The announcement earlier this month that Belarusian journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature presents the opportunity to take another look her best-known work currently available in English translation, the award-winning Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
Published in 2005 in a translation by Keith Gessen, the book was roundly acclaimed and became the year’s winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Revisited 10 years later, it has lost none of its luster. It remains a book that packs an intense emotional wallop.
The catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986. In the early 1990s, Alexievich began collecting interviews from people who lived in the area and from the workers brought in to try to clean up the poisonous mess. These interviews, presented as monologues, form the base of what the Nobel Committee calls Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings.” As the poet Robert Browning put it in a quite different context, she speaks in so many voices not her own. Truth is a mosaic that emerges from the choir of voices with all their differing interests and points of view.
These are voices whose interests are personal: What will happen to the potato crop waiting to be picked? Is it safer to eat the more expensive salami? Why are we milking the cows only to throw the milk on the ground?
They see themselves involved in a war against an enemy they can’t see and don’t understand. Over and over again they compare the disaster to the German invasion during World War Two. The workers complain, often railing against the bureaucracy, but they see themselves as doing their duty for the mother land. They bewail the loss of homes; they lament the plight of loved ones. Many feel betrayed by the government that puts them and their families in jeopardy.
But whatever the horrors of their situations, they go on living. They go on because that’s what people do.
Alexievich’s art is in choosing and arranging, giving shape to the collected mass of material. This is no haphazard collection. Voices are carefully placed to evoke both an emotional effect and an intellectual response. Alexievich’s art is in the manipulation of her material to create that response in the reader without making him feel manipulated, and she manages it skillfully. So when she ends with a chorus of bewildered children, a public official trying to sound the alarm and getting nowhere, and leaves the reader with a woman describing the torturous death of the love of her life, it is fairly clear how we as compassionate human beings are meant to react. Alexievich knows what she is doing and even after almost 30 years since Chernobyl, what she does has a powerful effect.
Gessen’s translation, available from Picador, is very readable. If there was one thing I would suggest, at least for the reader less familiar with Russia’s culture and geography, a greater use of footnotes or parenthetical explanations would be helpful. Still this is but a minor complaint about a truly important work.