Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer

May 11, 2016

51QT-vnBv4L._AC_US160_I remember the disaster at Chernobyl happening thirty years ago. A major recollection is the Western attitude: it was crappy communist technology; it could never happen here. I’ve never believed that. And we are perhaps about to have new nuclear plants built here in Britain by the Chinese…

For complex historical reasons, a branch of my family found itself, not through choice, living in what was then the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the single territory most affected by the disaster. I have no evidence to link them with the disaster, but a couple of members of our family died unexpectedly young of cancer after the ‘accident’. There were stories of luminous rain at night at the time of the accident.

Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her writing last year; it’s easy to see why. This book is a series of monologues – obviously prompted by questions – from a wide range of people whose lives were affected by what happened. It is one of the grimmest and most harrowing things I’ve ever read.

It’s framed by two lengthy pieces from two women whose partners were some of those who went in at the very start, with no thought of the consequences to themselves, to mitigate the consequences of the accident. They both died, very unpleasantly. Other stories are just as chilling, in other ways: the two year-old who begged for his father’s hat, and developed a brain tumour. The little girl born with so many body parts missing or mutated that I could not believe someone like that could have lived…

Apparently the equivalent of the radioactive fallout from 350 Hiroshimas is distributed randomly over the territory of Belarus… But the most shocking thing of all, that comes across repeatedly, is that people cannot comprehend the nature of the silent, deadly disaster that has happened to them, and so they continue as normal. Belarus, after all, suffered horrendously in the Second World War; its people knew what war, disaster, horror meant. Here, they refuse to leave, they go back, they produce, sell and eat their crops; people loot, steal and sell stuff on the black market; the radioactivity is distributed across the entire nation and more widely…

The attempt to clear up is Pythonesque: everything is supposed to be buried, even contaminated soil… and there aren’t the resources, there isn’t the organisation to do any of this properly. It’s very easy to talk about communist inefficiency and corruption meaning that it was chaotic, but I cannot see how any country anywhere, faced with a catastrophe of this magnitude, would be able to cope sensibly and rationally.

Alexievich’s monologue format works really well: ordinary people are allowed to speak. Their intelligence – or their ignorance – shines through; their bravery, or recklessness and stupidity is evident. People’s loyalty to their country, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to tackle the immediate consequences of the accident is very clear; chaos and confusion only unfolds later on. She allows experts and lay people to speak, those ‘responsible’ and frauds, the young and the old. I read compulsively, fascinated and horrified.

This is a link to an article I came across just before I wrote this post:

Germany had so much renewable energy on Sunday that it had to pay people to use electricity

 

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One Response to “Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer”


  1. […] non-fiction: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. You haven’t read anything about the Chernobyl accident until you read […]

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