Review: Voices from Chernobyl (Svetlana Alexievich)

The new version of this book (translated by Keith Gessen, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005) has caused considerable ripple last year as the recipient of NBCC Award for non-fiction, coinciding with Chernobyl”s 20th (if it may be called so) anniversary.\r\n\r\n”This is not a book about Chernobyl, but about the world of Chernobyl,” so Alexievich wrote, and indeed, instead of writing about what happened, she compiled a wide range of oral, first-hand testimony, accounts, sometimes occasional rant and condemnations from broad range of people involved and/or affected by Chernobyl. Plenty of tongue-in-cheek resignations in the face of something big and unknown gone wrong. Alexievich is mostly invisibleâ—she allows everyone to speak for themselves—although a certain amount of editing has definitely been done. Alexievich realises that “suffering is our refuge”, that, as one of her interviewee said, people who haven”t suffered hungered for stories about suffering’s “cheap philosophy”.

There is very little specific and/or scientific information in the book (no hard data, no charts, no maps). The personal accounts are often vague regarding the exact location of where people were, much less the specific amounts and types of radiation they might have been exposed to. There are practically no “scientific” explanations of what the specific dangers are. As one person says, “But what”s a bec? A curie? What”s a milliroentgen? We ask our commander, he can’t answer that, they didn’t teach it at the military academy. Milli, micro, it’s all Chinese to him.” The people likewise faced everything without access to almost any information. (Another person recalls that all the library books dealing in any way with radiation immediately disappeared from the shelves….)

Note: As much as I know how typical this is, reading Voices brings to mind images from Tarkovsky”s Stalker (the only most obvious, easiest thing to relate to), and consequently Roadside Picnic (thus the review), and the briefest googling of “Stalker” and “Chernobyl” together found me another apt instead-of-an-epilogue: a Chernobyl virtual reality game, just released this year.’

Voices from ChernobylVoices from Chernoby: Chronicle of the Future
by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

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