Svetlana Alexievich: An atomic Nobel Prize

By Eva Feld

Fission, Fusion, “Faccion”, Fashion these are the five enunciates that come to mind when confronting the outcome of the deliberations that resulted in the adjudication of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year.

The Prize has been granted to the Byelorussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich who has devoted most of her life to dig into the Soviet soul. In short, she has given voice to the silent minority, or should I say to the bearers of the Communist regime in her native country and the vaster Soviet Union.

This she has done by “transcripting” hundreds of interviews with common people exposed to  the Communist ideology throughout several generations. The only one of her five novels that has been translated to Spanish and English is about the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl (1986): over two hundred pages of horrors described by the protagonists giving the reader a view over a patchwork made out of testimonies and numerous questions about the future, not only theirs but also of the entire human kind.

Svetlana Alexievich is a documentalist, therefore war also plays an important role in her book: the military language used by the political leaders contaminates the atmosphere and she proves her point by comparing the nuclear explosion of Chernobyl to previous war experiences, except for the fact that in a nuclear one the enemy has become lethal yet invisible.

Without intervening much in the narrative, she also poses a comparison of the true unbelievable facts to the ones that only an imaginative science fiction creator could have come out with.

Of course, the fear and adoration of God represent a catch 22 for the survivors considering their ultra-religious backgrounds. People, regardless of their faith, ask themselves, as did German thinker Theodor Adorno, after the Second World War, how is it possible to live and create the same way as ever, after such experiences? Is there not a before and an after Chernobyl? Is it possible that it has just become another show for mediatic and even touristic consumption?


Certainly Svetlana Alexievich applies fission to her narrative as “the act or process of splitting into parts”. Maybe her storyline mimics the nuclear fission that occurred in Chernobyl where radiation spread and where the blues in all shades and meanings overtook all living beings including the earth itself.


Without a doubt, Svetlana Alexievich rubs high temperatures into her stories. The way fusion is described in the dictionary, she also “blends different things into one by heat”. Such high temperature submerges the reader in a time and place where no one wants to be, hence every detail counts as each one belongs to a true life experience, none of which can possibly be left out. Alas, in the reader’s eyes, the sum of the elements under scrutiny becomes itself an atomic bomb that one needs to flee.

A neologism had to be created to address the factual and the fictional under a solo word.  For the questions of what is literature has aroused many eyebrows. Svetlana Alexievich is not the first journalist to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Colombian Gabriel García Márquez is maybe the best example. Hence, his prose was elaborate, his plots were threaded and he was sophisticated both in literary and journalistic tasks. Borrowing language from the painters, Alexievich ultra-realistic sketches may be considered as reversed expressions of Soviet realism.

There is hardly any narrative or description intervention on her part. Her Voices of Chernobil (1997) is a series of terrible accounts narrated in first person by dozens of protagonists of the catastrophe. Her permanent use of colloquial language leaves space to deviations and derivations, even though there are shared claims among the interviewed regardless of their social, educational or political level: The terrible lack of information all the victims suffered  by an omnipresent ideological and propagandistic power, as well as their necessity to leave a testimony.


It may be that the reality shows, the testimonials, the quotes, and the unveiled truth are the trend of the Century.  This may also be the tendency of the literature juries: to privilege the factual over the literary skills. Perhaps the pendulum has shifted back to a search for “the truth”. Even when what is being unveiled is more of the same: the evilness of the Human Condition, the need of notions such as love, solidarity and hope over fatality, pessimism or depression.  

Or is it that postmodernism has become an umbrella under which everything goes?

                                                                                                            Loveland, October 2015