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–139– Losing the Nobel -­ I’d been earning my living as a Russian-­ English interpreter for a decade and a half when I was hired to give English voice to one Svetlana Alexievich, an author slated to appear at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where I live. I’d never heard of her; back then, few in the West had. I learned as I prepared for the assignment that she was a former newspaperwoman whose books were based on interviews she did with plain Soviet and post-­ Soviet folk about their experiences of calamities such as World War II and the Soviet war in Afghanistan . Most recently, she had traveled to Chernobyl, borne witness to the consequences of the nuclear disaster, and then reported back, conveying in the locals’ own words their grotesque sufferings and also those of the first responders, ordinary firemen sent into the fray in their shirtsleeves, absolutely innocent of radiation safety training or expertise. The Russian language lacks a term for oral history, and so, with refreshing disregard for the sometimes heavily fortified border separating fiction from nonfiction, Alexievich had come up with her own, calling her books “novels in voices,” or simply “novels .” This despite the fact that their content came verbatim from taped interviews, had no narrative through-­ line, and swapped in a new protagonist every couple of pages. In addition to my day job with the Russian language, I was also trying to make a mark as a writer. Having toiled obscurely and intermittently for years –140– in a difficult-­ to-­ name genre containing generous helpings of the lived, the observed, and the overheard, I instantly appreciated her confident blurring of distinctions that had long struck me as artificial and unnecessary. Svetlana came from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, one of those new nations then poking up through the rubble of the Soviet Union. Her country was widely known as the last dictatorship in Europe. When I met her, she was persona non grata back home, having disgruntled the authorities somehow. She’d been living out of a suitcase for years, bouncing from one Western European capital to another, getting by on grants and gifts. She was a small, sixtyish woman, shy, unpretentious. Her manner of speaking was urgent and heartfelt. “For days after the blast at Chernobyl,” she said at the festival, and I interpreted, “the bees stayed inside their hives. The worms burrowed a meter down into the ground. Those little creatures knew what to do. But what about us? What did we humans do? As always, we watched TV; we listened to Gorbachev; we played soccer.” Speaking of her genre and how she came to it, she said, “For us Slavs, talk is paramount. Life’s mysteries are what we discuss. What is the essence, the core? As I sought my literary form, I came increasingly to understand that what I heard in the crowd was far more powerful than anything I was reading, and more affecting than anything that might flow from the pen of a solitary writer. Nowadays, one single person cannot write the all-­ encompassing book, as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy used to do. The world has grown far too complex. But within each of us there lies a text: maybe two sentences, maybe half a page, maybe five pages, and these could be compiled into a joint opus. I realized that my books were in fact lying scattered about on the ground. I had only to pick them up.” Channeling her simple eloquence, I felt both euphoria and melancholy. My peculiar, fleeting intimacy with this remarkable –141– woman and the interior of her mind seemed to place me on the cusp of something marvelous. Yet this sense that the best was yet to come was usually an illusion—I knew this. The climax was here; it was now. She finished speaking; an instant later, I finished, and the main event was done. Over cheese cubes and wine in plastic cups in a rapidly emptying room, a few audience members praised my work effusively. For one moment, I thought that this heady praise was the very miracle I’d felt coming on. Then I caught the number three train uptown. Full stop. Except that Svetlana then passed my name to her agent, who passed it to a boutique publisher in the Midwest, who, some time later, approached me to translate two of her books into English. ————— I’d been a Russianist practically forever...

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