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On Svetlana Alexievich's 'Second-hand Time', the strangeness of truth, the death of the novel, and the strangeness of ourselves
“I’m telling you how it happened in real life, not how they write about it in books.”
Svetlana Alexievich, Second-hand Time: The Last of the Soviets
The distinct horrors of the 20th century sustained the verity of that Byronic notion of truth being stranger than fiction while acutely intensifying the particular nature of truth’s invoked strangeness and perhaps begging the question of whether we should find the truth so strange at all.
Twain says that is truth is stranger than fiction to begin with for the reason that “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.” That is to say that fiction, in being man’s creation, can only be subservient to what man himself can conceive. On the other hand, the supernatural entity that is truth may harbour all the mystery and unpredictability of the universe. There may be nothing new under the sun but there is certainly much unknown beneath the stars. And nothing is more natural or more understandable than to call what is unknown, unusual, and unfamiliar—strange.
As such, a particular strangeness has always attached itself to what has ended up as truth partly by the process of all those initially bizarre and foreign scientific theories and conceptions nevertheless becoming a part of the foundation of our reality. But if some of these ‘new possibilities’ felt strange because we originally did not conceive them as being true, it now seems as though the recently intensified strangeness of truth derives from the futile wishing against certain instances of its existence. That is, the truths of the 20th century are not only strange in being new, but strange in being both difficult to accept and burdensome to tolerate. Accordingly, these hard truths remain somewhat foreign while being true all the same.
So while the truth remains and grows ever stranger than fiction, the way in which it we find it strange has also evolved in consequence. Freud’s concept of the uncanny comes to mind, which he identifies as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar." That the semi-familiar is all the more strange than the completely foreign; the existence of these evils are not truths that have been delivered unto us after all—we have produced them, à la Dr. Frankenstein’s creation rather than an Einstein discovery. Both are strange, though one is stranger—is it simply uncanniness?
But what is the initial complexion of this asserted strangeness? It seems that we call something strange when it’s unexpected or disfigured—when something shouldn’t be the way that it appears. When we accuse someone of having a strange look on their face we mean it’s unbecoming to how a face is accustomed to appear. And when we call someone strange, we are mostly accusing them of being abnormal.
Our world is one that accumulates memory at a much greater rate than it learns. As and experience gathers like ashes in a fireplace, and as the strangeness of truth grows, contorts, and deforms, the truth becomes ever stranger. We might say of the worst parts of this accumulation that no one creatively nor imaginatively could have conceived of the man-made and man-fulfilled terrors of the 20th century. And if they had we would put be inclined to put them in an asylum whilst labelling their fiction as blasphemy inspired by the devil or otherwise as vile, evil, intolerable, and certainly not fit-for-print. But we can do no such thing to the truth; for, axiomatically anywhere the truth is a palace of sanity. When the truth is put in an insane asylum, the insane asylum is absolved—where does the insanity go?
Indeed, fact never feels so unreal as when we know something to be true but wish it weren’t. The truth never feels so false as when that thing doesn’t fit with our conception of the world. In times of extreme tragedy, we don’t ask if something is true before first demanding that it isn’t. Humans are story-defenders more than they are story-makers. If we ever find discomfort in fiction or fantasy is ever uncommonly strange, we can assign that strangeness to strangeness and to fundamental unreality—we can say that the monsters aren’t real and reject any set of fictitious circumstances we wish not to accept.
But you can’t tell history that it is acting incorrectly. Nor can you tell the truth to wipe that look off its face nor suggest it to act ‘normally’, nor fight a religious war with it. Really, if the truth is so strange, it is maybe truth that is not abnormal party; maybe it is we who judge that strangeness who are strange ourselves. That is to say that either the circumstances are wrong or we are; that our faces are the ones configured the wrong way, and that we are ones that don’t fit our conception of ourselves. [that are strangeness is really quite normal, completely ordinary]. Yes, perhaps we are the ones who are strange. And this is what is meant by the concept of ‘secondhand strangeness’: Our true strange natures are only passed down to ourselves by our own repeatedly, regularly strange actions.
Yes, the 20th century has assembled more of these contemptible actions that have resulted in truths we desperately don’t want to conceive of. More truth that seems to come from another world but nevertheless is generated by ours. And not only are monsters real, but they are part of our past and the objective ordinariness of history. Flaubert, in answering for why he studied Nero and de Sade, asserts “These monsters explain history to us.” He really means that those monsters explain ourselves to us. Except, these monsters are us, not a separate species nor distant alien entities. Is it possible that we are the strange ones, that we are not who we think we are, that we are not who we would like ourselves to be?
Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time (2006) suggests so, and never is this nervous dichotomy so apparent than within its pages. The book might be described as monument to the tragedy of the truth in being dedicated to that strange, unreal—though nevertheless real—quality of the truth. Second-hand Time is a work that constructs an insane asylum, calls it the past, and identifies it as the world. Our world.
Second-hand Time most specifically documents the absurd horrors of the Soviet Union through hundreds of voices, that, among much else, coalesce to result in a sense that no one could actually come up with any of what they describe. Except, it has been thought of; worse, it has happened. And Alexievich reveals such events in great quantity, with wave after wave of honestly and revelation so shocking that while any single story and account may be inclined to be rejected and disbelieved—if we inevitably do not believe the boy that cries wolf—it is impossible to not believe the hundreds of boys, men, women, and girls crying hundreds of wolves.
“… If I had read this story somewhere or heard it from someone, I wouldn’t have believed it. But all sorts of things happen in real life…”
Svetlana Alexievich, Second-hand Time: The Last of the Soviets
But Alexievich subtly demonstrates that it is not the outside threat of the wolves that we ought to fear. More so, she reveals the plethora of terror already within our fences through the awful accounts of machinations of neighbour against neighbour, brother against sister, husband against wife—relations we like to believe are immune from the breeding of evil. Still, the tragedies of Second-hand Time are hardly traditional; their wickedness is unique; strange—seemingly of a different species and of a different world.
In one instance, within a chapter entitled ‘ON THE CRUELTY OF THE FLAMES AND SALVATION FROM ABOVE,’ Alexievich relates the story of a woman who marries and has a child by her husband’s murderer. It goes like this: during the German occupation of their village in WWII, a woman’s husband joins the local police force. He is eventually murdered, tortured, dragged behind a cart by rope in a makeshift body bag to his unknown resting place by members of the local resistance—not necessarily in that order—including quite plainly by a man who had been an unsuccessful and spiteful suitor of hers well before the outbreak of war who had continued to taunt her throughout the war.
‘The Soviets returned to power… and that suitor of mine found me again. He showed up on horseback: ‘They’re interested in you.’ ‘Who?’ ‘What do you mean, who? The authorities.’ ‘I don’t care where I die. Let them send me to Siberia.’ ‘What kind of mother are you? You have a child.’ ‘You know whose it is…’ ‘I’ll marry you anyway.’ And so I married him. The man who murdered my husband. I had his child, my daughter… [She cries.] He loved both of our children the same, my son and his daughter.’
I don’t wish to analyze the set of circumstances too deeply (and I’d be incapable of it even if I wished to) but rather note the particular discomfort and unusualness of the situation. Here is a distressing calamity caused by no one’s fault in particular, but rather by tragic inputs that have triggered mostly defensible, somewhat logical reactions. The first husband joined a police force to protect his family. The resistance fighter joined the resistance in order to fight for his country. The woman married the man in order to protect her family. The man married the woman because he loved her. We blame the scenario, not the people, but in all, we have a family whereby the son’s father has been murdered by his step-father, who the father of his younger sister, and reputedly loves both of the children the same. Does all that not strike you as excessively strange?
The American literary critic Lionel Trilling writes about the death of fiction and the novel in his essay, Art and Fortune (The Partisan Review, December 1948). The novel’s death was not a novel argument, as it were, by the time Trilling got around to it. Various literary figures such José Ortega y Gasset and Walter Benjamin had already authored significant essays on the topic in 1925 and 1930, respectively, but the topic did gain significant standing after WWII as further causes of its death were explored, just as autopsy can only conducted after a body is found despite revealing nothing about the state of death.
And the primary cause of death seemed to become this: that really the novel was dead not because of any particular starvation of quality and talent—though we often do seem to be hungry for it—but because that which is Second-hand Time, and other books like it such as The Gulag Archipelago, Ordinary Men, The Rape of Nanking, are completely and terrifyingly alive.
And by being alive, these true historical accounts consume all the available oxygen in the room. It is the stories that these books tell which demand observation. How could Alexievich or any writer turn around after observing all these people and hearing their stories—for is a writer not an observer of the world and a documenter of such observation; a mirror, as Shakespeare says, held up to their surrounding natures—and write or even attempts try to come up with something else to capture the world and the human condition. And thus the more purely creative roots of fiction comes out as ‘overvalued’: “The overvaluation of art is the beginning of the end of art,” Trilling suggests.
Consider also the element of significance. If the novel is a means to manufacture significance and reveal meaning, how can any novel be more important—more meaningful, more significant—than the reality that has transpired behind us? How can any fiction be more true than this truth? If to compare an author to a driver of a car, each passing anecdote in Second-hand Time are glaring neon billboards set along a winding highway that demand to seen and seem to say more than any modern piece of fiction ever could. As Trilling says: the ‘façade’ of fiction is down, “society’s resistance to the discovery of depravity has ceased”:
Now, however, the old margin no longer exists; the façade is down; society’s resistance to the discovery of depravity has ceased; now everyone knows that Thackeray was wrong, Swift right. The world and the soul have split open of themselves and are all agape for our revolted inspection. The simple eye of the camera shows us, at Belsen and Buchenwald, horrors that quite surpass Swift’s powers, a vision of life turned back to its corrupted elements which is more disgusting than any that Shakespeare could contrive, a cannibalism more literal and fantastic than that which Montaigne ascribed to organized society. A characteristic activity of mind is therefore no longer needed. Indeed, before what we now know the mind stops; the great psychological fact of our time which we all observe with baffled wonder and shame is that there is no possible way of responding to Belsen and Buchenwald. The activity of mind fails before the incommunicability of man’s suffering.
Lionel Trilling, Art and Fortune (The Partisan Review, December 1948)
Another story, now from a different character in the same chapter offers the opportunity for such ‘revolted inspection.’ Here, the Jews of a Russian village have been rounded up at the bidding of the invading Germans. They are led to a field, where the men are forced to dig what will eventually be their collective. The women children are made to stand at the receding edges of what are for now merely two growing, gaping holes in the earth. When the pits are large enough, the small children are thrown into one and buried alive, while the rest are beckoned into the other. Suddenly a woman, apparently appearing to be more Russian than Jew to their captors is offered a change at escape and survival. But the woman refuses to leave her kin, and in such an extreme sense that she is the first to jump into the pit. The woman’s son, the narrator of the story, is found alive sometime later, though not because he was being looked for or intending to be saved, but rather because his miraculous movements disturbed the looting of the buried.
That day… it’s all a fog… How did they kick us out of the house? How did they transport us? I remember the big field on the edge of the forest… They selected the strongest men and ordered them to dig two big pits. Deep. While the rest of us stood there and waited. First, they tossed all the little kids into one of the pits… they started burying them… And their parents didn’t even weep or beg. Everyone stood there in total silence. Why, you ask? I’ve given it a lot of thought… When a wolf pounces on you, you don’t try to talk to it, you don’t beg for your life. Or if a wild boar charges you… The Germans looked down into the pit and laughed, threw sweets in it. The Polizei were dead drunk… Their pockets were stuffed with wrist-watches… They buried the children alive… Then they ordered everyone else to jump into the other pit. We stood there, my mother, my father, my little sister and I. Our turn came… The German in charge noticed my mother was Russian and gestured to her: ‘You’re free to go.’ My father shouted, ‘Run!’ But she grabbed onto him, clutched at me: ‘I have to be with you.’ All of us pushed her away, we begged her to leave… but she was the first one of us to jump into the pit… And that’s all I can remember… I regained consciousness when I felt something sharp strike my leg. I cried out in pain. Somebody whispered, ‘Sounds like one of them’s alive.’ Men were digging through the pit with shovels, removing the shoes and boots from the corpses… Taking everything they could find. They helped me out. I sat on the edge of the pit and waited and waited… It was raining. The ground was very warm. They cut me off a hunk of bread, ‘Run, kikeling. Maybe you’ll survive.’
Why is that strangeness reveals itself so glaringly next to tragedy. I suppose we can comprehend, or have grown accustomed to comprehending, evil, murder, etc. But why was the mother offered an opportunity to escape? Why didn’t she? Why did her option of her escape only make her more willing to jump to her death? We cannot call the scenario made up; we can only call it truth, and let the strangeness of it absorb itself into it.
What can be said of this story? I suppose not much aside from it, and certainly not a light-hearted novel. It is not the fault of modern novels, though it is the struggle of modern writers that mean to capture the world, that as soon as they say something, anything—the concurrently neglect to say more, or otherwise. We may remark that by doing so, that they are not keeping their eyes neither on the road nor on their rear-view mirrors. If to look at these mirrors, the modern artist is forced to not ask who is the fairest of them all, but instead where the next bombs will fall.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Show me where them bombs will fall
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Show me where them bombs will fall
Arcade Fire, Black Mirror
No, the modern novel cannot be something created out of a void. It is not a story created out of nothingness, such as a boy and a girl that suddenly meet, a hero that embarks on a journey, or a child that grows up. If the historical novel from those inventors of the form was painted on a blank canvas, which represented the freshness of our collective memory that reflected our not non-existent but certainly mostly undocumented history—we were new speakers in a world used to silence—then the modern novel is an activity of misery of unceasing and ever available recollection. The modern writer is given a brush and a palette of dry paint and placed in front of a canvas completely covered, completely ‘done with’. And you can either be pleased to find some semblance of room at the edges—the cannon is full of bombs—or feel utterly useless in the pursuit. It may not be useless—one may imagine Sisyphus happy—better the words are released—but the state of affairs remains. The modern novel, at worst, is another spill on the mess.
Second-hand Time is a statement of such state of affairs; it is an exposition, a retrospective, on all those dry streaks of dark paint—are they blood?—that have been splurged on our shared artistic canvas. But the book makes the state of the canvas makes sense by accounting for why it is so seemingly covered. A third shot, found within a chapter called ‘ON HOW NOTHING DISGUSTS THE DEAD AND THE SILENCE OF DUST.’ A brother kills her treasonous sister, whose treason consists of merely marrying the man she loved, whose murder is only facilitated by her location being identified by the return address on a postcard she sent out of deference to her parents. Another brother is sent to bring her back home.
I heard this story once – I’ll tell it to you, too… A Chechen girl fell in love with a Russian pilot. This handsome guy. By mutual agreement, they decided he should take her away from her parents. He brought her to Russia. They got married. Everything was by the book. Their son was born. But she kept crying and crying, she felt so bad for her parents. Finally, they wrote them a letter: ‘Please forgive us, we love each other…’ And they sent them greetings from her Russian mother. But all those years, her brothers had been looking for her, they wanted to kill her for bringing shame on their family – she’d not only married a Russian, but a Russian who’d bombed them. Killed their people. The return address led them directly to her… One of her brothers murdered her, then another one showed up to take her body home.
We are foolish to pretend to comprehend such tragedy, but try to understand we must. Throughout Second-hand Time, Alexievich is warned against such an interest in understanding. The chapter ON THE DARKNESS OF THE EVIL ONE AND ‘THE OTHER LIFE WE CAN BUILD OUT OF THIS ONE contains a story of a woman who abandons her life and family in order to marry a convict that she has never met. “This is a case for a psychiatrist,” Alexievich is warned, “Because of her sick fantasies, a mother abandons her three children—this is something for a court to examine, not a writer.” Alexievich defends the writer, the teller of stories: “What about Medea?What about Medea, who killed her own children for love?” she counters. “That’s a myth. These are real people.” That’s fiction—this is the truth.
Still, these accounts are still stories at the the bottom of their broken hearts,. Fiction is a reflection of the the need to come up with stories about ourselves. Now, we have them already. Such a view might have led to the development of New Journalism in the mid 20th century under the likes of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who perhaps all felt a common inclination to tell stories rather than to make them up while maintaining an aspect of creative expression. The second part of Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History, on the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, begins with an image of a novelist obligingly handing off his baton to a historian, "the Novelist in passing his baton to the Historian has a happy smile." And what is the face of the historian?
“I am a writer and as such I have not only the right but also the duty to raise the level of reality, as I see it, to the very point where it threatens to tip over into the unbelievable.”
Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear
It may be something resembling the face of Alexievich. And fortunately, it is not only the novelist that has been made aware of such a passing. Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature because she relayed the stories that have already occurred that need to be told. And if the flourishing of humanity depends on the abominable stories of the past not occurring again, so we must tell those stories with eagerness and earnestness. And by the telling of these stories, let truth not grow stranger as we become willing to accept and grow familiar—by the helpful hand of Alexievich and others who have taken up the baton—to the elemental strangeness of ourselves. The horrors that may ideally seem so strange and so beyond the realm of imagination are real and of our own creation and carrying-out; they are not plagues descended from the heavens, uncontrollable droughts, nor natural disasters.
So maybe that the truth is stranger than fiction is not so strange after all, for, if the world seems strange maybe it only means that we are. And if, as we are persuaded through Second-hand Time, the strangeness of truth is merely an unwanted strangeness; a strangeness that we like to believe its distant but is really all too close, all too possible, and all too true, then no more should we appear as strangers to ourselves in any sort of permanent or unrealized state. And we would do well to make sense of this recognizable strangeness, lest we ever be surprised by it, lest we should actually mistake it for actual oddity or think it not be in accordance are our own perceived humanity. While it is true that we would rather find ourselves strange than find ourselves real, that attitude is only an ingredient for the truth becoming all the more strange, when it should only become all too familiar. Our secondhand strangeness must be better understood as firsthand normalcy.
We're lucky that
We're lucky that we're so capable to forget
How lucky we are, that we are, so easy to forget
How often we become susceptible to regret
I do regret
Modest Mouse, Strangers to Ourselves