By RUTH SCURR
May 31 was Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s 68th birthday. She spent the evening in conversation with novelist James Meek in Cambridge at a sold-out event organized by Cambridge Literary Festival and English PEN. Afterwards the queue for her books – Second-Hand Time, first published in English last month with extracts featured in the TLS, and Chernobyl Prayer – filled three corridors and spilled out onto the street.
It is thirty years since the Chernobyl disaster. Meek began by asking Alexievich (who spoke through the excellent translator Marsha Karp) about memory. “Memory is a creature that is alive . . . nobody has simple relations with memory”, she said. Alexievich’s work is like a tapestry or collage assembled from other people’s memories and testimonials. “I don’t do interviews”, she insists when questioned about her technique. “I have conversations . . . the person must be interested in me . . . I must ask interesting questions and be prepared to answer questions myself.”