Posts Tagged ‘Chernobyl Prayer’

Svetlana Alexievich: Last Witnesses

October 24, 2018

51ry8viRY5L._AC_US218_This is a book I don’t think I can bear to read again, so harrowing is the subject-matter; I was conscious of deliberately distancing myself as I read it. Svetlana Alexievich deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago. This Belorussian writer is determined that there are certain things that must not and will not be forgotten; she has collected testimonies from those who dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet women who fought in the Second World War, those who remember life in the Soviet Union, and here, the children who lived through the Second World War.

She collects testimonies – a couple of pages, up to half a dozen; there are no questions, the witnesses remember, and speak, reliving their trauma as they do. In this book she tell us the name of the speaker, their age when war broke out in 1941 and their current profession. She took over twenty years collecting these testimonies. There are some who have challenges her methods and suggested she edits to exaggerate effects; I’m sorry, but faced with testimonies like these, I do not have time for such nit-picking.

It’s a truism that children suffer the most in a war. Here, we learn just what they did have to go through in this most brutal of wars, invasion by the Nazis, who regarded Russians as subhumans and treated them as such. There are so many random killings, so many slaughters of innocent villagers in revenge for partisan attacks, burnings of villages, torturings; there are children who live in the forests with partisans for years. So many orphans: small children see their parents gunned down, unable to comprehend. And – though I thought I was inured to this, but I wasn’t – so much random sadism and viciousness by German soldiers.

I’m not going to go into any more detail than this, apart from to mention one particular detail: the testimonies of starvation, particularly from children who managed to survive the 900 days of the siege of Leningrad. Peeling off the wallpaper to suck out the glue I just about coped with, but I was genuinely speechless when I came to a section titled ‘We ate the park’… some children, evacuated after the siege to a small town, saw a park, swooped on it and devoured every bit of living greenery in sight…

Here in the privileged West we are accustomed to see Russians as dangerous, potential warmongers to be kept in check; we have no comprehension what it would have been like to live through such times and therefore no understanding of their determination to be secure enough for nothing like it ever to be visited on them again.

I can’t imagine any of my readers are wanting to read this book for yourselves, but if you do, I’m afraid my searches have not succeeded in finding an English translation. I wonder why…

Advertisements

2016: my year of reading

December 31, 2016

Looking back on 2016, I’m struck by how little reading I’ve actually done this year – only 51 books finished, the lowest total since 2001. There are a couple of ‘started and paused, probably given up’ (Celine’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, and Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, if you really want to know). And I’ve managed to reduce my acquisitions for the year to 38, which is a reasonable achievement in my judgement; it would have been considerably lower but for a spree in November… And I’ve continued with the culling of the library too, although I’m not sure it really shows.

My blog – this one, which you are currently visiting – has been a bit more popular this year, in terms of visits and people signing up for regular access, although I can’t say I’ve made the big time. I have been a little surprised by what have been my most popular posts: both of the following have pretty much the same number of reads. There’s Theodore Kroeger’s The Forgotten Village – I’m not sure why so many have wanted to read about this obscure volume; it’s recently been republished in France, which is where my copy came from, but the visitors haven’t been from there. And then there was Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass, an even more obscure book on the future of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); I suppose many of those visitors may well be Quakers who have heard about the book. And I get visitors to the blog from so many different countries, though not unsurprisingly the UK and USA head the list.

Awards for 2016

Best new book: definitely Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, which I’m currently devouring and will review later, when I get to the end. I could have given the award to her book Chernobyl Prayer (see below)

Weirdest: probably Vassili Peskov’s Ermites dans le Taiga, a true tale of a family totally isolated and surviving in the depths of Siberia for almost forty years without any other human contact.

Best non-fiction: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. You haven’t read anything about the Chernobyl accident until you read this book. The first chapter will break your heart.

Most disappointing: Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit, by Celine, which I’ve felt guilty about for years for not reading, and started this year, but put down for something more interesting. It wasn’t that the book was boring or unreadable, just not gripping enough to keep me interested; I’ve kept thinking that I’d go back to it but so much time has now elapsed that I’d probably have to begin again, which I can’t see myself doing.

Resolutions for 2017: repeat last year’s to buy fewer books, read more, and diminish the pile of unread books sitting in piles everywhere. I’m also, slowly, contemplating the possibility of a re-design of this blog, so that it looks a little less austere, and is perhaps a little easier to find your way around. Would that be a good idea, or do you prefer it as it is?

And so farewell to the world of words for 2016.

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

 

%d bloggers like this: