Command the Power of Words

Light of truth

How could the task of a peace prize be anything other than to give a voice to that which serves the most fragile of human commodities: Peace? The medium of language implies nothing other than the act of granting a sounding board to the spoken word: and it is precisely this sounding board that goes far beyond the usual audibility of that which is said, and ultimately grants the spoken and written word a presence capable of persevering and reaching as many readers and listeners as possible. Language can provide us with insights, make us understandable to one another and bring us together; on the other hand, however, it can also lead us astray, create rifts and become an instrument of hate and violence. Amid the increasing din of voices – all of which are trying to be heard yet are hard to distinguish from one another – the voice gets very few opportunities to show that peace is even possible and to explore what the word peace even means. After all, can we say there is peace when individuals – and, with increasing modernity, even entire groups of people – are rendered mute? Can we say there is peace when the world loses sight of and sometimes even completely forgets these people as if they were merely the marginal phenomenon of a political process? In a world such as this, there is nothing more necessary than a person who commands the power of words and has the courage to give a voice to those who have been silenced.

Svetlana Alexievich uses the entirety of her literary might to make sure that the voices of those people once rendered mute – those individuals and groups whose hopes have no chance of being fulfilled and who are obliged to carry out their existence as mere pawns in the hands of those more powerful – are revived and become audible again. And she does so in a measure that is equally as selfless as it is brave. In 1985, in her first book, what became audible again were the voices of women who had been forced to serve the Soviet Union as soldiers in the Second World War; it was from these voices that we gained a full sense of the horrors of that war – horrors that contrasted heavily with the heroic prose officially propagated by the regime. It is the voices of those individuals living in post-communist societies who are forced to exist in a niche world – a so-called “kitchen society” that goes unnoticed and is overlooked by those in power – and to seek in vain for a way to survive intellectually and to live their everyday lives in this manner. The act of lending a voice to those who have been rendered mute – the act of giving the “suppressed” an opportunity to speak openly – requires not only “humility and generosity,” but also an entirely new literary mode. It requires that an author write her own novel as a novel of voices; and it requires that she do so not in a filtered or glorified manner. It is a body of work that reflects a never-ending process of listening. Alexievich states: “I always hoped that my books would contribute to preventing people from becoming cynical”. In that same interview she notes: “I believe that mankind can survive only with the help of compassion. Unfortunately, even the Europeans are becoming increasingly impoverished as a result of rising rationalisation.”

She writes, “I spent the majority of my life in the Soviet Union. In the experimental laboratory of communism. The slogan at the gate to the horrific camp on the Solovetsky Islands read: “With an iron hand we will drive mankind to happiness.” “Communism had a ludicrous plan – to remodel the old human, the old Adam. And in that they succeeded. It is perhaps its only success. In a period of over seventy years a new breed of man emerged: Homo sovieticus.”

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