I have just finished reading Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, in the Penguin translation from 2017. I had heard of it before but came across it by chance in the municipal library, in the section devoted to Nobel Prize winners. (Well, some of them: I haven't seen Rabindranath Tagore or Gabriela Mistral there.) I'm glad I did find it.
Not that it's a light read. In fact it's one of the grimmest books I know. Alexievich interviewed women who had fought in the Second World War, in the Red Army - the organization which actually did stop Hitler. Hundreds of thousands of women were mobilized or volunteered, from 1941 on, and they were not just nurses and cooks and drivers but also machine-gunners, artillerists, snipers, guerrilla fighters, combat medics, tank crew and frontline pilots. They were combatants in the most murderous combat in history, the four years of slaughter and genocide that the Germans called the Eastern Front.
But after the Victory, their story was not just forgotten, it was repressed. The Stalinist regime conducted a loud celebration of triumphant masculine heroism. The women - apart from a few officially-designated heroines - were expected to swallow their trauma and fade back into private life as wives-and-mothers-and-workers. Which most tried to do, only to find other women suspicious and many men rejecting. The longed-for gender normalization in peace became a second war for some.
Alexievich began to collect their stories around 1978 and went on for seven years, tape-recording some interviews and making notes of others, from what we sociologists would call a large snowball sample. Alexievich wasn't a sociologist or a historian, and in writing this, wasn't acting as a journalist either. She was a novelist, and the interviews became the raw material of a great literary work giving a multi-voiced collective portrait of the experience of women in war. It's not like Life and Fate or War and Peace, or for that matter All Quiet on the Western Front, which have central characters and a story line. It's a quilt of hundreds of episodes and different voices and emotions. But it does have an implied narrative, I think, which is Alexievich's reading of the changes brought about by mass violence.
The distinction between journalism and literature became a legal issue when Alexievich was sued over a later book, Boys in Zinc, and forced to defend herself as a writer in court. (The lawsuit seems to have been a political manoeuvre by the resurgent authoritarian forces in Belarus.) But The Unwomanly Face of War is even more complicated. The author's project, and the speakers' act of telling, become a running commentary on the story itself. For me the most moving thing in the book is not the description of horrors but the short chapter about the women who found it impossible to speak. The cataclysm of the 1940s was still working in their lives.
Alexievich couldn't get the manuscript published at first, but perestroika made it possible and a censored version came out in 1985. I presume this translation is the uncensored version; it pulls no punches. Penguin have put on the cover a contemporary picture of one of the officially-recognized heroines, who commanded a squadron in the Red Air Force. She's in dress uniform with all her medals, which include the Soviet equivalent of the VC. She looks about seventeen. She is looking over her shoulder, with an absolutely unreadable expression.