I have always been irritated by Sunday Supplement interviews where the words of the interviewee are buried in the often overly pleased-with-itself prose of the interviewer. If all you really want to do is write about someone, why go to the trouble of talking to them? Clearly the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, agrees; as the first non-fiction author to be honoured, it would be easy to categorise her work as journalism, yet Alexievich seeks to absent herself from the text in a way that even the most honest journalist can only dream of.
Chernobyl Prayer is a new translation (by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait) of Voices from Chernobyl (Penguin Classics also have a new translation of Zinky Boys coming out later this year). It is typical of Alexievich’s work in that it attacks its topic – typically a topic largely ignored by both mainstream journalism and fiction – using the voices of those who know. Alexievich’s role in this, beyond the initial interviewing (which is extensive), is to arrange those voices in a chorus which captures the totality of the experience: you might compare her to an artist working with found materials.
Her decision to begin Chernobyl Prayer with a ‘lone human voice’ – most of the other sections in the book are choral – immediately displays her skill as an arranger. The lone voice is that of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the firefighters, Vasily, who fought the blaze caused by the reactor explosion. (It is the voice of the wife, of course, because her husband is dead). Not only is this chronologically accurate but it delivers a powerful emotional punch and prevents the book reading like a thriller where the suffering of the victims acts as a climax. It also demonstrates the dangers of radiation in a visceral and unarguable manner:
“He was passing stools maybe twenty-five, thirty times a day. All bloody and gooey. The skin on his arms was cracking. His whole body was coming up in blisters. When he turned his head, clumps of hair were left on the pillow.”
Vasily’s slow death – he was the last of his crew to die – is a vivid demonstration of the damage radiation can do. At the end, one of the nurses says to his wife, “You mustn’t forget, this isn’t your husband… this is highly contaminated radioactive object.” This first section felt like an initiation, a test of the reader’s emotional strength, but there are already indications that Alexievich’s theme is not simply suffering: this is a book about the endemic attitudes of the Soviet state, like secrecy:
“Nobody said anything about radiation. It was just the soldiers who were wearing respirators. People were taking bread from the shops, buying loose sweets. There were pastries on open trays. Life was going on as normal. Only they were washing down the streets with that powder.”
Later we read the testimony of Nesterenko, the Director of the Institute of Atomic Energy in Belarus at the time, who describes his attempts to warn the authorities:
“I was phoning on the government network, but they had already classified everything. The moment you started talking about the accident, the phone went dead.”
Also present is a sense of heroism with its roots in the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War):
“…there was… the heroic urge. They’d nurtured it, sown it in our minds at school, at home.”
“You have to serve the Motherland! Serving the Motherland is our sacred duty.”
Soldiers were sent in where robots had failed, melting and malfunctioning in the heat, armed with shovels. Eventually evacuation begins, but people are reluctant to leave their homes, their land:
“My mother was still living with us when the reactor blew up, and she used to say, ‘We’ve already survived the worst, my son. We survived the Siege. Nothing can be more horrific.’ That’s what she thought.”
Alexievich describes the evacuated Zone, abandoned houses such as we are used to seeing in apocalyptic Hollywood films. We learn of the genetic damage which continues to affect the population. Told in the voices of those who were, who are, there, we can relate to each individual experience, rather than lose perspective in facts and charts. I am old enough to remember both Chernobyl and the Soviet Union – it would interesting to discover what someone without these memories makes of this book; it must seem like a different world. And that is as good a reason as any for it to be essential reading.