The Unwomanly Face of War
An Oral History of Women in World War II
By Svetlana Alexievich
Random House. 384 pp. $30
Reviewed by Mike Fischer
'The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women," writes Nobel-winning Svetlana Alexievich, born in 1948 in Ukraine and raised in Belarus. "I don't remember any men's voices . . . stories of the war are told by women. They weep. Their songs are like weeping."
It's hard not to weep reading The Unwomanly Face of War, her alternately harrowing and inspiring oral history of the one million women who fought in the Soviet army during a war that claimed close to 30 million Soviet lives.
The women's voices gathered here recall the crunching of bones during hand-to-hand combat. The deserters they shot. The broken bodies they couldn't heal. The lives they couldn't save. The bloated bodies of dead sailors who, in their striped shirts, looked like large watermelons.
"I want to live at least one day without the war," one woman whispers, remembering the siege of Leningrad, when the population devoured cats and dogs, rats and mice, soup made from leather, and aspic made from glue. "It's terrible to remember," an artillery sergeant admits, "but it's far more terrible not to remember."
In oral histories of other wars and disasters, Alexievich has spent her life prodding memories among a population for whom memory has long been dangerous. "We hasten to forget," she writes when introducing one woman's story. "Facts can become evidence, often at the cost of life."
That was particularly true when Alexievich wrote The Unwomanly Face of War; published in 1985, it was her first book. Her introduction to this first complete English edition - translated by the justly acclaimed team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky - chronicles what was censored when the book first appeared.
Stories of the clumsy and the cowards. Of forbidden love in the trenches. Of a mother drowning her baby to save those traveling with her. Of torturing Germans. Of partisans who stole from peasants. Of all those soldiers Stalin sent to Siberia after the war for the "crime" of having been captured and thereby exposed to the West.
Always, in Alexievich, History gives way to history: the official, heroic story of what happened gets undone by the equally heroic but much more messy story of everyday life and how people actually felt. Women often come clean in this book about what war was really like only after the men leave the room.
"I am trying to bring that great history down to human scale," Alexievich writes at one point, in the italics through which we continually hear her urgent voice alongside those of the women she remembers. But in "the space of one human soul," life becomes even more incomprehensible. "Because before me are living tears, living feelings."
Alexievich organizes what she describes as a history of the soul from the war's first confused year to its bittersweet aftermath. "Our hearts were on fire," remembers a sniper of those early days, when girls as young as 14 talked their way into a reeling army desperate for bodies to stanch the German tide. "I loved the Motherland more than anything in the world," remembers another. We were "so naive and sincere. With such faith!" recalls a third.
Despite being vilified after the war as "whores" by women who didn't serve and frequently avoided by men who wanted to forget the war - making for some of the most painful reading in this often painful book - many of these women look back on the war years as their best.
They "are in love with what happened to them, because it is not only war, but also their youth," Alexievich writes. "Their first love" - experienced, as she tells us elsewhere, by "people who are busy doing inhumanly human things."
This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.