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Context and Culture

Literature Nobel Prize for Svetlana Alexievich, author of 1990 Afghanistan book Zinky Boys

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among her many breath-taking and deeply unsettling books is one about Afghanistan. Published in 1990, Zinky Boys is based on interviews with former Soviet soldiers and their relatives in her Belorussian home country in the second half of the 1980s, then still a Soviet republic. The book revealed Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan – what they did not only to Afghans but also to the young men sent to fight there, who often did not know exactly where they had been sent. Thomas Ruttig, AAN co-director and happy about the excellent choice of the Nobel Prize committee, looks at this particular book, worth the world’s top prize for literature alone.

Svetlana Alexievich, during the 2015 Ryszard Kapuściński prize ceremony, Warsaw. Photo: Charta97.org.Svetlana Alexievich, during the 2015 Ryszard Kapuściński prize ceremony, Warsaw. Photo: Charta97.org.

When Svetlana Alexievich received the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize of the City of Osnabrück in 2001 (1) – one of the most prestigious awards in Germany – the leading weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, wrote:

If there is anybody whose works one wants to see honoured currently for the sake of the hopeless, then it is this 52 [now 67] year old Belorussian.

This you can now say again.

The Nobel Committee, noting that she had remained true to her documentary style, said they had honoured her for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Newspapers’ feature pages here in Germany, have reviewed her work in superlatives every time a new book comes out. In the Soviet Union, much of her work was heavily edited, if it was published at all. In Belorussia, where she lives again after 11 years of exile, some are still unavailable.

The first of Alexievich’s books this author encountered was War’s Unwomanly Face – about the more than one million women who fought in the Red Army during World War II. She wrote about it – as she could have written about almost all her books:

I wanted to write about the lunacy of war – not about victory.

 

Zinky Boys

Alexievich’s 1990 masterpiece is Zinkowije maltschiki. Meaning “boys in zinc” and translated as Zinky Boys for its English publication, its title refers to the zinc coffins dead soldiers were shipped back home in from the Afghan war. (2) Zinky Boys was a key book on Afghanistan for me, and very likely for many living in the former socialist countries. It was a real eye-opener, not because it revealed facts previously unknown (there had already been many documentaries about the war and the crimes committed during it), but because it told Soviet soldiers’ unvarnished experiences of the Afghan War. Through their eyes, and their relatives’, the damage the war did to both victims and perpetrators became so extraordinarily vivid. It cut through all the old pre-Gorbachev propaganda of ‘internationalist mission’, the building of hospitals and schools (which did happen, but still…). It also cut through the Cold War fog, going beyond the mirror image message of the West which lionised the Afghan freedom fighters – and forgot them as soon as the Soviets had left.

It is also, like all her work – on whatever subject – among the best books I have ever read.

Die Zeit, again, wrote:

To quote from Svetlana Alexievich’s books which include (…) the “Zinky Boys” about the Afghanistan war, is as impossible as from any literature that deserves the name. Because Alexievich is not simply a chronicler or documentarist-witness, she is a poet of literary textures which cannot be abbreviated and only in its entirety can provide that shock that changes the view on the world.

Even so, maybe it is possible to quote from her Diary Notes on the book:

 

14 June 1986

I had decided not to write about war anymore. When my book War’s Unwomanly Face was finalised, I could not bear anymore even a child with a bloody nose; I turned away when anglers, happy about their catch, threw it into the sand on the river bank…

On the way to the weekend dacha, we picked up a school girl with our car. The little one had been shopping in Minsk… In the village, her wining mother greeted us at the garden’s gate. “Mama!” The girl ran to her. “Oh my child! Andrey has written. He is in Afghanistan… They will bring him to us like Fyodorinovs’ Ivan. For a small child, a small pit is enough, but our son is big and strong like an oak… two metres tall… ‘You can be proud about me, Mama, I am with the airborne troops,’ he writes.”

 

Or an episode last year [ie 1985]:

… At the bus station, in the half-empty waiting lounge an officer with a suitcase, next to him a shaven-headed, skinny young soldier who, with a fork, was poking in a flower pot with a withering plant. Two village women sat down next to them unselfconsciously, ask, where the men were coming from, where they were going. The officer was to take the boy home, he had gone mad. “Since Kabul he digs with everything he can put his hand on… Shovel, fork, sticks, pens…” The soldier looks up. “We must hide… I will dig a hole for you… I am quick with it… We call it a mass grave… I dig a big for all of you…”

 

5-25 September 1988

From report [by people interviewed, ie not Alexievich’s own observations]:

In the hospital I saw how a Russian girl put a teddy bear on the bed of an Afghan boy. He took it with his teeth and played with it because he had no arms. “Your Russians dis this,” the words of his mother were translated to me. “Do you have children? What? Boy or girl?” I don’t know until this day what was bigger in her eyes – terror or forgiveness.

[Author’s working translation from German]

Read on here (in German, only, though).

Svetlana Alexievich’s full biography and bibliography can be found on the official Nobel Prize website.

Her own homepage (with some reviews in English) is here.

 

(1) It was in Osnabrück that the Peace of Westphalia which ended the 30 Years War was signed in 1648. It is also the birthplace of Erich Maria Remarque, author of the world-famed All Quiet on the Western Front (1928).

(2) Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War, translated by Julia and Robin Whitby, London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.

Cover of the 1991 German version of Zinky Boys.

Cover of the 1991 German version of Zinky Boys.

 

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Afghan War Literature Nobel Prize Svetlana Alexievich Zinky Boys

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