Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
This April it would be 30 years since a nuclear disaster had struck Chernobyl, a nuclear plant in Pripyat in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at that time. And it was only fitting that Voices from Chernobyl, a book by Ukrainian journalist Svetlana Alexievich that enshrined the lives of people affected by this catastrophic event, was selected for the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2015.
“The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster,” as Alexievich calls it, forces our attention back to the lives of people who have become untouchables among their own people, best forgotten because they raise uncomfortable questions about what really happened at the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 and how the Soviet authorities misled people in the days and weeks following the explosion and denied the real threats it posed.
Written in a polyphonic style, the book takes the reader through the lives of survivors from the exclusion zone (simply called the Zone) – families of fire-fighters who went to douse the fire at the nuclear plant, school teachers with a classroom full of listless children who spend more time in hospitals than playgrounds, soldiers who were sent to the Zone as “liquidators” with orders to cull all the animals, dig the top soil and bury it in ditches, and fell and bury trees.
The monologues in the book unfold the tragedies in a completely raw format, almost as if unedited transcripts of the interviews have gone to print. Personal accounts of unimaginable suffering, stories of monumental neglect and apathy, reports of stoic heroism and an attitude of nation-before-self that Russians were brought up on, and some dark humour come straight from the heart, unadulterated by the writer’s prejudice or creative imagination.
Well, the book doesn’t quite call for any imagination; the facts are at times stranger than what one can imagine. A man who is ordered to evacuate from the Zone agrees to leave without his possessions, except for his main door which is a family relic, a talisman. So he tears the door out and carries it with him on a motorcycle. Then there are love stories that tear through your heart – a newly married woman thwarts all attempts by the hospital to keep her away from her husband who is one of the first fire-fighters to reach the plant and has received extremely high doses of radiation. She cares for him till the end, making sure there is not a wrinkle on the bedsheet as a wrinkle is enough to wound him.
Half-way through the book I found some of the monologues a bit repetitive. I’d also have liked to read more accounts of those in the authorities for their version of the disaster and the fallout.
Voices from Chernobyl is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it. There is suffering, anger, fear and a deep sense of being let down but there are also touching stories of love without the fear of consequences, a sense of duty without any questions, and a will to fight without the promise of a future.
Panchalee is a writer and founder of content services firm, Purple Iris Media. She worked as a journalist for over 12 years before setting up Purple Iris Media that provides niche content services to companies from different industries. Panchalee also contributes to The Straits Times in Singapore, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. In her free time, she loves to read, do yoga and try out new recipes to cook.Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Pinterest