Last Witnesses



A few nights ago Jim & I finished reading "Last Witnesses" aloud. These days we do a lot of reading to each other, mostly when we are driving, the one who is riding shotgun reading to the other. It started with audio books when we were traveling on our way to somewhere on tour, but after a while it just sort of evolved and so has become a "thing" with us. Now even when we are just driving into town we almost always pick up where we left off on whatever book we are working through. 

Last Witnesses by  BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH  caught my attention several months ago, before it came out. I pre-ordered it right away. Felt drawn to it. Paid more money for it than any kindle book, yet. Then I kind of forgot about it. When it arrived in my Kindle Library we were reading something else. I wasn't even sure if Jim would be interested in reading this together. It is a collection of memories of Russian children who lived through WWII. But when it came time to start a new book we plunged in together and have come out the other side somewhat changed. 

Although the subject matter was completely different, Last Witnesses had in it an element that I wanted to capture in my writing for Tales of Agape. I wanted to see how a collage of memories from many different people could be done effectively. 

One critique of "Tales" was that my attempts to capture different "voices" through my writing didn't work well and the stories needed to be written with an eye toward that, maybe re-written altogether in third person so that a consistent "voice" would emerge. I wasn't too fond of that option but didn't want to hurt the project by refusing to budge on an issue like that, so planned on a re-writing almost everything. It felt like starting over and honestly, it was daunting. That's actually where the idea of blogging it came from; add more stories and reach out for more AFer memories. I could take it in smaller bites that way. 

But SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH had become well known for writing from many voices. They say she created her own genre and call her writing "polyphonic." Besides "Last Witnesses" she has written: 

  • Secondhand Time 
  • Voices from Chernobyl 
  • Zinky Boys 
  • The Unwomanly Face of War 

And when we read Last Witnesses we were captured by the memories themselves not the difference in the "voice." The stories were like bits of interviews. Just bits. There were a lot of ellipses; gaps. There were a few things said and written that we didn't fully understand, but it did come out as a chorus. I heard many voices speaking but didn't notice different writing voices. I think that was just testament to how well Svetlana did her job and perhaps how well the translators did theirs.

As Jim read the last page of the last story that ended the book on our way home from a gig in Tyler, I was struck by another thing. That child turned adult, who was aging toward silence, saw herself in a position to speak and as having an obligation to speak. 

She said, "We sensed, we felt at once that we were the last ones. At that limit…that brink…We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak…" 

Agape Force wasn't WWII. I wasn't writing about physical warfare, or about how we lost our Papas and our Mamas, or how we suffered starvation and fear and loss, but I realized that the reason I was feeling pressure to bring our stories back to the surface was the same as this woman's. Our time is ending. The years have flown. We were hardly more than children ourselves then, but here we are. We are at the brink, at the edge of our ability to be witnesses at all. 

"Last Witnesses" was a shot in the arm. I am not Svetlana, but I am encouraged as I take up the "pen" again and have another stab at calling attention to our collective story, to try to give voice to our chorus of memory.