Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
We all know that Chernobyl happened, we all remember the pictures on TV, heard the reports on the radio, read the articles in the papers - if not immediately then at some point between then and now. But, do we really know, or begin to understand just how it affected those unfortunate people who had to deal with it on a daily basis? Day after day, today and tomorrow? I would hazard a guess that the majority of us haven’t really given it that much thought. I know I haven’t. Well, Svetlana Alexievich’s utterly moving Voices from Chernobyl is a/the starting point for us all. Published by the incredible Dalkey Archive Press, this collection of monologues from the very mouths - some 2.1 million people - of those uprooted and devastated by the disaster may well be the book to turn to for a very long time to come.
Svetlana Alexievich has moulded this book from the numerous human testimonies she has recorded, gathering them all together, tying them together to help form the raw ingredients of a collective history of a people. The result is compelling and horrific in detail. This is made all the more powerful in knowing that these accounts are real, spoken from the mouths of the existent people of Belarus. This is their story. The translation by Keith Gessen is direct and explicit. For instance, when one reads an account of a grieving wife:
The last days in the hospital – I’d lift his arm, and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body has gone away from it. Pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. (Pg 18)
I picked him up, and there are pieces of his skin in my hand. (Pg 18)
It is in that intrinsic knowing, that heartfelt intimacy with the words on the page, that, in fact, these words are living and breathing words, that this is actual fact and not a fictional account, it is this miserable heartache that compels the reader to turn the page and keep reading - to keep listening. We, the reader are witnessing the voices of history. Alexievich knows this all too well and uses it to the best of her abilities. Which begs the writerly question: is this authorship? Can this work really be attributed to Svetlana Alexievich alone? I seriously doubt it. But, as a journalist by trade now and, apparently, suffering from "an immune deficiency developed while researching this book" how can we tell her it isn’t? I couldn’t.
Throughout this book we also gain a sense of the villagers struggle with the Army and Authorities who, it seems, treated then like cattle as they were forced to flee, without explanation, the condemned land: "Orders: Don’t take your belongings". (Pg 38)
Each personal entry gives the reader an idea, politically, the mindset of a collective culture. We get to know these people; we understand their frustrations and contempt with/for their leaders, their government, their Army and country. This document is a true testament to a people’s psyche. A classic - almost-to-good-to-be-true - disparate comment suitably sums up their grief and obfuscation:
I took off my overcoat to build Communism. And where is this Communism? (Pg 46)
Yet, how much has Alexievich actually chosen to leave out? How much of this book is her own construction, her own political slant? That’s, probably, something we’ll never know. But I fear I’m missing the point if I bother myself with niggling trivialities such as this. The book is notable because of its relentless sorrow and not because it may, or may not, have been designed politically by its author. This sorrow permeates into each and every page because such sorrow will never leave each and every contributor, all are contaminated by it, just like the very ground they walk on and everything they touch.
It is surprising how a book can capture the very essence of a time and place, particularly striking is how the whole disaster forced people to finally confront their differences. To confront all that is wrong with bureaucracy and military rule. When disaster strikes people are stripped to their bare bones - we see ourselves for who we are, for there is nothing left but to look inwards - and it is inside that strength is forged. I suppose that this looking inwards, this mirror into ourselves, this strength is why Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is probably going to be up there in my books of the year. Seriously.