For the past few years, every time the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded, a certain number of journalists contact me about the winner, asking for information since, for the most part, they’ve never read or heard of these authors. Patrick Modiano. Herta Mueller. Mo Yan. Surprisingly, or maybe not so, I knew a bit about those authors. Had read a book, or seen them speak, or was generally aware of their work. But still, it wasn’t like I was an expert—just someone with a lifelong interest in books from places I don’t live.
So, today has been crazy, because for once, I know some specifics!
As you probably already know, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the only book of hers currently in print and available at the best bookstores is Voices from Chernobyl, a book that I worked on a decade ago at Dalkey Archive Press.
This was a HUGE book for us at the time. It was a book that Ana Lucic—an intern at that time, I think, or a recently hired foreign editor—did a sample from and brought to the rest of us. After deciding to publish it, and working out the rights—a story I told to my publishing class just last week!—I got Keith Gessen to translate it and eventually convinced John O’Brien to do this as a hardcover with the belief we could sell 10,000 copies and the paperback rights. (We never got to 10,000, but Picador did buy the paperback rights! And that was how I met Amber Quereshi—in the New York City Center theater during the first World Voices Festival, when I was young and limber, and still passionate, foisting new books on people and trying to get them excited. During one of my first [the first?] meetings with Tom Roberge [now one of my best friends!], I urged this on him and he read and loved it, which lead to us meeting regularly. This book + Lost = my professional career.)
If you haven’t read Voices from Chernobyl, go get a copy. Now. It’s one of the most soul-crushing, amazing books you’ll ever encounter. It’s made up of a series of monologues that she crafted out of interviews she did with survivors of the Chernobyl tragedy ten years after the incident. These stories are heartbreaking in so many ways. A lot of them revolve around the ways in which the Soviet government fucked its citizens to the grave—offering dachas to anyone willing to clean up the mess at the reactor, a promise unfilled, since basically everyone died, horribly—yet this is much more than simply a “political” book. It’s so human and sad. The story of the guy who came home from cleaning up the site and gave his firefighter’s hat to his son, only to watch his son develop brain cancer and die almost immediately thereafter . . . I cry just typing those words. I’ll never forget that. I’ll carry a ton of these stories to my grave.
One day, when Keith was working on this book, he emailed me about the burden of translating it. I thought, initially, that he was upset about the deadline or the payment or whatever. But it was much more basic than that—translating these voices, the voices of these people who suffered so horribly and continued to suffer, is something that weighs on you, on your mind and being. Reading the book is bad enough; inhabiting it at that level is almost incomprehensible.
This reminds me of the speech Keith gave after Voices won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (the first translation to do so in basically forever) when he recounted how NPR was going to do a big story on this book, but only if Svetlana could verify that everything in the book was absolutely verbatim true. Did she have recordings of the interviews? Could she provide evidence that the sentences in the book were the same as the statements made by the interviewees?
Journalists are going to refer to Alexievich’s writing as some sort of “genre-blending” thing all day. And they’re mostly right—her books are nonfiction presented in stylized forms. She takes various “voices” and amplifies them by removing herself. Like a great editor, she lets the work, the people, speak for themselves. There’s no “Q&A,” just these voices telling stories of death and panic and confusion.
Which is what Keith told the NPR fact-checkers after talking to Svetlana: These voices are true. Their pain and suffering is fact.
It’s unfortunate that there are only a couple of her books available in English right now, but I’m sure that will change. Two years ago, Svetlana was a guest at the Reykjavik International Book Festival where she talked about her latest book on the state of Russian intellectuals and how nothing has changed over the past few decades. Sounds incredible and hopefully a U.S. publisher will bring it out soon.
Regardless, this is such a great moment. Congrats to Svetlana! And to Keith and all her other translators, to Dalkey and Picador and Norton, and everyone else! This day!
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