Originally published in Russian in 1985, this English translation offers an oral history from more than 100 survivors of the Nazi invasion of Russia—adults recalling painful childhood memories of war—gathered by the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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.