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The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics) (original 1985; edition 2017)

by Svetlana Alexievich (Author), Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)

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Title:The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics)
Authors:Svetlana Alexievich (Author)
Other authors:Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
Info:Penguin Classics (2017), 384 pages
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The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich (1985)

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This is an extremely tough and painful book, both emotionally and intellectually. It is so tough that I could only read a little bit at a time. It was all these feelings, the thoughts, the naive excitement of all these girls, yes, they were just girls, some just fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. When I finished reading it, I thought I couldn’t write anything about it. For a few days, I really couldn’t bring myself to think about it.

This is a book about the war, a women’s war. The women who gave interviews for this book were nurses, surgeons, partisans, underground resistance fighters, nurses, surgeons, sappers, snipers, front line soldiers, radio operators, and more Each one has a story of experiences but also a story of feelings, desires, dreams, and disappointments.

There were so many and they were so young. Who are these women? Why they did it? What were the reasons that made these young girls to decide to take up arms on par with men? Svetlana Alexievich listens to their experiences and presents the interviews non-judgmentally. The connection that develops between her and her subjects is fascinating.

The horror, the absurdity and the incomprehensibleness of war appears so much clearly in the feelings, the thoughts, but also the silences of these women. You won’t find heroes, important generals, great deeds and heroic events in this book. It is not about winners and losers. What you will find, are small, intimate, human things. Alexievich’s documents are living beings. This is a story of small human beings, that have thrown out of ordinary life into the great depths of a horrific event. They were thrown into History.

A human being is greater than war ….., says Svetlana Alexievich. It is reality. ( )
  Maquina_Lectora | Apr 5, 2018 |
Memories of World War II by Soviet female veterans. A typical (but very good) history of the war like Max Hastings’ Inferno covers different levels: high level national politics, military strategy, statistics to contextualize the scope, descriptions of battles and weapons, along with scattered anecdotes to bring the history down to human scale. The anecdotes will focus primarily on combat as experienced by male officers and soldiers. Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate does the Russian face of the war from top to bottom, but fiction allows him to imagine the history of the war entirely from the perspective of the participants (and its victims): General Zhukov, Moscow intellectuals, tank commanders, partisans, persecuted Jews. Both male and female have roles to play.

Svetlana Alexievich’s work is somewhere between history and fiction. A work of “non-fiction,” it weaves together the memories of Soviet female participants in what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War. Alexievich is like Penelope weaving a tapestry of recollections that originate in actual events but are transformed as memory-stories, not of the deeds of men, but by women in their old age. Researched in the 1980’s, most of the narrators have probably passed on by now.

The book, even more than her Voices from Chernobyl, affected me emotionally, very much. Strategy, combat, weapons, statistics, context are pretty much ignored. It is probably the author’s thesis that the women’s memories emphasize emotions; emotions are the content of their memories, and these emotions rarely touch on the emotions associated with battles and combat. If you empathize with these emotions you are likely to have insight into some of the emotions of men as well.

The actual combat work is described matter-of-factly. An unusually detailed story in Alexievich’s collection – even my summary has to omit some of the anecdotes -- is told by Appolina Nikonovna Litskevich-Bairak, 2nd lieutenant, commander of a sapper-miner platoon. Sappers were assigned the harrowing job of disarming mines and IEDs. Probably in her 60s when her memories were recorded, the youthful tone of her voice is unusual. Brief anecdotes about her childhood – she was originally from Siberia. She’s punished during training and ordered to clean the floors of the barracks – she explains the best way to polish floors: “I’ll explain at once … In detail… […] After lights out you take your boots off, so you don’t muck them up with mastic, wrap your feet in pieces of an old overcoat, making a sort of peasant shoe tied with string. […] You have to polish it so it shines like a mirror. [etc.].” Another anecdote about her embarrassment when she saluted with the wrong hand.

Following training, new lieutenant of a platoon at the front. Her troops simply ignore their 20 year old commander; she is forced to give the command “As you were.” And immediately an artillery barrage begins; she dives for a snowbank so she won’t stain her new overcoat in the mud to the amusement of her troops.

The job is described. At night she and a unit commander crawl into a trench in no man’s land. Camouflaged, they observe in the daytime looking for irregularities that may betray newly laid German mines. In freezing cold. Later on, “Before our troops advanced, we worked during the night. We felt the ground inch by inch. Made corridors in the mine fields. All the work was done crawling … On your belly… I shuttled from one unit to another. There were always more of ‘my’ mines.”

Stories: Invited to officers’ breakfast. “When everybody sat down at the kitchen table, I paid attention to the Russian stove with the closed door. I went over and began to examine the door. The officers poked fun at me: ‘You women imagine mines even in pots and pans.’ I joked back and then noticed at the very bottom, to the left of the door, there was a small hole. I looked closer and saw a thin wire going into the stove … ‘The house is mined, I ask you to quit the premises’ … I set to work with the sappers. First we removed the door. Cut the wires with scissors … In the depths of the stove, two big packages wrapped in black paper. About forty pounds of explosives. There’s pots and pans for you … “

Later her sappers get into a fight with artillery troops when one of the artillery troops shouts “Heads up! What a chassis!” She does not understand the cause of the fight until her subcommander has to explain “that the word ‘chassis’ was very offensive for a woman. Something like ‘whore.’ A frontline obscenity …” [Without editorial comment, Alexievich contrasts the initial disrespect from her platoon with her sappers risking court martial to defend her after she has become a combat veteran, not to mention that she is still too green to have mastered the “frontline obscenit[ies].”]

[As the Red Army advances, somewhere in Czechoslovakia or Poland]. “And there were mines at every step. Many mines. Once we went into a house, and someone saw a pair of calfskin boots standing by a wardrobe. He was already reaching out to take them. ‘Don’t you dare touch them!’ I shouted. When I came up and began to study them, they turned out to be mined. There were mined armchairs, chests of drawers, sideboards, dolls, chandeliers … Peasants asked us to de-mine the rows of tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage.”

“Well, so … I went through Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany […] Mostly I remember only visual images of the lay of the land. Boulders … Tall grass … Either it was really tall or it only seemed so to us because it was unbelievably difficult to go through it and work with our probes and mine detectors. […] Flowerbeds gone to seed. There were always mines hiding there; the Germans loved flowerbeds.”

In Romania, she’s invited to a dance by a woman friend. “I put on trousers, an army shirt, calfskin boots, and on top of it all the Romanian national costume: a long embroidered linen blouse and a tight checkered skirt. Tied a black belt around my waist, threw a colorful shawl with long fringe over my head. To this should be added that, from crawling in the mountains all summer, I had a dark tan, only blond strands stuck out on my temples, and my nose was peeling – still it was hard to distinguish me from a real Romanian. A Romanian girl. […] When we came, music was already playing, people were dancing. I saw almost all the officers from my battalion. At first I was afraid to be recognized and exposed, and so I sat in a far corner, without attracting attention […] At least I could see everything … From a distance … But after one of our officers invited me several times to dance without recognizing me with my lips and eyebrows painted, I began laughing and having fun. I was having a very good time … I liked to hear that I was beautiful. I heard compliments … I danced and danced …” [Considerably more detail than any of the combat stories. I’m assuming Alexievich isn’t doing too much editorial tilting to make a point about what women remembered.]

“The war ended, but we spent another whole year demining fields, lakes, rivers. […] For the sappers the war ended several years later; they fought longer than anyone else. And what is it to wait for an explosion after the Victory? […] Death after the Victory was the most terrible. A double death.”

She was demobilized in 1946. “On the train I developed a high fever. My face was swollen; I couldn’t open my mouth. My wisdom teeth were growing … I was returning from the war …” By the end of the war she still hadn’t achieved physical maturity.

Memories by other veterans that struck me:

A city girl who worked on a collective farm substituting for the men who left for the war. “And if I was in any way different from the farm girls, it was only in that I knew many poems and could recite them by heart all the long way home from the fields.”

A sergeant in a communication unit. “We slept on branches or on hay. But I had a pair of earrings stashed away; I’d put them on at night and slept with them.”

A medical assistant. “In the end only one fear remains – of being ugly after death. A woman’s fear … Not to be torn to pieces by a shell … I saw it happen … I picked up those pieces.”

A scout. “A whole clearing covered with blue flowers … To perish among such flowers! To lie there … I was a silly goose, seventeen years old … That’s how I imagined death … “

A pilot. “We didn’t have those women’s things … Periods … You know … And after the war not all of us could have children.”

Sergeant major, a medical assistant, infantry. “I never waited for the attack to be over, I crawled around during the combat picking up the wounded. […] I wished for just one thing – to live until my birthday, so as to turn eighteen. […] I got as far as Berlin. I put my signature on the Reichstag: ‘I, Sofya Kuntsevich, came here to kill war.”

A woman whose name was suppressed. “I became a sniper. I could have been a radio operator. […] But they told me they needed people to shoot, so I shot. I did it well. I have two Orders of Glory and four medals. For three years of war. […] How did the Motherland meet us? I can’t speak without sobbing … It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn. The men said nothing, but the women … They shouted at us, ‘We know what you did there! You lured our men with your young c----! Army whores … Military bitches’ They insulted us in all possible ways … The Russian vocabulary is rich ...” But she gets married a year after the war. “I have two children … A boy and a girl. First I had a boy. A good, intelligent boy. But the girl … My girl … She began to walk when she was five, said her first word, ‘mama,’ at seven. […] She’s been in an insane asylum … For forty years. Since I retired, I go there every day. It’s my sin […] I’ve been punished … For what? Maybe for having killed people? I sometimes think so […] I don’t have a grudge against my husband, I forgave him long ago. The girl was born … He looked at us … He stayed for a while and left. Left with a reproach: ‘Would a normal woman have gone to war? Learned to shoot? That’s why you’re unable to give birth to a normal child. […] Maybe he’s right? I sometimes think so … it’s my sin […] To my girl … To her alone … I recall the war, and she thinks I’m telling her fairy tales. Children’s fairy tales. Scary children’s fairy tales … “ ( )
  featherbear | Jan 5, 2018 |
Eindelijk heeft de Tweede Wereldoorlog toch ook een vrouwengezicht gekregen, en dat dankzij Alexijevitch. Mijn waardering kan misschien aan de lage kant lijken, maar dit is in elk geval een heel interessant, goed opgebouwd boek met tal van gruwelijke en vertederende getuigenissen. Een documentair boek dus, geen literatuur, als is de auteur natuurlijk duidelijk aanwezig in het schetsen van de context en in het duiden van de emoties waarmee de getuigenissen werden aangebracht. Een prachtig en ook typerend geval van Oral History. ( )
  maxernst11 | Nov 5, 2017 |
There is not feminine about war. It brings out the worse and the best of people. Author Alexievich gathers unique war stories of Soviet woman who fought on the front line in all sorts of capacities during World War 2. One memory may only be a paragraph long while other several pages. Their experiences are not belittled or downplayed. The women reached into their memories to describe battlefield conditions, suffering, and death. Memories they were not either allowed to or encouraged not to speak of once the war ended. While this book will help end doubts on whether women can serve on the front lines of battle, it clearly shows that the ability to serve regardless of gender comes down to individual commitment.

I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway. Although encouraged, I was under no obligation to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
  bemislibrary | Oct 29, 2017 |
A good read. Alexievich more or less invented this type of lit. This book has a few of the censors comments early on. These idiots actually thought that they could retell ww2 from the government's point of view, Apparently the Russians did not even contact any of these women until 30 years had gone by, This is the author's first book, and it reads quite well; the stories are all about women volunteers in the war, unlike her most recent efforts which followed a lot of heroes of both sexes as they were jailed by Stalin after the war. ( )
  annbury | Aug 10, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Svetlana Alexievichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ackerman, GaliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Öberg Lindsten, KajsaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Braat, Jan RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Braungardt, Ganna-MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lequesne, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pevear, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rapetti, SergioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Volokhonsky, LarissaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ik schrijf een boek over de oorlog... En dat terwijl ik nooit hield van oorlogsboeken, de favoriete lectuur van al mijn leeftijdgenoten in mijn jeugd.
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"Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, War's Unwomanly Face is Svetlana Alexievich's collection of stories of women's experiences in World War II, both on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories. This is a new, distinct version of the war we're so familiar with. Alexievich gives voice to women whose stories are lost in the official narratives, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals. Collectively, these women's voices provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human side of the war. When the Swedish Academy awarded Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize in Literature, they praised her "polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time," and cited her for inventing "a new kind of literary genre." Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, added that her work comprises "a history of emotions -- a history of the soul."--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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