‘They left just in the shirts they were wearing. Nobody warned them. They were just called out to an ordinary fire.’ Lyudmila Ignatenko’s recollections of the events of 26 April 1986 refer to her husband, Vasily, a fireman who was one of the first responders to the series of explosions that destroyed Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Vasily was one of thousands of workers who would die in virtually complete ignorance of the causes of their deaths. Many, like Vasily, had family who would also die from the effects of radiation. In Lyudmila Ignatenko’s case, she would, after losing her husband to a slow and painful death, also lose her baby.
This opening monologue sets the tone of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, a work first published in Russian in 1997 that not only recorded the untold and all-too-ordinary stories of the world’s worst nuclear accident but found a way of doing so that contributed to the world’s greatest literature. Having won the Nobel Prize in 2015, Alexievich’s work has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic for the 30th anniversary of the disaster.
The overwhelming imperative of this particular anniversary is not to commemorate the past but to continue to witness the unending horrors of nuclear catastrophe. Chernobyl, though sited in Ukraine, shattered neighbouring Belarus. Contaminated land, death by cancer, myriad health issues affecting the majority of the population: it’s hardly worth repeating the lead-reinforced, hard concrete facts that stand for Chernobyl. Collectively, these facts have prevented us from seeing the true face of the disaster, much like the ‘Shelter Object’ – the original Russian term for the massive structure built to cover the failed reactor and 200 tonnes of nuclear material – have prevented us from seeing inside.
But Alexievich’s collection of monologues, encompassing villagers, soldiers, scientists, teachers, mothers, families – in short, humans of all sets, sub-sets and classifications – brings to the surface the continuum of suffering, and the lives that can only be lived with an abiding sense of before and after. Hundreds of thousands were sent to the ‘Zone’ not knowing the dangers, and hundreds of thousands more evacuated and resettled. Deaths were shrouded in Soviet secrecy, and nobody was exempt from radioactive contamination, from officials to bees and worms.
As Alexievich points out, art has rehearsed the apocalypse many times, and it’s true that every apocalypse is endured by humanity. In these monologues, there is no hiding behind slabs of facts. Each and every testimony, each and every human loss, universalizes what to some still seems a geo-specific event. After all, there now exists Chernobyl tourism: ‘Visit the atomic Mecca’, writes Alexievich. So it’s easy to forget that radioactivity travelled the world within days of the accident. It’s also convenient to forget that the effects of radioactivity can last tens of thousands of years. ‘Universal’ and ‘eternal’ are thus entirely rational adjectives, both at the macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.
In the face of this, Alexievich questions herself. How, as a witness, could she write about Chernobyl? What could she add to the extant corpus of material? Her answers were complex and layered. She was not writing a book on Chernobyl but ‘on the world of Chernobyl’. She was not writing history but ‘missing history’. In fact, ‘a feeling arose in all of us – whether voiced or unvoiced – that we had touched on the unknown.’ Chernobyl, in other words, is not history at all but a warning glimpse of the future.
Alexievich’s work has sometimes been called ‘polyphonic’ and defined by its ‘chorus of voices’. The sounds gathered by Alexievich with a profound curatorial love for ordinary victims will remain with contemporary readers like radionuclides in the earth. What for some apparently began as an ordinary fire was for Alexievich the ‘the beginning of a new history’. It’s a new history that affects the planet, and will, to all intents and purposes, continue to affect it forever. Three decades on, the oral testimonies contained in the living sarcophagus of ‘Chernobyl Prayer’ can only leave us speechless.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future will be published by Penguin Books on 21 April 2016.