Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Alexievich, translated by Gessen)

When the announcement was made that Svetlana Alexievich had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her journalism, I had two questions. Who is Svetlana Alexievich? And what exactly is the definition of literature?

When I saw several of her books for sale at the outstanding Loganberry Books, I chose this one because I remember where I was when I heard about the disaster (Alexievich wants no part of the word ‘accident’) and I remember – I am ashamed to say – my adolescent annoyance that such a tragedy could happen anywhere near my birthday.

I have since read more about Alexievich. Though I am no clearer on a definition of literature, I will say she manages to get people to talk and to talk quite eloquently. Someone reporting on seeing a contaminated woman breastfeed her baby calls her The Chernobyl Madonna. It takes your breath away. So where is the creativity here? In the ambition? In the design? In the editing? In the great section titles (‘Monologue about how We Can’t Live Without Chekhov and Tolstoy’)? All of those?

Two parts of that sample are title are telling. ‘We’ – there is much commentary, some triumphant, some mocking about the collective character of the Russians, then, before then, and now.

The other is ‘Monologue.’ Perhaps it’s because I read that Alexievich likes theatrical adaptations of her work that I found many of these monologues very easy to envision on stage. (I even have a thought or two about trying my hand at it.)

This is a stunning book. A behind-the-scenes look at what happened then and the people it happened to and, in this age of minimal historical memory, what’s still happening now. Chernobyl hasn’t gone away. Alexievich concludes her epilogue by saying that she “felt like [she] was writing for the future.” She was; I’m grateful.


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