Painful to read; ostrich like to not do so
This is far from my usual reading, and recommending it is a kind of excruciating necessity. All I can say is that I wish the book had not had a need to be written
Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, the account of ordinary Belarusians whose lives and land were horribly affected by the reactor blowing, is a difficult, horrifying and yet unavoidable read. At least, unavoidable if you believe we need to face terrible reality, and acknowledge it, however much not thinking about it seems the best, pain avoiding option
Alexievich lets her contributors tell their stories. This is certainly not a book to read cover to cover; so much horror can’t be borne, and in fact the only response to trying to do that is a kind of numbing and deadening, as the reader tries to protect herself from the awful reality.
This is not an account of politics, cover up, science, official speak. It is ordinary voices, and therefore, full of individual response. Some are even remarkably stoical and even manage to bear up with fortitude in the face of something which seems unbearably grim – the ticking time-bomb caused by impossible exposure to radioactivity following the reactor’s blow-out
There are a few thoughts which struck home. Inevitably, the heroism, even if no one quite understood the terrible danger of the firefighters who went in to contain the damage, and prevent the other reactors from also cracking.
Secondly, many of the people she interviewed had the most astonishing, deep love of place and land. Something perhaps harder for those of us who live less rooted lives, less connected to the time and place of our ancestral past, to understand. These are people, who knowing the danger, chose to secretly, illegally return to their damaged land, because to live apart from in, in cities, was no life. They mourned their land and their connection to it
Time and again people talk about how the animals, birds and insects responded immediately to the disaster, and yet, the people did not know – beekeepers reporting their bees stayed in their hives for days and did not come out. Fisherman, using worms for bait, discovering they couldn’t find any worms, because they had burrowed so deeply into the earth. I found that strange and sobering too, some sense which we have lost
Alexievich, in her own take on this writes this to show :
we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun. But people do not want to reflect on that , because they have never thought about it before, preferring to take refuge in the familiar
She opens the book with the sobering, horrifying account of the life and death of one of the fire-fighters, recounted by his widow (herself, horribly affected by contamination) Lyudmila Ignatenko, pregnant, was instructed not to touch or go close to her dying husband Vasily. In full knowledge of the danger to herself and her unborn child, she ignored the advice, and chose to touch, kiss and give human contact . She was told :
You musn’t forget this isn’t your husband, it isn’t the man you love, it’s a highly contaminated radioactive object.
I was humbled by Lyudmila, and by Vasily. And this is just one story of many
Star rating seems impossible. I hate it – I hate that this happened and needs to be recounted, to say ‘I love it’ is monstrous. I will settle for 4 star, But it is to my mind unrateable. Dreadful, important, necessary. I feel the need to read each person’s story, but cannot do this cover to cover, without long gaps, as it seems wrong to shut down feeling, but so much horror can’t be consciously endured for long.
I suppose all the reader can do, does do, on reading a book like this, is to be a kind of witness. A witness to something you don’t want to witness, because to ignore it feels some kind of deep insult
I was offered this by Amazon Vine, and took it, wincingly.
It seems more terrible, and more necessary, both, than I expected. And I’m not even necessarily saying ‘read it’ But not to talk about the book at all is something I can’t do either.
Most chillingly, the subtitle of the book is “A Chronicle of the Future”. It reminds us that the effects of such a radiation leak seeped into the air, the earth, the waters, and last for tens of thousands of years
Fire-fighters like Vasily Ignatenko helped contain and restrain even more cataclysmic potential damage. And i never thought till now of how much I owe him and others like him
This is a re-issue and re-translation to mark the thirtieth anniversary.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.[