated by people who are both krasni y strasni—paradoxically—both beautiful and horrifying. And so are their tales.
This is but one of the many contradictions the book is ridden with, though not because it formally sets to do so. Rather, because it has to respect the integrity of the voices it lends itself to recount and doing so means that it has to take them as they are. Coming from a number of narrators, these diverse stories are unified in at least this one respect that they all spell out, time and again, the incompatible. Sentence after sentence, story after story; from page one to page six-hundred ninety-four: a procession of contradictions, with all the tragic consequences proliferating around the numerous points of friction—shattered lives, abandoned hopes, resignation. Among them, a specific element seems to come to the fore: cruelty.
The point is not that the book recounts cruel stories: it does, but this is to be expected beforehand given the time and place from which the stories come. We do not need Alexievich to tell us that the life under the Stalinist regime was brutal. The kind of cruelty the book reveals is a very peculiar incapacity of the people to experience any change in their life. It is the cruelty of disillusionment. Of the seeming impossibility for the world to be otherwise. Life after life, all locked on a tragic gear, with the mechanism so rusty no shift—not even the seemingly tremendous one of the fall of the U.S.S.R.—makes any difference. Or to put it even more paradoxically, it is the occurrence of this very shift that increases the sense of pain in the reader. This is what is unexpected in the text and where Second-hand Time truly stands out. It reveals the type of pain that is rarely a part of the narrative, does not fit the standard story ‘things used to be bad, but now, with the regime gone, it’s all going to be better’. Things happen, the course remains unaltered. This is the very specific type of cruelty that the book manages to capture.
As we read, we reach the rare moment when, for a brief moment, a cliché reunites with its long-forgotten significance: after all it is not the grand historical perspective that lives life but it is the lives of every single person, lived in their own particularity.
The Iron Curtain falls. What do we tend to remember? The images of the happy faces of people jumping over the Berlin Wall. It is easier and more comforting to single those moments out and preserve them them in our memory. To make the beaming smiles of revelers in the street a symbol for what happened. We rarely manage to catch a glimpse of these once elated people the day after. Alexievich’s book casts aside the easy focus on the tremendous and takes the trouble to investigate into the less eye-catching; into the mundanity of the days that follow. Some of the enthusiasm still finds its due place in the narrative, but it is nowhere near its focus. Not because Alexievich decides to readjust the familiar lens, but because this is where those who lived through the events focus it: at the fringes. Their humane voices, recounting their personal tragedies, manage to demythologise the myths engraved in our consciousness with the rare force. As as they do, un-heroically, with their peculiar hushed humbleness, we learn that life rarely is the one of comfort. It is more often one of cruelty.
The historical rupture; the days that follow. The cruelty of the event; the cruelty of the aftermath. Alexievich’s book illustrates how arbitrary the division between the two can be—it may make sense to us, privileged in our position of the external observers, wise with our familiarity with the tragedies of the 20th century, safely detached from the reality she describes. But this comfy distanced narrative hardly makes any sense to those who remain ensconced within the actuality, those who not only become a part of the narrative but in the most fundamental sense are the narrative itself. What we tend to read as a colossal break in terms of the historical narrative of the twentieth century, to those directly involved—as we learn from one narrator after another—is just yet another variation of the same old. As we read, we reach the rare moment when, for a brief moment, a cliché reunites with its long-forgotten significance: after all, it is not the grand historical perspective that lives life but rather it is the lives of every single person, lived in their own particularity.
Much more than an act of telling, the books is a tremendous exercise in listening.
Not many works manage to illustrate this tension with more force. History vs. person. Abstract vs. real. It is in this capacity to put a human face on the tragedy that the book brings to mind another kindred text, dictated by the same type of sensitivity, spelled out by another sovok, a Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert:
[...] it’s no use trying to find 120 lost men on a map a distance too remote hides them like a jungle they don’t speak to the imagination there are too many of them the numeral zero on the end turns them an abstraction [...]
Nearly every one of the stories Alexievich collects in the book would make a great reportage—a one ripe for a front page of the weekend special illustrated by touching photographs—and many a writer with a journalistic bent would probably succumb to the temptation to translate them into such. Or at least to the temptation to talk around them, to comment and to smuggle one’s own voice into the picture. Alexievich, instead, steps aside. She makes space for those unheard. Much more than an act of telling, the books is a tremendous exercise in listening. “Sooner or later, telling my stories will kill me… Why do I keep doing this?” (p. 613) We hear a lament of a mother retelling the story of her daughter who died in the mysterious circumstances in Chechnya. A death that left behind an agonising vacuum clothed in memories and tears. And it’s just one tragedy among many. Some stories, at times, seem so surreal that they verge on appearing fictitious. Almost impossible. Positively made up. And yet, we need to remind ourselves time and again, they are not. If anything ever is, they are real.
The cruelty is the more striking because its passage through the book is punctuated with the moments of beauty, of hope, of love, of happiness. And yet, over and over, they seem to be only a passing phenomena. As if these moments were outside of the logic of the universe of the book, appearing like stars briefly shimmering against the darkness of the night sky—they disappear almost exactly the moment one spots them. But they are there, fleeing witnesses to the possibility of some other form of life, if not of bliss, then at least of the un-gruesome. This possibility, however, seems purely theoretical: One makes a wish. But in the world described by Alexievich it does not come true. Instead, one is left with the old, familiar and sour disillusionment.
Like its protagonists and the times they lived in, Second-hand Time is a unique, disquieting contradiction: it is a text both beautiful and horrifying. The mosaic of stories is one of the complexities and pain of being human, and yet it remains a very simple exercise, with no grand aims in view—it attempts to prove nothing. It does, however, transcend the particularities of the sovok, reaching beyond the particular historical conditions of the U.S.S.R. and Russia, managing to smuggle into the image of a specific time and place things that are of a universal significance. And at the same time, it is free of pretense and remains completely self-contained and humble in its project. And in a way, erasing the zeros on the end, Second-hand Time takes us all the way to the final stanza of Herbert’s poem, Mr Cogito Reads the Newspaper:
[...] a theme for further reflection: the arithmetic of compassion
- I shall copy the original translator’s footnote here: “This is a widely used pejorative term for one who adheres to Soviet values, attitudes and behaviours. ‘Sovok’ can also refer to the Soviet Union itself. It’s a pun on the word for ‘dustpan’ — Trans.” ↩