Svetlana Alexievich — Chernobyl Prayer (1997)
Setting: Chernobyl — 1986 and the events that followed the nuclear disaster.
What it’s about: In a work not quite fiction, not quite reportage, people from Chernobyl tell their story to investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich: like the old woman who still lives in the contaminated zone, after hiding during the evacuation, and constantly evokeing the memories of people being taken away during the war.
It’s as much about the end, and in some ways a dark apotheosis, of the Soviet Union as it is about the catastrophe. All the old tropes of communist rule are exposed the denials (“the sheer volume of lies”), hiding the true nature of the disaster, sacrificing soldiers and workers in the thousands while motivating them with the cult of heroism and blaming external enemies.
Soldiers tell of being sent in to clean up the contamination, drinking vodka and fruit from the zone, getting big bonuses and then finding they have terminal cancer or leukaemia — in extreme cases their bones and organs literally melt away. Doctors and scientists obey the authorities and keep the scale of the disaster secret, even from people at risk of contamination.
“The dairy factories were fulfilling their Plans. We tested what they were producing. It was not milk, it was radioactive waste…It was all on sale in the shops. When people read on the labels that milk was from Rogachev, they rejected it and the stocks piled up. Then jars suddenly started appearing without labels.”
Its striking how many witnesses talk about the disaster as war, as the writer herself says:
“…war was, we could say, the yardstick of horror. In Chernobyl, we appear to see all the hallmarks of war: hordes of soldiers, evacuation, abandoned houses….The history of disasters has begun.”
Or as a hunter hired to kill stray animals says:
“I’m telling you,, it was a war zone. Cats looking into people’s eyes, their dogs howling, trying to get on their buses. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages. Evacuation…God forbid we ever have another!”
The most powerful story is from a campaigner who runs a museum about Chernobyl and talks about the miners and soldiers who prevented a greater disaster (p 171 in the most recent Penguin edition). “They call it an accident, a disaster, but it was war”.
Read this if you liked: Dispatches by Michael Herr.
The best book from Belarus? Its certainly about a defining moment and the way the country responds to and remembers it. I’d also point you to Chagall’s autobiography for a picture of a lost Belarus — the shtetl.
Like Chagall, this book uses animals to express emotions beautifully. Chagall uses animals to express joy, birth and happiness, in Chernobyl they express fear, contamination, death and the absence of life:
“The helpless cries of the animals. They were shrieking in all their different languages”
Although they also provide comfort to the lonely people who refused to leave the contaminated zone.
Rating: * (powerful testimony, but the multitude of voices hinders the flow as a novel somewhat.)