(2016) The Year in Books – Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

[This is Part One of my review of my favourite books I read in 2016 and it’s been another year and oh my god I haven’t written anything on this blog in all of 2016 what an absolute joke. As always seems to be the case, none of these books were actually published in 2016, but they’re all well worth reading if you’re into mid-20th century Britain, nuclear disaster, the march of colonialism, growing up in post-war Naples, the various lives of Afghan families, 1910’s Japanese obsession with mental illness, vegetarianism-oh-wait-it’s-actually-also-about-severe-mental-illness, the various lives of Indian emigrants, art theft, or islands in the middle of nowhere. 

This post will be looking at the first of my nine runner-up books of the year: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich.]


Svetlana Alexievich – Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

I’ve always been fascinated by Chernobyl, combining as it does my interests in crumbling Soviet infrastructure, desolate landscapes, and the dull sense that mankind is hurtling towards its own destruction. It’s hard for pessimistic weirdos like me not to invest the place with a kind of strange, impossible-to-describe romance, especially after falling in love with (Chernobyl-predating) films like Stalker, and novels like Roadside Picnic, both of which have been eagerly adopted by the Chernobyl-obsessed fanboys of the world.

Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices of Chernobyl is the best antidote I’ve found for this weird romanticism. Her series of extended interviews cut through the images of haunting beauty we see so often now – Pripyat abandoned, reclaimed by nature; abandoned schoolbooks and rows of decommissioned jeeps and the branches of trees straining through crumbling ceilings – to what what we should really think of when we think of Chernobyl: a series of preventable bureaucratic failures that led to decades of suffering almost too widespread and myriad to comprehend.

Presented as extended monologues on the part of her interviewees, rather than the traditional question-and-answer format, Voices of Chernobyl feels incredibly intimate, and this approach lets the real individuality of the victims of the disaster and its 30-year-and-counting aftermath show through. Residents forced to evacuate in the middle of the night, taking next to nothing on the understanding that they would be returning any day; Soviet administrators scrambling to deal with the fallout (radioactive and otherwise) while maintaining the standing of the regime they serve; people who illegally returned to live in the exclusion zone, unable or unwilling to countenance a danger all around them they can neither see nor feel; soldiers ordered to contain the deadly meltdown, shovelling radioactive debris within spitting distance of the reactor, wearing no protective clothing whatsoever; wives of these men decades later as their bodies begin to literally fall apart.

Each story is unique; its own angle on the disaster and its consequences, and if Voices of Chernobyl succeeds at one thing (and it succeeds at many) it’s at transforming history from the general to the individual – the statistic into a million individual tragedies that call out with urgency, indignation, and, at times, an overwhelmed, stultifying sense of apathy. Rarely have I encountered a work of history that felt so human.

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