Poisened Lives: “Voices from Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices_coverTranslator and writer Tim Parks is one of the most outspoken critics of the Nobel Prize for literature. He contends that choosing the most deserving literary oeuvre across so many different cultures is a near impossible task for the secretive Swedish committee and that because of this impossibility, the members of the Nobel committee tend to choose laureates on the basis of their established moral voice. The 2015 winner, Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich, seems to confirm Park’s criticisms.

As the first Nobel laureate specialising in non-fiction, Alexievich is probably the most openly political author honoured in the award’s recent history. A trained journalist, she specialises in oral histories, uncovering the hidden stories within major historical events. She chronicled for example, how ordinary women experienced the Second World War in War’s Unwomanly Face and wrote up the stories of young recruits in the Afghanistan war in Zinky Boys named after the zink coffins in which the dead were returned home.

There might be some truth in Park’s criticism of the Nobel Prize’s perception of honouring the best writing in the world in any given year. Yet, his criticism also carries a certain literary snobbishness, implying that a moral voice is of lesser value and can only be gained at the expense of an artistic one. This notion is compounded by the common idea that non-fiction is artistically of lesser value than fiction. Alexiviech’s politically charged and aesthetically complex works of non-fiction proves both those notions wrong.

In her acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize, she explained her approach thus, “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say I am a human ear… I love how humans talk. I love the lone human voice.” The quote is interesting on a couple of levels. It explains her passion for giving voice to people’s experiences, and her ability to really tune into the stories told to her, to be able to pick up that telling detail, that minor aside, that revealing turn-of-phrase which opens up the whole. The reference to Flaubert also shows her desire to do more than just document, but to deliberately arrange the testimonies she collects into what she calls “novels in voices” to arrive at a greater psychological truth.

Many of her books are not yet widely available in English except for Voices from Chernobyl which chronicles the nuclear disaster in 1986 and its aftermath, and is an absorbing example of her artistic approach.

The explosion of the nuclear power plant and subsequent release of large quantities of radioactive materials into the atmosphere has been the most devastating industrial accident in living memory, resulting in the complete evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat and surrounding villages, and the establishment of a permanent exclusion zone. Over half a million firefighters, engineers and military personnel were involved in getting the burning reactor under control and cleaning up in the aftermath. The human toll due to exposure to radiation of both workers and civilians has been immense. In the first half of the 1990s, Alexievich collected over 500 testimonies by people affected by the event. This is, in itself, a valuable exercise in truth-telling but it goes well beyond its aim of being a factual account of the disaster.

Alexievich’s artistry lies in the way in which she arranges the material from her interviews and carefully composes them into a symphony of voices for maximum impact. The accumulation of the intricately arranged monologues develops its own enthralling almost hypnotic rhythm. A rhythm that draws the reader into the often hauntingly sad accounts of lives literally and metaphorically poisoned.

The book starts and finishes with two heartbreaking testimonies from the widows of a fireman and a clean-up worker (who are, eerily, known as “liquidators”).  Both monologues are entitled “A Solitary Human Voice”, emphasising that the focus here is not so much an historical event but the individual experience, the human face of the official story. There is something theatrical about what follows the opening monologue, as if the reader watches a procession of actors entering the stage to talk to the audience about their experiences in parred down, often matter-of-fact, monologues. They combine into an outrageous litany of ignorance, incompetence, denial, bureaucratic bungling, political cover-ups and human sacrifice by panicked authorities. And yet, there are also the stories of incredible courage, of workers and scientists aware of the dangers and nevertheless trying their best to prevent an even bigger disaster.

Many of the liquidators were actually veterans of the Afghan war and warfare becomes a central metaphor in their stories. Only this time, it is a war without a visible enemy. A war against contamination in a post-industrial wasteland so poisoned that in the weeks after the accident the birds fell out of the sky. A war against radiation, the effects of which would be felt for years and years to come. And in many ways it was a war that put the final nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union. The disaster shattered the people’s belief in Soviet progress through technology and science, at a time when they had already lost faith in the Union’s military superiority after the failed invasion of Afghanistan.

The still smouldering reactor, buried under tons and tons of steel and concrete – the so-called sarcophagus – has become a symbol of the hubris and eventual downfall of a flawed system bound to break up only a few years after the accident. Alexievich went on to investigate this in her next book, Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets which will be published in English in May  and which examines  how Russians coped in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Svetlana Alexievich. Voices from Chernobyl (translated from Russian by Keith Gessen), Picador

Also available as: Svetlana Alexievich. Chernobyl Prayer (new translation of the revised edition by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait), Penguin Classics

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