Nobel literature prize winner transcends easy categories

MINSK, Belarus — With a reporter’s eye and an artist’s heart, Svetlana Alexievich writes of the catastrophes, upheaval and personal woes that have afflicted the Soviet Union and the troubled countries that succeeded it. Her writings, characterized by plain language and detail so visceral it’s sometimes painful to read, won her this year’s Nobel literature prize.

She is an unusual choice. The Swedish Academy, which picks the prestigious literature laureates, has only twice before bestowed the award on nonfiction — to Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell — and had never honored journalistic work with a Nobel.

Alexievich’s work straddles the divide. Much of her books are essentially oral history, where the voice is not hers and she chooses only what to include. Her narrative passages are straightforward, free of literary conceits.

“My calling as a writer involves me in talking to many people and examining many documents. Nothing is more fantastic than reality. I want to evoke a world not bound by the laws of ordinary verisimilitude, but fashioned in my own image,” she wrote in her 1989 book “Zinky Boys,” the title a reference to zinc coffins in which the bodies of Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan were shipped home.

“Her goal is to communicate the history of human feeling. The very fact that it transcends any easy category is part of what makes it great,” said Andrew Kaufman, a Russian literature scholar at the University of Virginia.

The 67-year-old Alexievich’s books have been published in 19 countries, with at least five of them translated into English. She also has written three plays and screenplays for 21 documentary films. She is the 14th woman to win the award since 1901.

Swedish Academy head Sara Danius praised Alexievich as a great and innovative writer who has “mapped the soul” of the Soviet and post-Soviet people.

“She transcends the format of journalism and has developed a new literary genre, which bears her trademark. That doesn’t mean there aren’t predecessors — there are, absolutely — but she has taken the genre further,” Danius told The Associated Press.

Like many intellectuals in Belarus, Alexievich supports the political opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who is up for re-election Sunday. Because of her criticism of the government, she has periodically lived abroad — including in Italy, France, Germany and Sweden — but now lives in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

“They don’t print my books here. I can’t speak anywhere publicly. Belarusian television never invites me,” Alexievich said. State TV made only cursory mention of her award on its nightly newscast, nine minutes into the program.

Late Thursday, Lukashenko issued a brief statement of congratulation to Alexievich, saying “I am truly happy for your success. I hope your award will serve our state and the Belarusian people.”

Yaraslau Kryvoi, secretary of the Anglo-Belarusian Society, said the award means “Belarus is now on the political map of the world.”

Lukashenko has shown signs that he’s trying to improve relations with the West and resist Russia’s presumed interest in absorbing Belarus. The Swedish Academy says it makes its choices only on literary merit and doesn’t consider politics.

Alexievich’s first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” published in 1985, was based on the previously untold stories of women who had fought against Nazi Germany. It sold more than 2 million copies.

Alexievich said she was at home ironing when she received the call Thursday from the academy with news that filled her both with joy and trepidation.

“How am I going to keep this up?” she asked rhetorically.

Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Alexievich said winning the award left her with “complicated” emotions.

“It immediately evokes such great names as (Ivan) Bunin, (Boris) Pasternak,” she said, referring to Russian writers who have won the Nobel Prize for literature. “On the one hand, it’s such a fantastic feeling. But it’s also a bit disturbing.”

She said the 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000) in Nobel prize money will allow her to write more.

“I do only one thing: I buy freedom for myself. It takes me a long time to write my books, from five to 10 years,” she said. “I have two ideas for new books, so I’m pleased that I will now have the freedom to work on them.”

Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948, in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother. Both parents worked as teachers. Alexievich later studied journalism in Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. She worked at newspapers near the Polish border and in Minsk while collecting material for her books.

Her 1993 book, “Enchanted with Death,” focused on attempted suicides resulting from the downfall of communism, as people who felt inseparable from socialist ideals were unable to accept a new world order.

In 1997, Alexievich published “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future.” Released in English two years later, the book is not so much about the nuclear disaster as it was about the world after it: how people adapt to a new reality, living as if they had survived a nuclear war.

Nobel literature prizes have often sparked political reactions, particularly during the Cold War.

The first Soviet citizen to win the literature prize was Boris Pasternak in 1958, but Soviet authorities denounced him and refused to let him go to Stockholm to collect the award.

Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also didn’t come to Stockholm after he won the Nobel literature prize in 1970, fearing that Soviet authorities wouldn’t let him back in the country. He accepted the award four years later after he was exiled from the Soviet Union.

The academy has also honored writers who were viewed favorably by Soviet leaders, including Mikhail Sholokhov in 1965.

This year’s Nobel announcements continue with the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics award on Monday. The awards in medicine, physics and chemistry were announced earlier this week.

All awards will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

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