The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories written by the Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner of 2015, Svetlana Alexievich, tells another story than ”War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face”. This time Alexievich shows her excel by sharing hundreds of children’s memories from Belarus during the Second World War. I thought my reading ”War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face” would have prepared me for every surprising or somewhat appalling detail in The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories but the fact is, I could not anticipate the way Alexievich had made the interviewed adults share so many exclusive moments from the past, filled with pain, horror and fear. Many of the children had been left behind by parents who either went to fight the enemy in the front army or in partisan groups and left their children with relatives. Many children were still in orphanages at the end of the war. Many parents never came back and their children still miss them:
”I’m already fifty-one, I am a mother myself, but I really do want a mother!” says one of the surviving children when interviewed by Alexievich.
What makes this book extraordinary is the way the author let short excerpts of longer interviews carry a few main topics that together form a war narrative we have never ever read before. The main topic is of course ”What happened in Belarus during the war?” however from a child’s point of view we rather see other topics, such as ”What happened to me when I lost my parents in the war?” or ”How could I survive although I didn’t have anything to eat except potato peels and grass?” and ”How could I survive and become an ordinary citizen after what I endured during the war?” What is even more interesting is that the reader is invited to read between the lines and make sense of all the narratives.
The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories is close to the limit of what is bearable to read. One of the reasons why it gets under your skin might be that Alexievich has told the interviewed narrators to try and remember the way they thought when they were children. Obviously Alexievich succceeded since the narratives all seem to be told by children and not by adults remembering their childhood! From each narrator, Alexievich has found a central quote and the story is in a way interrupted by those quotes, changes topic quite often, but since the quotes are followed by the names of the narrator and their occupation as adults, the structure of the novel makes sense and the reader has a chance to a short glimpse of the adult reflection, too, since many of them end their narrative with a short comment about ”now”.
When reading the book, I think a lot of the many cups of tea that Alexievich must have had in the homes of the war veterans…and I also marvel about the way she has found something special in each narrative to tell us, however never repeating herself. Actually each narrator tells a completely unique story. They all share memories from the war from the point of view of a child, however the focus differ and thus a kind of quilt of stories takes form in my imagination. I read about personal loss, of fear, hunger, famine, children joining the army. I read about children who cannot go to school because they have to work in a factory or about children who don’t recognise their parents when they (if lucky enough!) meet them again after the war. But underneath the sad and depressing surface I also read about patriotism and pride, about never giving up and never revealing secrets to the enemy. The post war Belarus was completely destroyed and needed to be built up again and some of the narratives shared experiences from the postwar building up period when every survivor was needed, even the children.
But why would this book be necessary to read? The children suffered in so many different ways, but without the adult mind it was impossible for them to fully comprehend why there had to be a war. They needed to grow up in order to do so. We owe it to them to pass it on to next generation what a great loss they experienced when losing their parents, their childhood, their health and their innocence. Again, like when I wrote my previous book review: #This is a book that has to be read and spread!