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A melody of voices

Svetlana Alexievich’s ear for the testimony of war and hardship made her a Nobel laureate. In a rare interview, she reveals how she marries the craft of journalism with the novelist’s art

In a vast, draughty exhibition centre at the Minsk book fair, hundreds of people stand in line. The queue straggles past the children’s bookstand and around a fake red phone box installed by the British embassy. People have been here for hours. At the other end of the hall, a slight woman sits at a table silently signing books. Occasionally she poses for photographs, looking uncomfortable. It is going to be a long day.

When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, few people outside the Russian-speaking world had heard of her. Some questioned whether a little-known oral historian from Belarus deserved the honour. But here in Minsk, her country’s capital, Alexievich has long been a household name, revered because her writings have trained a spotlight on this disregarded, much-abused corner of Europe. Although—or perhaps because— her books were not officially available for years, a victim of Belarus’s zealous censorship, she is the nearest thing the country has to an international celebrity.

Even so, seven hours later, in a reception room for a dinner in her honour, Alexievich admits that the role of national treasure is not one she finds straightforward. “I don’t enjoy it, the fuss,” she confides in me, nipping at a glass of red wine with obvious relief. There were 400 autograph-hunters at the fair, and she turned away 200 more. She pulls a face: what can you do?

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In Prospect’s April issue: Ross McKibbin, John Curtice and Lisa Nandy examine the state of the Labour Party and question its survival at the next general election. McKibbin takes a long view and suggests that the party’s problems started long before Jeremy Corbyn, Curtice argues that breaking the party is unlikely to go as well as some may think and Nandy argues that tackling unaccountable power could help restore faith in the party. Nicholas Timmins says the NHS has always experienced financial crises so is this time any different? Lucy Wadham charts the rise of France’s Front National. Also in this issue: Owen Hatherley explores Edinburgh’s architectural conundrum, Freya Johnston on Jane Austen and Avi Shlaim on the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin—the last best hope for peace.