Book Review

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

how recently the Nobel Prize meant something

Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, back when it was a prize that hadn’t soiled itself on purpose for attention. Having read one book by her, that is an accolade that is definitely deserved.

Chernobyl Prayer (originally published in Russian as Чернобыльская молитва in 1997 and revised in 2013 (this translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait)) is a gorgeous, beautiful, serious work of literature that uses reported speech and monologue to create a rich, dense, portrait of the causes, events and repercussions of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

It’s a fucking phenomenal book, and I’m gonna open with a firm request that you read this if you have any interest in this specific disaster, in ecology in general or in the human repercussions of governments considering image more than public welfare. That should be everyone, right? This is a book everyone should read.

I came to this, of course, because like everyone who even slightly engages with prestige television, I watched the incredible HBO miniseries Chernobyl last month. What many viewers might not have noticed, though, was the mention in its credits of its reliance on a book, this one. I like to read, I enjoy reading a book about a topic more than I enjoy reading Wikipedia about it, so – of course – I scored myself a copy asap. I’m very glad I did, because it’s a fucking belter.

I did ask him once, ‘Don’t you regret now that you went there?’ He shook his head. ‘No.’ He wrote in the notebook, ‘When I die, sell the car and the spare wheels, and don’t marry Tolik.’ That was his brother. Tolik fancied me.

Alexievich creates this text using the voices and perspectives of maybe literally hundreds of people. Almost every single one is named and there is often a secondary descriptor appended too: their job, their age, where they live or – frequently – what family member of theirs died because of the disaster. Yes, it’s bleak.

Chernobyl Prayer opens with one of its longest sections, the voice of a young woman whose husband was a local fireman called to the plant on the night of the explosion. For those of you who haven’t seen Chernobyl, this woman and her husband are prominent characters in the show, and their narrative [as it is dramatised] is ripped straight from this opening monologue. Her speech contains all the emotional elements that continue to make discussion of Chernobyl a major interest: love, death, horror, hope, foolishness, risk, regret and blame. This is a powerful human story to open the text, but it is only one of hundreds, all of them spoken about a decade after the events, and all of them – like Alexievich – Belarusian. (I think.)

We were leaving…

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard, ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

My grandfather, when we were going away, took his hat off.

Some of these narratives are merely a sentence or two long, while a handful are 20 pages, but all of them bring a different perspective to an awareness of the disaster. There are old peasants who refused to leave, there are local politicians filled with remorse, there are children with serious health problems, women whose husbands died in the clean-up operation, men who are dying from their time spent there, scientists who were ignored, the people who had to euthanise the dogs (one of the memorable sections of the TV series), and also too journalists whose work at the time was heavily censored. Alexievich speaks to people from every walk of life, from politicians to school teachers to what I have already referred to as “peasants”, which I realise is probably inappropriate.

The reason I do so, though, is because this is the word used by the text. The region of Belarus affected by Chernobyl was very “undeveloped” in the 1980s. Lots of poor education and traditional modes of living: subsistence, communal, farming and wooden homes: there were people living lives there that had barely changed for centuries.

These people were not ready for nuclear disaster. No one was. An image that Alexievich’s speakers repeat is one from Soviet propaganda: that the nuclear power plants of the USSR were so safe one could be built in Red Square. People were ready for, could understand, war; but they couldn’t understand radiation or nuclear power as nuclear threat, and for far too long after the disaster the government deliberately kept things that way.

I repeatedly wept reading Chernobyl Prayer. There is a lot of pain here, especially drawn-out pain. People speak of social ostracisation, of panic and pain and often of men doing things they knew were fucking stupid because of the promise of big cash bonuses and butch macho pride.

“Be a hero, keep your compatriots safe and risk cancer.”

It wasn’t a risk, though, it was a guarantee.

Chernobyl killed tens of thousands and will likely continue to do so for a long time. It’s not a joke, it’s a dark tragedy, the full extent of which we will not understand for a thousand lifetimes. Alexievich ends her book with a haunting, truly anthropocene quotation: the marketing copy from a company offering touristic trips into the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone.

The brash way in which we treat tragedy is weightily attacked using the language of the other, the outsider.

Chernobyl isn’t a fun, funky thing to see when travelling around Eastern Europe, it was and continues to be a human tragedy on an incredible scale. Read Chernobyl Prayer, watch Chernobyl, but learn the fucking lessons and don’t go and be a tourist of other people’s deaths.

An essential read. Big recommend.


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