When Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer Alfred Nobel left money in his will for the establishment of an annual literary prize at the end of the 19th century, he stipulated that the award should recognise an author who has produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. Since the Nobel prize in Literature was first awarded in 1901, various winners have proved controversial, with some commentators and interested parties objecting to the decisions of the Swedish Academy.
For example, when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the accolade in 2006, not long after charges that his work was guilty of ‘insulting Turkishness’ were dropped, there was uproar in his homeland. Similarly, when exiled Chinese writer Gao Xingjian received the honour in 2000, China congratulated France on the news, pointedly disowning the first ever literary Nobel laureate born within its borders.
Indeed, when you think about it, such controversy is unsurprising: with so many exceptional writers working away around the globe, the idea that it should be possible to pick one a year to honour as outstanding is problematic. Whoever the Swedish Academy chooses, it’s likely that someone will have other ideas.
Twenty years in the making, this extraordinary book consists of the curated accounts of many of those who lived through (and continue to feel the effects of) the Chernobyl disaster. It was in part prompted by the fact that, although the nuclear-power plant where the accident happened was in Ukraine, a combination of meteorological, geographical and political factors meant that Belarus suffered terribly, such that at the time Alexievich wrote the book, one in five Belarusians lived in the contaminated zone and only one in four died of old age.
Through her conversations with people involved with the incident at every level – from local villagers and clean-up workers to scientists, lecturers and former officials, as well as returnees, outlaws and immigrants now deliberately living in the affected area, and even herself – Alexievich presents a powerful document that uses the horror of what happened to interrogate identity, history and the way that this event has shaken and reshaped the future not only of her nation, but of the world.
The secret to the book’s power is its focus on the personal and the specific. Opening with a lengthy and heartrending account by Lyudmila, the widow of a fireman sent to tackle the blaze at the power plant in nothing but his shirt sleeves with the result that his body disintegrated over the weeks that followed, the narrative sets out insight after insight into the painfully inadequate responses we human beings exhibit in the face of the unthinkable. Through this, we see delineated our reluctance to accept catastrophic change – as revealed by the fact that shops continued to set out trays of pastries as the dust cloud blew over and in the initial excitement of evacuees at the thought of a weekend away – and the distressing ubiquity of selfishness that led many to barter the safety of others in their own interests. In addition, the terrible resignation of a generation of children robbed of their futures speaks plainly in anecdotes such as the account of the young boy who, when chided by a fellow bus passenger for not giving up his seat with the warning that if he does not do so he will have to stand in his dotage, replies coldly that he knows he will never be old.
There is humour in the midst of the bleakness. I defy you not to smile at the story of the success of ‘Chernobyl produce’ in the markets of surrounding cities, where allegedly contaminated apples get snapped up as gifts for bosses and mothers-in-law.
And powerful though the human stories are, some of the most disturbing passages are those that reveal how nature itself was thrown out of whack by the accident. Details such as the revelation that flowers lost their scent and bees stayed in their hives for several days after the blasts are chilling.
These observations – testament to Alexievich’s skill in winning her subjects’ time and trust – ground the narrative, engross the reader and provide the author with the foundation to build some devastating arguments that the text’s emotional clout makes it impossible to ignore. There are many of these – including fascinating explorations of self-sacrifice and the tragic consequences of the Soviet ideal of putting the collective before the individual, which may have led some to take suicidal risks out of a misplaced desire to be heroic.
However, the most compelling points for many readers who, like me, are hundreds of miles from the scene of the accident, must be the passages that show how Chernobyl has changed the lives of everyone around the world. For all that foreign journalists arrived to cover the incident swathed in protective clothing, what happened has got under everyone’s skin, Alexievich contends. This is true not only because of the radionuclides the explosions spread across the globe, which will endure for 200,000 years, but also because ‘in the space of one night we shifted to another place in history’.
In this new place, ‘near’ and ‘far’ are redundant terms because we have been revealed to be vulnerably interconnected. It is a world where traditional concepts of evil fall apart and the language we have to describe disaster crumbles because the greatest threat comes not from an external enemy, but from something we have created ourselves. It is a reality that our brains are not fully equipped to comprehend, an existence where home can become uninhabitable, where trees can groan under the weight of toxic fruit, and where the damage from a single event is inflicted not all at once, but over time, spooling on to warp the lives of those not yet born.
That Svetlana Alexievich manages to get us to appreciate so much about what Chernobyl means – that she enables us to contemplate the unimaginable – marks her out as a truly great writer. This work is outstanding. Were he able to look forward into the future, the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, would probably have shuddered at the sort of explosions human beings acquired the power to create a few decades after his death. But I believe he would have found the author of this exceptional work well worthy of the prize to which he gave his name.
Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin Classics, 2016)