Writer Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus wins Nobel Prize for literature

October 8, 2015 • 8:20 am

The Nobel Prizes I follow most closely are those in biology (“Physiology or Medicine”) and literature. This year’s literature prize was just announced, and it went to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer from Belarus born in 1948. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her, but the Nobel Committee cited her for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. She is only the 14th woman to win the literature award out of 111 awarded since 1901.

Wikipedia notes this:

Her books are described as a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person. Her most notable works in English translation are about first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) and a highly praised oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl). She describes the theme of her works this way:

“If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.”

There’s always speculation about the Prize, with most Anglophones touting other Anglophones. The Guardian lists some possible contenders (but the Manila Times guessed correctly):

Alexievich, Haruki Murakami of Japan, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, Ireland’s John Banville and American writers Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth were among those with the shortest odds from bookmakers to win the 2015 prize. Other names raised as possible winners were Romania’s Mircea Cărtărescu, Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), Italy’s Umberto Eco, Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah or Nigeria’s Ben Okri.

But kudos to Alexievich, and I hope to become acquainted with her (translated) works. Those readers familiar with that work are invited to weigh in below.

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Svetlana Alexievich

5 thoughts on “Writer Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus wins Nobel Prize for literature

  1. An impossible prize to award! Well, clearly that is absurd – it IS possible & they DID award it, but I mean literature in different languages when even within one language it is really hard to weigh two writers… & the judges have to possibly read in translation which is really reading the translator – who rarely gets acknowledged properly. The only author in the Manila Times list I have read is Jon Fosse. Doesn’t poor Ben Okri get tipped every year?

  2. My vote is for Professor Ceiling Cat!! Speaking of which I just received my copy of A Brief Candle by that other great evolutionary scientist (I forget his name). I quickly went to the index to locate Professor Ceiling Cat and to my relief he is mentioned on p. 180. Can’t wait to get to that part.

  3. I’m sorry to say I’m not familiar with Ms. Alexievich’s work either.

    But, really, what more could Philip Roth have done to be deserving of this award? Hard to believe that anyone else has a corpus that compares, especially after Roth’s great autumn run — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America — followed his late surge of contemplation-of-mortality novels in the winter of his discontent: The Dying Animal, Everyman, Exit Ghost, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis.

    If the Nobel Lit Committee fails to honor Roth, it will go down as one of its great omissions and redound to the prize’s diminution in stature.

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