Suicide and Salami

by jkatejohnston

June 16-25

Dear Max,

I’ve stopped writing because I’m on a Russian/Soviet reading kick: Voices From Chernobyl and Second Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. And now Gulag by Anne Applebaum. It’s terrific fun. I’ve never been able to understand why people get depressed by books about terrible things. I get depressed by upbeat blogs about animals, gardens and children. Fuck the children. Give me the Gulag.

The Alexievich books are long interviews edited into narrative. And they’re great, astounding, how did she do it? You can tell that she took notes and used a tape-recorder, because the interviewees say things like, “turn off the tape” or “write this part down.” But she doesn’t say how extensively edited the interviews are. My guess is, she did a lot of editing, a lot of selecting, a lot of moving stuff around. Because the interviews have all the naturalness of speech without any of its awkwardness and triviality. And they’re so good.

Also, I shouldn’t say I guess because I went online to find out and read some interviews with Alexievich where she describes her method. She meets with her subjects multiple times and end ups with hundreds of pages of transcripts. From that she distills the narrative that ends up in the book. And she somehow doesn’t mess it up.

An alternative title could be Suicide and Salami because both are mentioned in almost every interview. Of course, that hits the wrong tone. But you do realize after a while that hunger, violence, heroism and despair are big parts of Soviet and now Russian life. And the passionate love affair with alcohol is always there.

And the wars. They’re so present. Almost everyone mentions beating Hitler, even those born long afterward. Many mention that they could have beat the West. They were prepared to do it. A feeling of being at war seems never to have left them.

And then the disappointments of capitalism and democracy—how people read so much more back when there was censorship. A poet could fill a stadium. There’s something touching about that censored, hungry, heroic Soviet life. Of course you’d never want to go back, but infinite choice has its drawbacks.

I told Teresa some of the stories from the book, and it sounded like a catalog of horrors. But it’s not that. It’s a catalog of humanity. And ominous. An empire rising from its knees is dangerous.

The Applebaum book is great too, but it’s more straight history, not the addictive miracle that Alexievich pulls off. It’s scholarly and responsible.

I don’t know why I’m so set on these Russians. I know almost nothing about our own history, especially the less attractive parts. But I’m not really in it to learn. I’m in it for pleasure, and this is what landed in my hands that I don’t want to put down. Teresa and Enzo are about to go to the library, and so in a few minutes it’ll be just me in the hammock with mojitos and Gulag—heaven.