"I perceive the world through the medium of human voices," Svetlana Alexievich declares near the end of "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War," explaining both her method and her point of view. For Alexievich — who in October became just the third nonfiction writer and 14th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature — testimony may be as close as one can get to faith.
"We've worshipped many gods," she writes in this slender but vivid account, told in the voices of survivors of the Soviet Afghan war. "Some have been consigned to the scrapheap, others to museums. Let us make Truth into a god! A god before whom each of us shall answer according to his own conscience, and not as a class, or a university year, or a collective, or a people...."
Truth of course is a relative concept, especially when it comes to war. This is especially the case with the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan, a nine-year incursion so steeped in secrecy that until 1985 (the fighting began in December 1979), Soviet citizens were told that troops had been sent to Afghanistan to work on humanitarian and infrastructure projects, fulfilling what was euphemistically called "international duty."
Even the bodies of those who died in the fighting were kept under wraps, returned home in zinc coffins (hence the title of this book) that were not allowed to be opened, buried in the dead of night. Once the story of the war began to be told, the narrative became one of national embarrassment.
"In the last war everyone was in mourning," a young widow tells Alexievich, "there wasn't a family in the land that hadn't lost some loved one. Women wept together then. There's a staff of 100 in the catering college where I work, and I'm the only one who had a husband killed in a war which all the rest have only read about in the papers. I wanted to smash the screen the first time I heard someone on television say that Afghanistan was our shame. That was the day I buried my husband a second time."
"Zinky Boys" is not a new piece of work; it was first published in the United States in 1992 and has been reissued in the wake of its author's Nobel win. Even so, the power of the book remains these voices: widows, mothers, veterans, all lost in a society that finds them of little utility.
They are reminders of a period that official culture would rather be forgotten, which is precisely what makes them of such interest to Alexievich. It is in their small stories, after all, individual and particular, that the larger story of the war begins to emerge. Not only that, but the voices here become the tools by which the broader social fiction may be broken down.
To get at this, Alexievich lets her subjects speak in their own words, one after the other, until the act of reading becomes a kind of slow immersion, and the sheer scope of the loss and the corruption reveals itself. This is only heightened by the decision not to name her sources; they are identified here only in the most generic terms. The effect is of confronting a series of everymen and everywomen, archetypal and yet wholly specific — or perhaps more accurately, interchangeable: What happened to them could happen to anyone.
"We didn't betray our Motherland," argues an artillery private. "I did my duty as a soldier as honestly as I could. Nowadays it's called a 'dirty war,' but how does that fit in with ideas like Patriotism, the People and Duty? Is the word 'Motherland' just a meaningless term to you? We did what the Motherland asked of us."
Such a statement highlights the key tension of "Zinky Boys," and, indeed, of Alexievich's entire body of work: that between rhetoric and reality. Her best-known books, "War's Unwomanly Face," which recalls the Second World War through the experiences of women, and "Voices of Chernobyl," which won a 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for its unsparing portrayal of the nuclear meltdown and its aftermath, operate according to a similar principle: that the most effective role for a journalist is to let people tell their own stories in their own ways.
Call it oral history, call it, as the Swedish Academy did, "a history of emotions, … a history of the soul" — what it amounts to a devastating set of truths. "You soon got used to it," a reconnaissance operative observes of hand-to-hand killing. "It was less a psychological problem than the technical challenge of actually finding the upper vertebrae, heart or liver." Judge his comment however you wish, but what is undeniable is the sense of his perspective, his experience, the dehumanization war exerts on even those who survive.
In that regard, what Alexievich is doing is giving voice to the voiceless, exposing not only stories we wouldn't otherwise hear but individuals as well. Read through such a filter, her work becomes essentially democratic, with its insistence that by speaking for ourselves, we speak out for everyone.
Things have changed a lot since the original publication of "Zinky Boys"; once considered a parallel for Vietnam, Russia's experience in Afghanistan now seems to mirror our own misbegotten involvement there. The more we know, the more we know, I suppose, although just listen to the current hate speech, the demonization, public and private, of refugees, and it seems we haven't learned anything at all.
Either way, Alexievich wants us to understand, all we have in the end are our stories, and what they have to tell us about how we live. "Sometimes I feel I've been alive for ever," a young widow confides, "and yet my memories are so few."
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
Translated by Julia and Robin Whitby
Introduction by Larry Heinemann
W.W. Norton: 198 pp., $15.95 paper