Book Review – Chernobyl Prayer

Chernobyl Prayer
A Chronicle of the Future

Svetlana Alexievich, Penguin

On 26 April 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded and released 50m curies of radiation into the atmosphere, 70% of it falling on Belarus, but with plenty to spare for other countries not even vaguely adjacent. 

Flames lit up the sky and radiation escaped to contaminate the land and poison the people for years to come. While officials tried to hush up the accident, Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting testimonies from survivors – clean-up workers, residents, firefighters, resettlers, widows, orphans – crafting their voices into a haunting oral history of fear, anger and uncertainty, but also dark humour and love. A chronicle of the past and a warning for our nuclear future, Chernobyl Prayer shows what it is like to bear witness, and remember in a world that wants you to forget.

The scale of the devastation and its insidious nature are perhaps beyond the power of the individual mind to imagine, which is one good reason why the polyphonic form Alexievich has made her own (and for which she won the Nobel prize for literature) is so appropriate. Alexievich’s documentary approach makes the experiences vivid, sometimes almost unbearably so. Her technique is to collect hundreds of interviews with people who have been rolled over by the various incarnations of the Russian state. In Chernobyl Prayer each interview is usually a few pages long, and reads as a monologue – which is how they are described in the contents pages. “Monologue on how easy it is to return to dust”; “Monologue on how some completely unknown thing can worm its way into you”, and so on.

Says Alexievich: “I’ve been searching for a genre that would allow the closest possible approximation to how I see and hear the world. Finally I chose the genre of actual human voices and confessions. Today when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified, when we finally realized how mysterious and unfathomable man really is, a story of one life, or rather the documentary evidence of this story, brings us closest to reality.”

As Julian Barnes said of this book in the Guardian: “A collage of oral testimony that turns into a psychobiography of a nation not shown on any map………the book leaves radiation burns on the brain.” This is not easy reading, despite the humour and humanity in places. But it is necessary reading.