Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich

I was eleven or perhaps twelve years old when I learned that ignorance is no excuse for anything.

That revelation completely changed the way I viewed the world. I ran to my parents, separately, I remember, my eyes wide. I said to each of them, “Ignorance is no excuse!” It won’t save anyone from the repercussions of whatever they are ignorant of. You can die as a result of ignorance or you can participate in something evil as a result of ignorance.

As I remember it, my parents did not say anything. There is much I would think as a result of my eleven-year-old coming to me with such a revelation, and I am not sure I would know what to respond, either. But it was a big moment, and it came from reading a novel.

Now I wonder which novel gave me such an insight, but I cannot remember. I was an ordinary schoolgirl, with no special access to literature. I read too much, my sisters said, and most of them were bodice-rippers…

This book reminds me of that moment of realization. The insights into what man is and how he responds to national, political, and personal trauma come fast and hard in this work. Alexievich begins by recording voices from the Gorbachev years: “Those were wonderful, naïve years…” Both for and against Gorbachev, the voices record people’s naiveté. They had an excuse, the lack of reliable, comprehensive news coverage being one of them, but it would not save them from their future nor their past.

There is simply nothing to compare with this fabulous reconstruction of the lives of people under communism and after. Alexievich records the stories of people under the dictatorship of the people, and there is so much nuance, so much pain, fear, crazy love, faith, and delusion tied in with people’s understanding of those years that it becomes as clear a record of what humanity is that we have.

“Changing the nature of man” was on the table. From the sounds of some voices, it succeeded on every measure. But if nature can be changed, we question again that "nature." Naomi Klein tells us man is not hopelessly greedy but it is hard to see that when greed is rewarded and protected. The Soviet Union, Russia, has gone through enormous social upheaval in the last one hundred years, and Alexievich manages to give us a window through which we can begin to see what happened to people. It is breathtaking.

Among the voices are ordinary folk, high Kremlin officials, members of the brigades who spent their days shooting “enemies of the people.” We see what they were thinking at the time and what they are thinking now. Because governance the world over has many similarities, constraints, and imperatives, everyone who can read should see how governance actually plays out, no matter what we believe.

Alexievich has taken memory and made literature. For me, it will be one of the most meaningful books I have ever come across. I listened to the Penguin Random House Audio version of this, narrated by a full cast. It was beautifully done, and I highly recommend this method of consumption.

An interesting piece written by Sophie Pinkham in the New Republic magazine gives us some insight into how Alexievich may have gone about constructing her work. I disagree with Pinkham's conclusions, but her dogged research into the creation of the work itself reveals how this work has become Art.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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