We often buried in the woods under the trees…Under the oaks, the birches….Even now I can’t go to the forest. Especially where there are old oaks or birches…I can’t sit there.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a nonfiction book about the experiences of Soviet women who served during World War II.
I believe that when most people think about World War II, they envision abstract heroes of the Greatest Generation doing battle with the forces of evil in a good and just war. This book examines and challenges the very notion that any war can be considered “good.” The stories contained in this book are those of real people, not mythologized larger-than-life figures from the past. The book strips all of the glamour, all of the heroism, all of the myth out of war. What’s left are the realistic, essential truths of the experiences of war, spoken by its participants. This is not a dry history of formations and dates. It’s not a textbook that frames the conflict in its social, geopolitical, economic, or strategic-military context. This book is about the lice and blood and amputation and death and sacrifice and exhaustion and hunger and cold. It’s about the soldiers wanting to defend their country from invaders, protect their homes, and fight for their beliefs. It’s about how, forty years later, some of the fighters still can’t wear red clothing without having an allergic reaction to it, how they still wake up screaming, how they are still haunted by the dead.
The book does not fit into any well-known genre. As the Nobel Foundation put it:
“Svetlana Alexievich has created a literary non-fiction genre that is entirely her own. She writes “novels of voices.” She has developed this genre book after book, constantly honing the aesthetic of her documentary prose, which is based on hundreds of interviews.”
The author creates sort of a collage of voices, mostly omitting the questions that she posed to her interview subjects, arranging and rearranging the quotes, and grouping them into general subjects like “love,” “pilots,” “snipers,” “nurses,” “victory,” and so on. The resulting prose could be labeled as slightly repetitive, but that’s kind of the point — to create a chorus of voices on particular issues of interest to the author.
This book was originally published in the 1980s, but this is the first English edition that has been provided with top-notch translators. The high-quality translation therefore makes the book pretty easy to read. Emotionally, however, the reading experience is pretty rough due to the stories of post-traumatic stress, violence, sexual assault, horror, and death on almost every page. Also, it was originally written for Soviet readers already familiar with the general history of the Great Patriotic War. Some prior knowledge of Soviet history — while not essential — would probably be beneficial for maximum enjoyment of the book. There are helpful footnotes, but readers that are completely ignorant of Russian history might struggle a little bit.
As I was reading this, I felt as though the interview subjects were sitting in my living room, telling me their extremely personal stories. And their stories are bleak, beautiful, surreal, hopeful, at times humorous, searching, and tragic. I absolutely loved the book, and I encourage everyone to read it. It’s one of my Favorite Books.
Rating: 5 stars