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Translated by Bela Shayevich
From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.
Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.
As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.
‘I asked everyone I met what ‘freedom’ meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience – it’s like they’re from different planets.’ From an extract in the Times Literary Supplement
‘The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union…Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union…Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her an acute critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia…Her non-fiction works as a kind of anti-fiction, and alternative to the alternative realities which, in both Russia and Belarus, arise behind the blindfold of a double nostalgia: of today’s ruling elite for the 1970s and 1980s, which were themselves a time of manufactured nostalgia for the Soviet 1930s and 1940s…Her Nobel Prize will expand the Russian world of letters, since her prose is accessible not only to those who share her background and concerns but to younger people who can learn from her what the Soviet Union was and what its legacy means.’
‘For the past thirty or forty years she’s been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual. But it’s not really a history of events. It’s a history of emotions.’
‘Alexievich builds her narratives about Russian national traumas…by interviewing those who lived them, and immersing herself deeply in their testimonies. But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices.’
‘In this spellbinding book, Svetlana Alexievich orchestrates a rich symphony of Russian voices telling their stories of love and death, joy and sorrow, as they try to make sense of the twentieth century, so tragic for their country.’
‘Secondhand Time is [Alexievich’s] most ambitious work: many women and a few men talk about the loss of the Soviet idea, the post-Soviet ethnic wars, the legacy of the Gulag, and other aspects of the Soviet experience…Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition.’
‘Ms Alexievich’s work fits into a longstanding literary tradition of deeply reported narrative nonfiction written with the sweep and the style of a novel. Practitioners includes luminaries like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion…Her most recent book, Secondhand Time, is her biggest and most ambitious.’
‘The people she talks to, the co-authors of her books, are working people, women and elderly people – precisely those who are left behind…Alexievich’s voices are those of the people no one cares about, but the ones whose lives constitute the vast majority of what history actually is…This is history, major history, but written, as all history should be, from below.’
‘If you want to understand contemporary Russia, Second-hand Time is essential reading…The voices of her interlocutors are hauntingly real.’
‘Alexievich’s interview technique focuses on the mundanity of individual lives. Out of this, a bigger picture, and the bigger questions, emerge…Like [Dostoevsky], she is concerned with universal human values, such as truth, rather than specific national political concerns.’
‘A sprawling examination of life in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a feral brand of capitalism…Secondhand Time is an avalanche of engrossing talk. The most ancient grievances are churned up. (“Genghis Khan ruined our gene pool.”) So are the freshest longings.‘
‘[A] masterpiece…Apart from being a splendid instance of the craft of the oral historian Secondhand Time is a magnificent work of literary art. This vast panorama can justly be regarded I think as the War and Peace of our age…In this “history of human feelings” she makes her speakers live vividly and unforgettably in a book that will at times bring its readers close to tears.’
‘It’s a meaty read and also incredibly significant and respectful to those whose stories appear in its pages.’
‘A mosaic of pain and loss, hope and betrayal, fear and anger. It is profoundly moving. At its heart though is a deep empathy for a people who have experienced some of the worst humanity, yet found a way to cope. It is both inspiring and devastating.’
‘Alexievich’s work follows the strands of thought and emotion wherever her voices take her — through nightmares, but also flashes of joy…The work is unique in the intimacy of the experience transmitted through the writing: which is, after all, only the ability to have a human ear, to listen, and to publish.’
‘[An] epic fresco of an empire’s bitter aftermath…Alexievich retreats into the wings to let her subjects speak. But this is the art that conceals art. Her editor’s flair for selection, contrast and emphasis, her almost cinematic touch with cuts, pans and close-ups, make her a documentary virtuoso and not a transcription machine.’
‘This landmark work from the 2015 Nobel Prize winner is a deeply empathic oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union; open at any page and you will be moved. Importantly, the diverse voices offer an alternative version of the ‘official’ history, and powerfully convey the emotional upheaval experienced by real people.’
‘A rich and textured history.’
‘Harrowing…To describe the book as a vast collection of oral testimonies is to underestimate the achievement of this superbly crafted “history of human feelings.“’
‘The goddess of ‘‘high journalism’’— that form without a name—is Svetlana Alexievich…Her masterpiece, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, [is] a panorama of the lives of ordinary people who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’ve never read anything to touch her work—the tremendous scale of her inquiry, and yet the intimacy of the experiences she records. Her powers of compression fill me with awe.’
‘The book of the year, if not the decade…Alexievich is not the author so much as the compiler of this collective self-portrait. The quality of focus, attention and empathy in her work of listening and interviewing is balanced by the depth of emotion—love, desire, longing for grace—that she records in her subjects…Both in formal terms, as a piece of literature, and in moral terms, as a tribute to the human spirit, this is an essential work.’
‘One of the most compelling books that I’ve read in a while…Full of hope and disillusionment, humour and anger, it’s a moving testament to the lives history leaves in its wake.’