Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich review – witnesses speak

[from The Guardian]

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707think it can be safely said that for the majority of Russians, over the greater part of recorded history, to have been born in that country has not been to draw one of the winning tickets in the lottery of life. A true history of its people need be no more than the howls of despair of millions of voices, punctuated by moments of incredible tenderness, courage and grim humour.

Which is more or less the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich’s technique: her books are collections of 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.

 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 last year) is so appropriate. Only the voice of the witness can do the events justice, and, in Chernobyl Prayer, after some useful facts about the explosion and its aftermath (“travelling through the villages, one is struck by the overspill of the cemeteries”), we launch into the testimony of the widow of one of the firefighters called in to deal with the explosion. The description of his death from radiation poisoning – two weeks of increasing agony – was so harrowing that I wondered if I would be able to proceed. What kept me going was the strength of her love for her husband, and the child she was carrying; the baby seemed to absorb the radiation meant for her as it was born dead.
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