Last night I sat on the most uncomfortable chairs for and hour and a half to listen to Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich talk about her work. The event was billed as a conversion but it ended up being more like a lecture – Irish journalist Conor O’Clery would ask a question and off she’d go, only interrupted by her interpreter to allow us to catch up with what she was saying in Russian.
Her stories were long and winding, circling around questions she asks herself and answers she is trying to find. Fascinated by stories she has made it her life’s work to listen to the stories of those who are usually not asked. She likes to go beyond the expected and find the mundane that is tinted with the extraordinary.
When asked if her international success and her Nobel Prize have changed the way she is viewed in her own country, she lives in Belarus, she sighed and said ‘being in opposition to the authorities is a long held tradition by writers where I am from, but now we are also in opposition to our own people, this is new and much harder.’ She went on to say that during the fall of the Soviet Union there was so much hope but that ‘freedom doesn’t come over night, freedom is a long, long way.’
‘We didn’t really know our people, we worshiped an ideal of what we believed the people to be- but they weren’t. So we built bridges to go over rivers, but the rivers then went another way.’
Chernobyl is of particular interest to Alexievich ‘there was no precedence’, that made the stories the people told so unique and surreal. ‘Soldiers were on rooftops washing the them, and scrubbing firewood – it was like in science fiction. As physical beings we could not grasp the unseen, what we could not smell, touch or see.’
After an hour and a half shifting around on my seat, a dance everyone in the audience was occupied with, it was time to join the long queue to have my copy of Chernobly prayer signed. And I have to say that was the only point in the evening where I was somewhat disappointed – Alexievich signed my copy but her attention was elsewhere. A Russian speaking woman was monopolizing her attention, not very considerate to the rest of us who waited in line. And it was clear that Alexievich was very tired and maybe I should have just let the opportunity slide- but then how often does one get to ‘meet’ a Nobel Prize winner?
An added bonus of the night – I met two wonderful women in the queue and we ended the evening over wine, olives and lots of chat – in English.