Thursday 3 December 2015

I want to read things that will slice underneath everything. There has to be a lot of pain before I understand. Am I to that extent Russian?  Even a few pages into Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, I'm readied for the enormity of what they have to say: you've never shot anyone, you pacifist, you haven't heard a bullet whizzing past your ear, brought the truth home in a plastic bag, what you do know?

If I took in one thing with mother's milk it was the wantonness of war. Can we say, at the time, or afterwards, with any certainty what people were fighting for in many countries whose names are associated with wars, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and later, Iraq, Iraq, Libya, Syria? World War Two, with Hitler at its centre, remains oddly romantic.

The people who were fighting cannot say with any certainty. The zinky boys thought they were going into something romantic, or at least worthy. War makes you forget what war is for, if you ever knew. The person you were who might have known has gone for good. You've forgotten the word for thank you. War is an opportunity you may not survive, or not with all your limbs; a belief you will not survive; war is about being literally blown to bits, running after your brain after it has been shot out; on your behalf an empty uniform packs with some Afghan earth into the zinc coffin, for the weight.

The voices of many mothers are there in Zinky Boys (and how far is that zappy title from its meaning), voices of widows, voices of depleted people. I perceive the world through the medium of human voices, says Svetlana Alexievich. Russian mothers, I can't help reminding myself, Russian widows, Russian depleted people. When I was fourteen I could take pride in Russian suffering as it rustled through Russian birches and swept over Russian steppes, as it came to lodge beneath Russian cheekbones.

Now I don't take pride in any nationality. I take pride in a compost heap of my own making, and the four loaves I bake every ten days. Russians leave a loaf of bread to sit after a funeral, to nourish the dead. Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.

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