Before Svetlana Alexievich, surprising winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, in the even more surprising omnibus category of non-fiction, there were writers who grappled with real-time lives of people at a particular place during a particular period. There are many examples: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier chronicled Lancashire workers during the Great Depression, or The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Frederick Engels, an ideological parent of Alexievich’s country of birth, the USSR, which has fallen off the map. More recently, Behind The Beautiful Forever by Katherine Boo narrated life in a Mumbai slum.
What makes Svetlana Alexievich’s book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets different is that she weaves no invisible threads running through the periods she had chosen to record, namely, the two pivotal decades in the history of the countries of the former Soviet Union — Boris Yeltsin’s Nineties and the Putinist 2000s. Partitioning her book into these two decades is the only giveaway. Within these periods, the author offers no dates, no chronology. She had engaged people in conversation mostly about Soviet life, which was extinct by that time. The book is an ensemble of voices — one-on-one talks with individuals, street noises, random snatches of voices in a beer bar, conversions around a table at the wake for a war veteran who had committed suicide…All these add up to nothing. That is the beauty of the book. There is no tyranny of author-imposed discourse, no gestalt. Alexievich seems to be following Roland Barthes’ instruction: “Having described the flower, the botanist is not to get involved in describing the bouquet.”
If the author is not telling any ‘stories’, what is the reward for the poor reader? The reader gets a unique opportunity to live through the period. The cacophony (or, polyphony, as the Nobel committee’s much-quoted citation said) of voices slowly seeps into his or her head. Reading becomes experiential. Soviet dissident literature might have described gulags, but the conversationists in this book tell about deprivations in everyday life, like craving for salami. The word “salami”, by the way, has a high hit count in conversations in the book. So does “blue jeans”.
Alexievich had to invent a new genre to make the reader feel history as it was shaping up in unlikely nooks, like a Moscow kitchen. A new genre, because she had no literary models before her to follow. The nearest thing to her kind of writing can, perhaps, be found not in books, but in Dziga Vertov’s classic movie on ordinary daily life in a city in Soviet Russia, Man with a Movie Camera. Like Vertov, Alexievich moved around with a voice recorder. Her earlier books like Chernobyl Prayer were limited in scope, but in Secondhand Time, the canvas is big. It is not just Russia, but the whole of the former USSR, and it is a developing story that has only managed to snake through two tumultuous decades. The lady with a voice recorder had to travel far and wide.
As the book’s subtitle — The Last of the Soviets — suggests, most of the conversations veer back to the Soviet era. The Stalinist period is mostly second-hand history, with children speaking about dead parents who lived through it. The immediate era — the Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin years — made people agitated and articulate. Mikhail Gorbachev flickers in some pages, never shines steadily.The putsch in August 1991 seemed to halt perestroika. It had put Gorbachev under house arrest and threatened to bring back the old Soviet rule. Spontaneously, people came out on the streets of Moscow, ready to face tanks. But the soldiers in those tanks did nothing. In three days, the putschists surrendered. Alexievich captured the impact of the milestone event in three different periods. Shortly after the putsch, a person recounted the heady days when the tanks rolled out. A year later, on the anniversary of the putsch, we hear someone saying, “I’m afraid of freedom, it feels like some drunk guy could show up and burn down my dacha at any moment.” On the 10th anniversary of the putsch in 2001, the author found that most of her interlocutors had wanted the putschists to succeed: “They would have saved a great country from ruin.”
The book is like a time-lapse movie without end. People talk, and talk differently at different times. It is so full of varied voices that Alexievich cannot possibly be faulted on the grounds of any bias. She writes about herself, “I wanted to be a cold-blooded historian, not one who is holding a blazing torch. Let time be the judge. Time is just only in the long run.” Secondhand Time is like a time capsule filled with discrete voices for people to listen to now, and in times to come. It is one of the rare examples of what happens when the lions — and not the hunters — write history.