Paradox and poetry of Chernobyl

I was thrilled to see Svetlana Alexievich become the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In my years as a book critic, “Voices from Chernobyl” was one of the very best works that came across my desk. This piece is also in my collection “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.”

By J. Peder Zane

“What’s it like, radiation? Maybe they show it in the movies? Have you seen it? Is it white, or what? What color is it? … If it’s colorless, then it’s like God. God is everywhere, but you can’t see Him.” – Anna Petrovna Badaeva, resettler

“We didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics.” – Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, evacuee 

Here are the facts: At 1:23 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, 1986, a series of human and mechanical errors caused thunderous explosions in the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. As the reactor’s core smoldered for nine days, it released radioactive fallout about 350 times greater than that from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So far, 56 fatalities have been attributed to the disaster. About 2.1 million people still live on land contaminated by the accident.

But dates and death tolls do not begin to suggest the disaster’s enormity, how it cut the lives of millions into two distinct periods: before and after Chernobyl.

“There you are: a normal person. A little person. You’re just like everyone else. … And then one day you’re suddenly turned into a Chernobyl person. Into an animal, something that everyone’s interested in, and that no one knows anything about.” – Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, evacuee

“I got home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I liked and say, ‘Let’s get to know one another.’ ‘What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.’ ” – Viktor Sanko, soldier

The gifted Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich documents the disaster’s human fallout in her superlative book, “Voice from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen). In 1996, she interviewed hundreds of people transformed by the meltdown: the firefighters and soldiers sent to quell the reactor; the “liquidators” who shoveled away contaminated top soil and killed diseased animals; the men, women and children whose genes and minds were scarred forever by the radioactive elements such as cesium that filled the air they breathed and the food they ate.

“We see a woman on a bench near her house, breastfeeding her child – her milk has cesium in it – she’s the Chernobyl Madonna.”

– Marat Filippovich Kokhanov, nuclear engineer

“Even if it’s poisoned with radiation, it’s still my home. There’s no place else they need us.”

– Unidentified resident

A gifted writer, Alexievich turned her interviews into intimate and powerful monologues. Most are short, a paragraph or two, that, like the very best literature, relate worlds of experience in an image or phrase.

“My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed, and she whispers in my ear: ‘Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little.’ “

– Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, father

“We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain.”

– Valentin Kmkov, soldier

The longer monologues that open and close the book, narrated by women who watched their husbands’ bodies slowly eaten away by radiation poisoning, read like the finely observed work of Anton Chekhov.

“The person I loved more than anything, loved him so much I couldn’t possibly have loved him more if I’d given birth to him myself – turned – before my eyes – into a monster. … Something black grew on him. His chin went somewhere, his neck disappeared, his tongue fell out. … He wrote in his notebook in large letters with three exclamation points: ‘Bring the mirror!!!’ … I brought him the mirror, the smallest one … pleading with him, ‘As soon as you get a little better, we’ll go off to a village together, an abandoned village. We’ll buy a house and we’ll live there … We’ll live by ourselves.’ ” – Valentina Timofeevna Panasevich, wife of a liquidator

Alexievich does not provide a comprehensive history of the disaster, no tick-tock of doom or quotes from political leaders or historians. Yet her book tells us far more about “what happened” than timelines and learned analysis ever could. We like simple measures of our disasters – number killed, people displaced, reductions in productivity. Alexievich reminds us that the true impact is revealed through specific effects on myriad individuals.

Like poetry, “Voices from Chernobyl,” is so rich, it’s best read in small doses. Each monologue encompasses its own tragedy – its own universe – that readers can inhabit upon reflection. It lets us enter its subjects, suffusing us with a range of thoughts and emotions that comes together as the often paradoxical wisdom of experience.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

– Zinaida Yevdokimovna Kovalenko, resettler

“We played soccer. We went swimming. Ha. We believed in fate, at bottom we’re all fatalists, not pharmacists.”

– Alexsandr Kudryagin, liquidator

 

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