Presentation Speech by Writer Pär Wästberg, Member of the Swedish Academy, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, 10 December 2015.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Alfred Nobel wanted the prize to go to the person who produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Svetlana Alexievich has met this requirement.
“Voices of Utopia” – her suite of five books describing the catastrophes of the 20th century – is Alexievich’s literary and moral masterpiece, a charting of the Soviet citizen’s mental history that she associates with a grave, a bloodbath and an endless dialogue between executioners and victims, concealing as much as possible. The work, she says, is about “Russia’s stifled scream”, about a past that must not return, a now that cannot be accepted, a future that proffers no hope.
Like a stenographer in a high court, she enumerates the injustices visited on the unprepared and defenceless. Here are the words of thousands of witnesses for the first and only time. Without her, they would never have seen the light.
She looks for the instant that shakes a person to the core. As in Voices from Chernobyl, when a nurse warns a woman that her beloved has nowbecome a reactor, not a man, but the woman ignores her, and lets the radiationfrom the man’s body take the life of the baby she is carrying insideher. The book becomes a reminder of how past radiation dictates our lives,our morality, for decades.
In War’s Unwomanly Face, Alexievich interviews five hundred of the countless women who served in the Red Army. They tell of Germans displaying the severed legs of prisoners from foxholes, a mother who drowned her crying baby so as not to betray her village, and how women made hair curlers from pinecones. Back at home they were seen as soldiers’ whores and rejected by their families. Men were the heroes, the women were denied medals.
Alexievich uncovers the face of evil in a truth process where “heat incinerates the lies” and in language that, between the lines, conveys the silence of pain. She waits until the voices lodge in her, acquiring a harder sheen. This makes her the most sensitive of contemporary historians and a genre innovator.
In her dry matter-of-factness, in her striving to keep her eyes open rather than filled with tears, she unnerves us, her readers – especially in this year of refugee flux when her stories of the stubbornness and courage of the helpless are more apt than ever. Having grown up in a culture of sorrow – more localised: near the mined forests of Belarus, a country where every fourth inhabitant was killed – her love is for the little people, not the grand ideas.
The oral narrative is literature’s wellspring. Through memory, people retain the contours of their existence. To frame a history, a face, and to render them visible, one after the other, is a magnanimous act and a documentary bequest to the future – and an artistic accomplishment that is matchless of its kind.
Using questioning and listening as her secret weapons, Alexievich burrows into the feelings of the extras of history, the disregarded. She finds love and death, thirst for power, and unexpected solidarity. She calls herself a historian of the soul. Her study is of the human mystery.
Alexievich unifies the historian’s precision with the empathy of a poet in a lament that echoes all conceivable experience. She is a lie detector and an inexhaustible source of knowledge – about obedience as a curse, propaganda as seduction. In brief: the human condition. For, as she exhorts us, “There is only one way out: to begin to love people. To understand them with the help of love.”
Dear Svetlana Alexievich, the Swedish Academy congratulates you and invites you to now receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.