Voices from Chernobyl

… is a book by last year’s Nobel Prize Laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich. I am not very interested in the Nobel prize, and have only on a few occasions bought books even out of curiousity. I did buy and read a small collection of Alice Munroe‘s short stories, which I found very good, though I had heard about her a long time. I remember reading Elias Canetti after he got the prize, and I still got a book by him somewhere. I bought José Saramago‘s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ in what must have been 1998, but haven’t got around to read it yet… Me buying books and reading them (a lot) later is maybe a subject for another post. Voices of Chernobyl I got as Christmas gift, and I am very happy for that. I also did not know about Alexievich before she got the prize.

Voices from Chernobyl is a recording of people who experienced the Chernobyl disaster in different ways, as workers, soldiers and scientists working in the zone, their widows, former officials, elderly people staying in the zone and children growing up in the shadow of the disaster. Alexievich did hundreds of interviews and the book is based on them. It is non-fiction, even if maybe not always literal transcript of conversations. The voice of Alexievich herself is not heard directly in the text, but obviously her choice of who to interview and how to present the material is hers. It is much more journalism than fiction. However, the extraordinaire situation of this catastrophe and its aftermath in combination with a picture of how the Soviet system handled it is truly mind-boggling. It reads like a post-disaster dystopian novel, but it is for real.

I am old enough to remember a lot of Chernobyl (although I was actually on the other side of the globe when it happened, so other Swedes in my age probably have a much closer feeling for it) but this book tells the story with such intensity it is almost like hearing about the disaster for the first time. Many of the people tell the most heartbreaking happenings and experiences in a matter of fact style. There are stories about real heroism, extreme sense of duty, loyalty and patriotism, and the strongest of love. There is even occasionally some of the drastic fatalist, even morbid, humour from the old Communist block, that one had glimpses of in the West during the Cold War.

It is a book that tells of the strangeness and craziness of the Soviet system, but most of all about humans dealing with stuff they ultimately have no control over. “Taming the atom” is a slogan I remember from my childhood. And after a quick check, is still used. The Chernobyl disaster was blamed on the Soviet system, and there was sloppiness, arrogance, hubris and also a culture of silence and non-critique which certainly directly contributed to the catastrophe. But the genie is the genie and when it leaves the bottle and things go very wrong radiation do not care about ideology or culture or religion. And it has time on its side, if I may make a feeble joke. From a much later date, I am convinced there is much about Fukushima and its aftermath that is kept under wraps, and has to be drawn out by watchful citizens. Japan is also a society of silence and conformity, but many Japanese are critical, obviously.

Voices of Chernobyl is a masterpiece. Read it.

One Comment

  1. I somehow stumbled upon this post of yours in September 2016 or so and I bought the book thereupon. It made me choke, at times even cry; esp. the first and the last story are heart-wrenching. It’s been a very long time since I read such a book. The clarity of how this immensity of pain, sorrow, and grief is told is rare and offers much to empathize with, and to remember from one’s own life. Thank you very much for pointing to it.

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