Oral history is an important research tool, but it has not often been treated as literature ... Alexievich transforms the genre, turning it into literature through her editing and orchestration. That word is not idly chosen; there is a distinctly musical flow to the way she groups speakers and subjects ... Her speakers echo one another’s experiences at points, although they sharply split off at others, and their personalities can emerge with startling clarity ... recollections are so deeply etched that they appear uncorrupted by passing time; in them their protagonists are forever children ... the horror and misery seldom let up. The memories, often recounted in fastidious detail, are wildly sad one by one and emotionally overwhelming in aggregate. The book is guaranteed to leave any reader a sodden mess. If the most nightmarish recollections do not summon tears, those will be brought forth by the instances of kindness.
In stark contrast with the official myth of the war, the hundred fragmentary reminiscences that make up Last Witnesses contain only the slightest reminders of ideology. Even the names of Soviet leaders are few and far between. Instead, personal emotion and naive recollection come to the fore ... Last Witnesses is an intricate lacework of speech and silence ... Ellipses break up nearly every paragraph as Alexievich’s subjects recall the banality of deprivation, hunger and fear alongside the horror of bloodshed and cruelty. This is silence elevated into allegory ... Aside from the interviewee’s (perhaps fictional) name, age at war’s outbreak, and adult profession, we learn nearly no details of his or her later biography or of when and where the account was recorded. This decontextualization has the effect of integrating each individual voice into a chorus of shared motifs ... Key to this polyphony are the idiosyncrasies and rhythms of oral speech that Alexievich captures and that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky expertly preserve in their translation from the Russian ... Last Witnesses is a masterly and potent reminder that the memory of loss belongs to individuals and communities, and not to the states that turn its psychic energy to other ends.
A chilling, enchanted naturalism fills the book’s pages ... offers a war narrative that hues closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Homer. The book’s gift is to allow the child’s malleable perception to flash alongside the adult’s somber recollections ... How adroitly Alexievich sticks her landings should warn readers against treating these interviews as journalistic records of raw testimony. In form and spirit they are closer to prose poems, sometimes even songs, built around repeating refrains. Alexievich is a master at employing the withheld detail to undercut the unfiltered sentimentalism of a narrator, or adding a poetic sting to an otherwise prosaic entry. Often her technique serves to show how children’s boundless affection and their naïve egoism are both born of an instinct for self-preservation ... These mini-turns function like the tuning of an aperture, opening the lens wide to allow for a deluge of suffering, then narrowing again to show us the human capacity to absorb such loss ... Despite the number of respondents, the scope of Last Witnesses is less kaleidoscopic than that of Alexievich’s other books.
Last Witnesses is a painful book, but also a seductive one. These terrible stories demand to be read ... Random memories merge, forming a kaleidoscope of suffering ... Every page is packed with misery, violence and loss, but also with incredible resilience ... Childhood memories of war are elemental, stripped bare of political nuance and moral relativism. These subjects tell Alexievich precisely what happened. Their memories are often linked directly to the senses ... This book is a relentless torrent of unspeakable horror ... Despite all the horror, a message about human kindness somehow percolates to the surface. All these children survived because someone, usually a stranger, helped them at a crucial moment.
... like all of [Alexievich’s] books, works by accretion. There are more than a hundred accounts of childhood, each told with a familiar, blunt poignancy ... It is tempting to compare Alexievich’s work to that of the great oral historians, such as Studs Terkel – a closer cousin is John Hersey’s indelible account of the survivors of Hiroshima – but there is a special sort of clear-eyed humility to her reporting. She apparently gets entirely out of the way of her subjects and lets them do all the telling. Her only preface here is a pointed quote from Dostoevsky asking if ideology, revolution, war, ever justifies the tears of even one child. Alexievich’s life’s work, as an attentive listener to all the collected sorrows and stubborn survival of her homeland, quietly, unflinchingly and unforgettably serves to answer that question in the negative.
Last Witnesses...is devastating. The language is simple, the chapters are short, and the book is agony to read ... Alexievich edited the interviews tightly—some are less than a page, none longer than a couple of pages. That distillation gives them enormous power ... Alexievich’s decision not to include a preface was not an oversight, but a stroke of brilliance ... Almost certainly many of these narrators are gone now. Their voices, though, live on. They haunt us.
Alexievich is a gifted listener and writer with a phenomenal sense of rhythm and repetition. The testimonies she brings to us are, to a degree, stylized ... And yet these narratives do not read as 'art;' they are the lived moments of Soviet and post-Soviet citizens, unforgettable accounts of disaster, war, hunger, and bloodshed ... what Alexievich’s hundreds of interviews offer is a unique sort of collective sorrow—not one voice, one memory, one perspective, but the war viewed through a field of eyes ... Alexievich...withholds express judgment; she simply selects, artfully ... Last Witnesses is a sustained, belated Kaddish, a lament for all that is lost to children when they are subjected to the most extreme forms of human cruelty ... Last Witnesses asks us to confront ourselves in every decision we make—what we buy, who we buy it from, where we donate, whom we hate, how we love. If we instigate or participate in abuse, or if we turn a blind eye to it, how will we be remembered?
Stories of humanity and compassion, revealed in inhumane circumstances, are among the most moving in the book ... This extraordinary book serves to remind us about civilian suffering brought on by conflict ... Ms. Alexievich’s book tests our threshold for pain. But along with it comes an awareness that we must listen to the witnesses. Their accounts are a part of our collective memory.
There is not much contextual narrative; no clear authorial voice intervening to explain what her subject is describing; no nod to how she found these people, how many days she spoke to them or her methodology. Instead, she is at once interviewer, reporter, oral historian, stenographer, interlocutor and ghostwriter, rendering with painful immediacy the memories of those with whom she spoke ... questions regarding professional disciplines do nothing to diminish the power of what she has created in Last Witnesses, as she excavates and briefly gives prominence to demolished lives and eradicated communities ... Why read a book of such unremitting misery? More to the point, why is a book of such unremitting misery so compulsively readable? ... The narrative through-lines are suffering and wartime atrocities, not plot and character. But somehow it is impossible not to turn the page, impossible not to wonder whom we next might meet, impossible not to think differently about children caught in conflict.
... in its attention to the most unsuspecting of bystanders—children—is arguably a guide to all of Alexievich’s writing ... In Alexievich’s books, people retreat inward to survive and anything outside of the most intimate of spaces distorts into indiscernibility ... a bracing reminder of the enduring power of the written word to testify to pain like no other medium ... is at its most bracing when it captures the minds of children struggling to adjust to their new realities ... revise[s] the idealized vision of a patriotic childhood that permeates post-Soviet nostalgia to this day. The book presents a generation of young people whose experiences of the war were not defined by ideology or national pride, but rather through personal loss and family trauma.
In her great works, while allowing her witnesses to speak for themselves, Alexievich occasionally intervenes to comment on the challenges she underwent while composing the work, her feelings around the material, and so on ... In Last Witnesses, she is entirely absent: on the first page, a voice begins to speak – an adult recalling childhood experiences of war. A few pages later, another voice takes over, and this relay continues till the end, with no particular shape to the material nor any authorial comment at all ... Resultantly, there is no real structure to the book, nor much to suggest that Alexievich has sequenced the testimonies so that they might become more than the sum of their parts ... somewhat lesser than its author’s greatest books, yet the project of which it is an instalment elicits deepening awe at what this still-living Belarusian has accomplished: an irreplaceable 'living history' of the Soviet Union and its people. Alexievich stands among the greatest chroniclers of hell, but she is also an affirmer of that grizzled and unfashionable entity, the human spirit. Few have done so much to trace the emotional contours of the 20th century’s cataclysms before they tumble into oblivion.
Given the speed with which memories alter and the way that perceptions of the past shift to reflect the mood of the present, [the testimonies] might have benefited from a little more context—the ages of the witnesses perhaps, or the dates of the interviews. But this is a small matter. What counts is that Alexievich has refused to allow Soviet history to be written without the voices of the people who endured the wars, calamities, famines, poverty and political persecutions that filled the 20th century. However grim and repetitive her books are, the cumulative effect, not least of Lost Witnesses, is extremely powerful. This is for the most part because her own views—that war is atrocious, and that the poor, the powerless, minorities and dissidents, and even people who simply happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, are readily disposed of by those in power—are explicit in her choice of excerpts and the craft with which she shapes them. Few people have ever conjured better the pain of loss.
Like all of Alexievich’s...books, this one makes for a difficult but powerful reading experience ... As usual, Alexievich shines a bright light on those who were there; an excellent book but not for the faint of heart.
...[a] moving work of oral history ... engrossing ... This disturbing and inspiring literary monument to the human, humane spirit that survives unimaginable horror brings to life the devastation of war.