‘Human Ear’ Svetlana Alexievich Redefines Journalism

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

By and large, there’s no difference between literature and journalism. In both cases, the professional tool is the word, the idea, the authorial treatment, the inner compulsion, and the value system that allows thought to become text

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to EU resident, Belarusian author writing in Russian Svetlana Alexievich. The wording is as follows: “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.

The word “polyphonic” is very apt, as Alexievich’s books are constructed in a style of non-fiction prose that it creates not only polyphony, but also in polyphonic harmony singles out each person one by one, making his fate, feelings, and even accent unique and unparalleled. Among the mass, she finds and makes visible the person, his emotions, thoughts, way of life, and the horrors he survived.

This is very close to the technique used in the theater in the last few decades: verbatim stories are based on the real remarks of real people, which are transcribed and heard from the stage as fictional text. In this case, it so happens that what is primary is the subject matter, which is studied and which suggests the structure of the completed work. 

The devices are simple: direct speech, interviews (many and long), and a desire not to intentionally interrupt the downpour of words. The author distances herself, excludes, and disappears from the book, allowing instead for her characters’ polyphonic choir to be heard (in first person). In Alexievich’s books, the characters’ monologues are interrupted only by neutral actions (brought the recorder closer, sighed, smiled, stayed silent for a long time, asked to end the conversation). Nothing else is said on behalf of the author. 

And so, the reader begins to accept the text as a living person’s emotion, as fact, and with that, he participates in recovering collective memory.

This technique is journalism. After all, journalism is not writing the news, but opening up subjects. In other words, outlining thoughts. 

“I do not stand alone at this podium … There are voices around me, hundreds of voices. They have always been with me,” said Alexievich at the start of her Nobel lecture, adding later, “I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”

Alexievich received a Nobel Prize not for avant-gardist techniques and a unique style, but for her civic position and making human voices heard. And this provides a good opportunity to reflect on literature and journalism — roughly speaking, to understand the role today of the profession of stringing words together.

By and large, there’s no difference between literature and journalism. Even if outstanding writers don’t think that, it’s preferable for journalists to be certain about this. In both cases, the professional tool is the word, the idea, the authorial treatment, the inner compulsion, and the value system that allows thought to become text. 

Journalistic text is not subordinate; in its best examples, it always strives to be a certain summary. For instance, to become a compendium of that which is untold but felt; aligning incidents and figures side by side, to catch the nerve and issues of time.

“What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting — even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators,” said Alexievich.

The calamities of the 20th century (the wars, genocides, natural and man-made disasters, and repressions) are so heinous in themselves and left such serious consequences on all humankind that there’s no need even to invent or search for artistic expression. Fiction cannot compete with documentary and is always less compelling than life itself. 

Least for the reason that life is more brutal than any fiction. And life is more fragile than we can formulate it with words. 

And in this respect, Svetlana Alexievich has made a tremendous contribution. She is so ambitious while at the same time discreet that she has found the strength to exclude herself from her composed texts.

Her books are a slow read, even difficult. But if you get hold of the rhythm of the text, various questions will gnaw at your throat. A human life is zero from history’s point of view, especially if he is fated to live under the ideological conditions of an inhumane system. When man is acclimatized to death but not given the chance to feel the pleasure of living.

Alexievich says she has collected the history of “domestic,” “indoor” socialism, bit by bit: “The ‘Red Empire’ is gone, but the ‘Red Man,’ homo sovieticus, remains. He endures.”

And it may seem contradictory, but unlike life, literature is logical and consistent. And when there’s a need to give meaning to the past, we don’t need authors who write fictional texts. We need those who deliver speech in the first person. We need documentation and journalists/writers who render them. 

“My teacher, Ales Adamovich […] felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche’s words come to mind — no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it,” said Alexievich.

And it’s encouraging that the collector of facts and the finder of a point of view is always an individual. And Alexievich, “hiding” behind her characters’ speech, is more of an author than all other writers. She finds in the past that which fails to see the future.

Journalism has now been depreciated as much as human life. And the issue is that journalists have rare opportunities to see their work as a chain. Or, to see their works placed and given importance in the future.

The opinion is wrong that a journalist is someone who invents or extracts topical, transitory, or sensational pieces, whom few like and whom it’s very easy to chide or bribe.

Imagine that each of us brings together all the texts written in our life in one conventional novel. What would result or happen? And would it even?

Svetlana Alexievich’s books are a good occasion to understand the personal it-worked-out/it-didn’t-work-out. Isn’t it that it happens and you become someone in journalism when you have something to say and you know how to say it?

“Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. […] I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion,” she said.

In illogical situations (for example, that described in Alexievich’s last novel Second-Hand Time), when man is given freedom but he, confused and perplexed, thinks that his life’s time has been stolen from him, ‘human ears’ are very important. 

Important are journalists who, in their profession, are able to create the anti-utopian picture of their time.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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