Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievich‘s third book, and the third about war, reveals in it’s flip, bitter title, the pervading feeling of the book. “Zinky boys” are those young men, 18-20, who came home from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979-1989, in zinc boxes, coffins. Contrary to Russian custom, there were no small windows in them through which to view the dead — with reason: some of the remains were too ghastly for viewing; some were not identifiable, even to loved ones; some were simply bones, or a uniform to stand in for a missing soldier, presumed dead.
That it was a war was initially denied by the government, describing it instead as ” a limited contingent of Soviet forces … helping a fraternal people build the way forward.” Gravestones for the dead were inscribed as ‘Died’ rather than ‘Killed in Action.’ As the numbers of young men who had ‘died’ began to mount, as familes receiving the zinc boxes began to talk, and especially after the 1986 ‘glasnost’ allowed the press to report with less censorship, realization began to dawn, and attitudes to change. Mothers who had initially been reluctantly proud of their young sons becoming a man in uniform began to curse the men and the government sending them home in closed coffins. Men who survived, as amputees, ‘like big birds hopping one-legged by the sea,’ as double and triple amputees considering suicide, as echo chambers of terrifying nightmares, unable to sleep at night for years, found each other and began to talk and in some cases to organize. Support retreated and condemnation grew, of military and national leaders — much as in the United States during its war in Vietnam twenty years earlier.
Developing her “voice genre,” a method somewhat like Studs Terkle‘s oral histories, without the authorial intervention of James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Alexievich captures the intimate congestion of memory and emotion like no other writer on war I have read. Unlike the novelized journals of the First World War in which individual solider-writers describe days at the front with a personally experienced mix of the mundane, the terrifying, the humorous and the ghastly, or the large, authorial war novels of the Second World War, Alexievich draws from over one hundred people to bring, as she says, “… the feelings about the war, rather than the war itself. What are people thinking? What do they want, or fear?
Uniquely, in books about war, Alexievich shows us not the fighting in the field, not the fear in battle, but war as it is experienced by the whole population: soldiers, officers, nurses, prostitutes, mothers, fathers and sons. Under her empathetic probing, before and after thoughts and reflections are revealed. Young men admit wanting to go to war,
‘… to find out what I was capable of, I wanted to be a hero and looked for a chance to be one. … Self-esteem and pride were terribly important : can I do it or can’t I? He can — can I?’
“I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. I longed to go. I thought it would be interesting. I used to go to bed and imagine what it was like out there. I wanted to know what it was like to have one apple and two friends, you’re hungry and they’re hungry, so you give them the apple. I thought it would be one big happy family. That’s the reason I went.
A doctor says he was jealous of the experience surgeons were getting with all the wounded, but there are a hundred reasons he went. The best expression of it “was this bit of verse. I can’t remember who it’s by:
‘Women and wine
Are all very fine
But a real man needs more:
The sweet taste of war!
Women went, as well. To help, and then…
We went to save lives, to help, to show our love, but after a while I realized it was hatred I was feeling … hate for the village huts from which we might be fired on at any moment, I hated the locals walking with baskets of melons on their heads, What had they been doing the night before? We probably survived by hating. but I felt full of guilt when I got back home and looked back at it all. Sometimes we massacred a whole village in revenge for one of our boys. Over there it seemed right to me, here it just horrifies me.
That first March a pile grew up behind the hospital — a pile of amputated arms, legs and other bits of our men, Dead bodies with gouged out eyes and stars carved into the skin of their backs and stomachs by the muhajadeen.
Gradually we began to ask ourselves what we were all here for. Such questions were unpopular with the authorities, of course.
As predictable as it ought to be, revenge soon became the driving force. Like American soldiers, indoctrinated to callousness about killing during boot-camp, the Russians have their own mottos and shouted slogans:
Repeat after me: conscience is a luxury we can’t afford!
More than any book I have read, the question of Why War? is raised, and answered. Patriotism and social obligation, the fear of being thought not manly, gets men to go. The thrill of life gambled keeps many there.
We existed between life and death — and we held other men’s life and death in our hands. Is there any feeling more powerful than that? We’ll never walk, or make love, or be loved, the way we walked and loved and were loved over there. Everything was heightened by the closeness of death … I learnt the smell of danger. Just when we were complaining that we’d been born too late for World War II — eureka! A ready made enemy appeared on the horizon. We were brought up to find inspiration in war and revolution — and nothing else.
Of course we are reading in English what was written and spoken in Russian. The translation by Julia and Robin Whitby brings us plain, unornamented sentences, direct subject-verb-object speech, some of which might remind us of Hemingway. Easy to read, though the subject matter makes it sometimes hard, I did wonder if these folks actually spoke like this, or how much might have been pruned and straightened either in the initial writing or during translation. Occasional footnotes help with particular Russian phrases or references. Occassional Britishisms appear to American readers, ‘rubbish,’ ‘bloke,’ ‘mum,’ among others, but nothing to impede the reading. Italics are used appropriately from time to time for emphasis or to indicate words left in the original. Alexievich’s other books have been translated by different translators and I find no others by the Whitbys. New to translation or not, Zinky Boys is a good, and necessary, addition to the English reader’s understanding of the feelings of others, far, and not so far in experience from our own. There are no interviews with “the enemy,” but the contribution she makes by showing the Russian soul in the miasmas of war is profound. She might have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as well as that for literature.
The Russian boys, and their loved ones, the women who went to the front lines, are so similar to the American boys, first in Vietnam, and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, again, that with a few sentences changed we would not know one from the other.
How ironic to read the other day that a Bagram airfield, the American post in Afghanistan, mass graves have been found from 30 years before when it was the Russian command post.
For a summary of her first books, and her own words about what she tries to do with her writing, see here.