dystopia Posts

The brave new mediocre: ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood reviewed by Anil Menon

Anil Menon wrote a fantastic review of Booker winner 2019 Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments for the Hindu. The review was published in print on Sunday, 27 October 2019 and in digital on Saturday, 26 October 2019. Here is the original url. With Anil Menon’s permission I am c&p the text below.

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A dystopian novel is where the Enlightenment goes to die. Since we’re awash in dystopian novels, perhaps it suggests that far from fearing this eventuality — the onset of a dark age — perhaps we’ve become resigned to it. As Cavafy suggests in his poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ for those weary of civilisation, barbarity may even represent “a kind of solution.”

There are two kinds of dystopias. In dystopias of the first kind — represented by Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and their numerous progeny — the prison gates are locked from the outside. This means there’s an inside and an outside; there’s a jailor and the jailed; there are secret messages and secret societies; there are betrayals and breakouts; and at the end, a door is either closed for good or left ever so slightly ajar for a sequel to squeeze through. In dystopias of the second kind — represented by Huxley’s Brave New World — the prison gates are locked from the inside. There’s no need for jailors, because the people have jailed themselves. These novels are much harder to write.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopia of the first kind, and at the end of the story, she chose to leave the door ajar. Thirty-four years later, the much-awaited sequel, The Testaments, tells the rest of the tale. For those who came in late, a brief recap might help. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that the U.S. has fragmented into a number of independent republics, and one of the largest fragments — the Republic of Gilead — is now run by a Puritan theocracy.

Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all theocracies are alike. The men are men; uninformed and uniformed, and uniformly jerks. But women in Gilead come in four basic models: the Aunts, celibate women in charge of female indoctrination; the Wives, who are just that; the Marthas, who do manual labour; and the Handmaids, who are wombs-on-rent. Then there are the whores. Of course, there are no whores in Gilead, just as there was no poverty in the Soviet Union.

This set-up offers a lot of scope for misery, and in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood used all the fine English at her disposal to depict just how ghastly a world based on the Womb and nothing but the Womb would be. This world is a dystopia not (only) because men have total power over women, but because women have been coerced, persuaded, indoctrinated, habituated into oppressing other women.

It’s clear Gilead is in deep trouble. Their science is Biblical, their society Saudi, their never-ending wars Balkan, and their economics Soviet. Dystopias of the first kind always have lousy economics. Consequently, for all the horror, the reader may relax: it’s only a matter of time. Nonetheless, it seems some readers couldn’t relax. Atwood mentions in the acknowledgements that she wrote The Testaments to answer a persistent query: “How did Gilead fall?” The urge to please readers is always inimical to great literature.

The Testaments is a plot-heavy novel and has three storylines. The first deals with the musings and machinations of Aunt Lydia, the most powerful of the four Founders of Gilead’s Aunt institution; the second with Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead; and the third with seemingly ordinary Daisy, who lives in Toronto and is being raised by two very nice and seemingly ordinary people. Daisy turns out to be not so ordinary, and her storyline is the usual Hero’s journey. Agnes serves no real purpose other than to illustrate the life of a “privileged” teen in Gilead. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia serves up info-dumps, while she waits for Daisy to turn up in Gilead and set the republic’s destruction in motion. The last dozen chapters compress everything into summaries, hasty action scenes, and neat resolutions.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, whose protagonist Offred is entirely ordinary, all the key characters in the sequel are exalted in some way. They are important on account of destiny or social role or birth or ability. It’s not just The Testaments’ plot-heavy nature or its disinterest in ordinariness that gives it a genre feel. Atwood has always had an interest in plot. But she is also interested in subtext. The Handmaid’s Tale had a plot — a threadbare one, to be sure, but there was one — and loads of subtext.

In The Testaments, however, there’s virtually no subtext. The meaning is all on the surface. What you see is what you get. Events cause other events, obstacles are external, sections end on cliffhangers, and characters remain unchanged by the plot. In Atwood’s short story ‘Happy Ending’ (now a writing workshop staple used to discourage plot-intensive stories), she remarks that plots are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” That’s not true, but here, in this novel, it is just that.

The writing is always competent — this is Atwood after all — but it could’ve been written by any competent writer. The Handmaid’s Tale requires one to pause frequently and contemplate, as when Atwood writes of a character who has just entered a room: “He was so momentary, he was so condensed.” Or “Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now.” The Testaments offers few such pleasures. At one point, in the middle of a flashback on how the Gilead Republic came to be, Aunt Lydia, bored by the all-too-predictable violence, tells us: “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment.” So too is a novel in the throes of enacting an unnecessary sequel.

This novel is entertaining enough; a film starring Meryl Streep is sure to follow. It boggles the mind however that the novel was even shortlisted for the Booker, let alone managing to win a share of the prize. Perhaps this is truly the age of the “new mediocre,” as The New York Times fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, recently said in another context. Brave new mediocre. If we have lost the ability to distinguish a mediocre literary effort from a superlative one, or worse, if we have lost the courage to even acknowledge there is a problem, then it is not corrupt institutions we should fear. It is ourselves. There is no rescuing prisoners who fancy themselves free.

30 October 2019

An interview with Bina Shah on her feminist dystopic novel “Before She Sleeps”

Before She Sleeps is Pakistani writer Bina Shah’s fifth novel. ( On Twitter: @binashah ) It is about an “illegal” commune of women who reside in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Green City. Their space is called Panah which in Persian means shelter. These women are led by a leader, Lina, and only appear under the cover of darkness. They survive by paying their bills in cryptocurrency with purchases usually made on the black market. Their business is to offer platonic cuddles to male clients in Green City but it is all to be kept under wraps otherwise the “Agency” will hunt them down. The story revolves mostly around twenty-four-year-old Sabine who has been living in Panah since she was seventeen.

The premise for Before She Sleeps is so plausible since it seems much of it already exists if we search long and hard. None of this is really fiction, it’s only pushing the boundaries of truth or reality as we know it today a little further. The Panah can be a metaphor for the silent community women tend to form together even in the most public of spaces with one or two looked up to as guides/mentors. This bonding happens amongst strangers too. Sometimes it is fleeting, sometimes more permanent. Though the dark side of the viciousness of women towards other women too exists.

The relevance of Before She Sleeps with references to “rare whales and giant turtles that had been cloned back into existence”. More so given recent news coming in of 40,000-year-old worms being revived to life. Or “All beef, eggs, in fact anything natural, is created in a lab with synthetic polymers, proteins, DNA.” as news trickles in of meat being manufactured in labs.

Yet the further one reads Before She Sleeps the sense that the story is an excuse for the author’s personality and beliefs that run deep through, definitely more in this book than any of the previous novels Bina Shah wrote. Before She Sleeps will become her transitional work in her oeuvre in time to come. It’s the channelling of herself into a new kind of writer, one who does not abandon her past but looks ahead firmly taking along with her all the recent socio-political experiences accrued. The gender violence evident in the discrimination towards women (otherwise why would there be such a shortage of women in the city?), the persistent patriarchal constructs of social rules of engagement, the very recognisable authoritarian figures in most of the male characters even the nameless ones like Rupa’s “father” who tries to rape her are symptomatic of her simmering rage against the horrors that perpetrated towards women continuously. There is undeniably something different in this novel as compared to her early works. Take for example the section on recipes. “When I found the cookbook, it’s spidery, ethereal handwriting already fading from the pages, I wanted desperately to save it’s contents, if not it’s form. Our mothers, aunts, grandmothers live only in representations of their lives as we, their daughters, try to re-create them.” This is not an off-the-cuff observation by a novelist but it is a sharp observation by Bina, the woman, the thinker, the opinion maker, who has been mulling on this truth for a very long time. In her correspondence with me, Bina Shah says “Unfortunately I think what caused that beyond a doubt was the assassination of my friend Sabeen Mahmud. Suddenly everything because so much more intense, grief-filled, and serious, when I was writing the novel back in 2015. I poured all my emotions about her death – anger, grief, fear, helplessness – into the book, into Sabine’s thoughts.”

Before She Sleeps is an important addition to the rapidly expanding science fiction literature from South Asia and increasingly from the Middle East.

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Bina Shah has recently become a regular contributor to the International New York Times. She is a Pakistani writer who is a frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to GrantaThe Independent, and The Guardian and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the top English-language newspaper in Pakistan. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel Slum Child was a bestseller in Italy, and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. A Season for Martyrs is her U.S. debut. She lives in Karachi.

  1. “No citizen is permitted to write or maintain a personal journal or diary” Is the crux of this dystopia is it not? Women need these private spaces to share their thoughts but you take it away they are walking bombs, ready to explore at any moment. This is reality. How and why did you devise this horrific rule?

A regime doesn’t want witnesses to its horrors, and diaries and journals are specific forms of resistance. I was thinking of the diary of Anne Frank, but also the diary that Malala Yousufzai kept under the Taliban and published in the BBC as Gul Makkai. They are historical records as much as personal accounts, and most authoritarian regimes don’t want evidence of the crimes they’ve perpetrated on their victims.

2. How and why did you start thinking of Before She Sleeps especially when the modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be published and now exists on television too?

I wrote a short story called “Sleep” which became the first chapter of my novel, back in 2006. I added to it until it became about 100 pages long. Then I left it in a drawer, thinking it was a ridiculous premise and I couldn’t execute it. I took the short story to a literature festival in Copenhagen in 2013, and when I read it to the audience, the poet Warsan Shire, who was also there, told me that I had to turn it into a novel. I listened to her, and started working on it in 2014, long before the television series came out. The Handmaid’s Tale was not much of an influence on my work. 1984 by George Orwell was much more on my mind in the devising of such an authoritarian regime. But also the dictatorships that I have lived under in Pakistan, and those of secular dictators in Middle Eastern countries, as well as repressive Islamist regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

3. Isn’t this novel quite a shift for you in the stories you select to tell though the strong women remain the focal point? 

It’s a change in genre which was risky and quite frightening for me as a writer. It’s easier and more comfortable to stick with what you have always been doing. But it represented a huge challenge and I decided to give it a try.

4. Has your maintaining the Feminstani blog and writing for papers like The New York Times informed your writing style for novels? Do you notice a shift in the way you present material?

I don’t write the same way in a novel as I do in my blog or my journalism. The writing I do for fiction is more poetic, more musical, more laden with references to other texts, literary (poetry and prose), artwork, religion (there are Quranic references, influences from Sufism, Islamic philosophy), and politics and history. It’s much more creative than my blog or my journalism can ever be.

 5. “My fear is an animal I can’t hide”. Isn’t this true of all women? 

It’s true of all humans sometimes.

6. Why choose the first person narrative to tell this story for Sabine and third person for the others?

Only Sabine has the first person narrative and that is to make you feel more close to her. It’s more intimate. The others are all told in third person. I wanted to distinguish Sabine from the other narrators, make you feel more invested in her story. I needed both men and women to lend their voices to this narrative, to show the effects of the regime on both genders. I’m making the argument that a world without the female gender is an unbalanced world, and hurts everyone. Most proponents of male domination don’t seem to understand that at all.

7. Is this your first spec-fic book? How did you invent terms like “currency stick”, genetic switch chips, virtual tunnels on the Deep Web, memory slips, and thought-to-device to name a few innovations mentioned? 

It’s my first speculative fiction, dystopian book. I never imagined I’d write one. I made up those technologies that you mention. Others, like lab-made meat, or cloned animals, seemed a logical extension of the science we have already, although I did write about them long before they came into the news.

8. How much research this novel require?

A lot! I did a lot of research on the science, since several of the main characters are scientists. I also researched the geographical area I was writing about. I travelled to Dubai several times to observe the landscape, the buildings. And I was caught in a huge dust storm the likes of which I’ve never seen in my life. It appears in a seminal scene in the book as a kind of deus ex machina.

9. “Sometimes I’m seized by sorrow at the position we’re all in, how fragile our inner safeguards against the betrayals that can happen to us in many ways, internal and external.” Why do I get the impression that this is a lament by Sabine not just for the immediate story but by you as well at a larger level too?  

It seems a fairly self-evident observation about the world. I’m sure all of us have felt this way at least once in our lives.

10. What is the short story that this novel grew out of? Is it available online? 

No, it’s not available online, it was only published in Denmark by a boutique publisher in a very limited edition. Sorry – but this one is miles better!

Buy the hardback and Kindle edition on Amazon India.

14 August 2018 

 

A Q&A with Australian author and 2016 Stella Prize-winner Charlotte Wood ( Bookwitty.com)

I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below. 

From Stella Prize website

From Stella Prize website

Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.

These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.

It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures  across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.

It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”

Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.

The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.

Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.

Why this story? What inspired it?

Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.

From The Inconvenient Child

But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.

Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.

I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.

And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.

At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.

How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.

CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.

Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?

CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.

How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?

CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?

Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?

CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.

If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?

CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.

You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things here.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)