Second-hand Time

Published 23 May 2016, French paperback with flaps, 704 pages | Paperback, 702 pages
Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature


Today is the publication day of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time (which is available to buy from our website). Here’s an extract:


Alexander Porfirievich Sharpilo, retired, 63 years old


Strangers, what do you want, coming here? People keep coming and coming. Well, death never comes for no reason, there’s always a reason. Death will find a reason.
He burned alive on his vegetable patch, among his cucumbers… Poured acetone over his head and lit a match. I was sitting here watching TV when suddenly I heard screaming. An old person’s voice… a familiar voice, like Sashka’s… and then another, younger voice. A student had been walking past, there’s a technical college nearby, and there he was, a man on fire. What can you say! He ran over, started trying to put him out. Got burned himself. By the time I got outside, Sashka was on the ground, moaning… his head all yellow… You’re not from around here, what do you care? What do you need a stranger’s grief for?

Everyone wants a good look at death. Ooh! Well… In our village, where I lived with my parents before I was married, there was an old man who liked to come and watch people die. The women would shame him and chase him away: ‘Shoo, devil!’ but he’d just sit there. He ended up living a long time. Maybe he really was a devil! How can you watch? Where do you look… in what direction? After death, there is nothing. You die and that’s it – they bury you. But when you’re alive, even if you’re unhappy, you can walk around in the breeze or stroll through the garden. When the spirit leaves, there’s no person left, just the dirt. The spirit is the spirit and everything else is just dirt. Dirt and nothing else. Some die in the cradle, others live until their hair goes grey. Happy people don’t want to die… and those who are loved don’t want to die, either. They beg to stay on longer. But where are these happy people? On the radio, they’d said that after the war was over, we would all be happy, and Khrushchev, I remember, promised… he said that communism would soon be upon us. Gorbachev swore it, too, and he spoke so beautifully… it had sounded so good. Now Yeltsin’s making the same promises. He even threatened to lie down on the train tracks… I waited and waited for the good life to come. When I was little, I waited for it… and then when I got a little older… Now I’m old. To make a long story short, everyone lied and things only ever got worse. Wait and see, wait and suffer. Wait and see… My husband died. He went out, collapsed, and that was that – his heart stopped. You couldn’t measure it or weigh it, all the trouble we’ve seen. But here I am, still alive. Living. My children all scattered: my son is in Novosibirsk, and my daughter stayed in Riga with her family, which, nowadays, means that she lives abroad. In a foreign country. They don’t even speak Russian there any more.

I have an icon in the corner and a little dog so that there’s someone to talk to. One stick of kindling won’t start a fire, but I do my best. Oh… It’s good of God to have given man cats and dogs… and trees and birds… He gave man everything so that he would be happy and life wouldn’t seem too long. So life wouldn’t wear him down. The one thing I haven’t gotten sick of is watching the wheat turn yellow. I’ve gone hungry so many times that the thing I love best is ripening grain, seeing the sheaves swaying in the wind. For me, it’s as beautiful as the paintings in a museum are for you… Even now, I don’t hanker after white bread – there’s nothing better than salted black bread with sweet tea. Wait and see… and then wait some more… The only remedy we know for every kind of pain is patience. Next thing you know, your whole life’s gone by. That’s how it was for Sashka… Our Sashka… He waited and waited and then he couldn’t take it any longer. He got tired. The body lies in the earth, but the soul has to answer for everything. [She wipes her tears.] That’s how it is! We cry down here… and when we die, we cry then, too…

People have started believing in God again because there is no other hope. In school, they used to teach us that Lenin was God and Karl Marx was God. The churches were used to store grain and stockpile beets. That’s how it was until the war came. War broke out… Stalin reopened the churches so prayers would be said for the victory of Russian arms. He addressed the people: ‘Brothers and sisters… My friends…’ And what had we been before that? Enemies of the people… Kulaks and kulak sympathizers… In our village, all of the best families were subjected to dekulakization; if they had two cows and two horses, that was already enough to make them kulaks. They’d ship them off to Siberia and abandon them in the barren taiga forest… Women smothered their children to spare them the suffering. Oh, so much woe… so many tears… More tears than there is water on this Earth. Then Stalin goes addressing his ‘brothers and sisters’… we believed him. Forgave him. And defeated Hitler! He showed up with his tanks… gleaming and iron-plated… and we defeated him anyway! But what am I today? Who are we now? We’re the electorate… I watch TV, I never miss the news… we’re the electorate now. Our job is to go and vote for the right candidate then call it a day. I was sick one time and didn’t make it to the polling station, so they drove over here themselves. With a red box. That’s the one day they actually remember us… Yep…

We die how we lived… I even go to church and wear a little cross, but there has never been any joy in my life, and there isn’t any now. I never got any happiness. And now even praying won’t help. I just hope that I get to die soon… I hope the heavenly kingdom hurries up and comes, I’m sick of waiting. Just like Sashka… He’s in the graveyard now, resting. [She crosses herself.] They buried him with music, with tears. Everyone wept. Many tears are shed on that day, people feel sorry for you. But what’s the point of repenting? Who can hear us after death? All that’s left of him are two rooms in a barracks house, a vegetable patch, some red certificates, and a medal: ‘Victor of Socialist Emulation’. I have a medal just like that in my cabinet. I was a Stakhanovite* and a deputy. There wasn’t always enough to eat, but there were plenty of red certificates. They’d hand you one and take your picture. Three families live together in this barracks. We moved in when we were young, we thought it would only be for a year or two, but we ended up spending our entire lives here. And we’ll die in this barracks, too. For twenty, for thirty years… people were on the waiting list for an apartment, putting up with this… Then, one day, Gaidar comes and laughs in our faces: Go ahead and buy one! With what money? Our money evaporated… one reform, then another… We were robbed! What a country they flushed down the toilet! Every family had had two little rooms, a small shed, and a vegetable patch. We were exactly the same. Look at all the money we made! We’re rich! We spent our whole lives believing that one day, we would all live well. It was a lie! A great big lie! And our lives… better not to remember what they were like… We endured, worked and suffered. Now we’re not even living any more, we’re just waiting out our final days.