Book Reviews / Just Words

Alexievich’s Zinky Boys reviewed – Killing in the name of the Soviet Union

In honour of Svetlana Alexievich’s awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2015, I unearthed my first-impression review written four years ago of Zinky Boys, a masterpiece of non-fiction writing.

I just finished reading Zinky Boys and I don’t feel very well.  The stories Alexievich reports are like a fist in the stomach, every single one of them hits you hard, and leaves you with a feeling of nausea and deep, deep sadness. Because it is so powerful, I really liked the way she reported about the war: since she doesn’t want to write about it, she reports about the people who were affected by it. She writes, at the very beginning: “I can’t rid myself of the feeling that war is the product of the male nature. I find it hard to fathom” and so in order to understand, she reports a vivid and wide account of what went on through first-hand stories of those who were involved, one way or another, in the Afghan war fought by the Soviet Union. [5]

Every story is different, but there are reoccurring themes: the idea of being lied to regarding the purposes of the war, the lack of brotherhood between the soldiers, the sense of alienation from society after the war: “The only thing we had in common was fear. We were all lied to in the same way, we all wanted to survive and we all wanted to get home. What we’ve got in common now that we are back home is that we haven’t got a thing to call our own (…) The young people ignore us. There is absolutely no mutual understanding. [19]

The different accounts explain the reasons why those people went to Afghanistan, how they felt while they were there, and how they felt afterwards. I appreciated the diversity in the roles of the people Alexievich interviewed: not only the soldier, but also the nurse, the doctor, the civilian employee and, most importantly, the mother. By listening to the mothers of those who died, we don’t limit the experience of the war to the survivors, but we also get to know those who came back in the zinc coffins.

The mothers’ accounts were the most emotional to read. As a reader, I feel that every experience I encounter, as shocking as it can be, can be somehow accepted, but the memory of a mother who has lost her son is very hard to deal with. One of them, while talking about her son, kept on repeating “My little sunshine” and I could imagine she was crying while telling the story to Alexievich. [52-53] I feel she kept the interviews as genuine as possible, and I’m grateful for that, because sometimes it’s not enough to repeat a story, but you need to convey the way it was told to report it fairly. I think Alexievich has done a marvelous job in that respect.

The stories are honest and sometimes confused, but mostly they show how humanity and inhumanity coexist within human beings. She reports the memories she’s told without trying to make sense of them, letting the person speak about random events, spitting out all their disillusionment and, often, anger. A private recalls his frustration when he realises he’s not been told the truth, and he wants to do something about it. His mother stops him and says: “We’ve lived like this all our lives”. [21]

Zinky Boys is not only about the Afghan war, it’s also about being a citizen of the Soviet Union: this social-political-military combination makes it incredibly compelling to read.



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