Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich

The annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature brings about an efflorescence of translations worldwide, and for this we should be grateful to those former weapons manufacturers, the Nobels. The granting of peace prizes and prizes for literature is a correction, of sorts, to their war-mongering past and a good way to spend and expend an ill-gotten wealth. Last fall Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexeivich was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, a surprise, as the recipients often are; perhaps the Nobel committee was even making a political statement against Putin. She stands out from her fellow laureates in that she’s a non-fiction writer, a chronicler rather than a storyteller, a collector of oral histories, and not a writer of poetry or fiction.  Bertrand Russell also won the prize, no poet he. So did Winston Churchill. She is not the first non-fiction laureate.

Alexeivich seeks out the tales behind the historical events, gives voice to those silence or obscured by history. In her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, she wrote the stories of women and World War II, of war not as a grand geopolitical triumph or national catastrophe, not as a vale of hero-making and striving, or a tale of strategy or tactical derring-do, but war as the backdrop for women nursing men from the battlefields, women working as snipers and killing enemy soldiers, losing their betrothed in battle. She followed this book with The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, war from children’s’ point of view.

In her book Chernobyl Prayer, available in the UK, and offered in the States as Voices from Chernobyl, Alexeivich talks to the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. To me, the disaster at Chernobyl had always been a news article, a terrible disaster certainly, one of the worst, but something I had only read about in newspapers and the occasional news magazine. I knew facts, I’d seen charts. I saw maps and commentary and analysis. But Alexeivich transformed what we experienced as news into something different, a real story. Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, collected in the book Illuminations, explains the difference between what Alexeivich has done–tell stories– and the Chernobyl situation as we’ve hitherto experienced it: as news, as information, as something explained, analyzed and interpreted:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

Alexeivich includes no maps, diagrams or statistics into Chernobyl Prayer. She explains very little of what was reported in the news–that’s been exhaustively covered already. Instead, she allows the wives of the cleanup crew to tell their stories, the parents of children who’ve grown up with terrible disfiguration after their parents were exposed to radiation. She talks to everyone from the region, farmers and professors, children and soldiers, university agriculturalists, scientists, Communist party leaders and secret dissenters. She lets both of the owners of pets that were rounded up and shot by the cleanup workers and  the cleanup workers who were commanded to seek out and kill all the animals left behind tell their stories.  Chernobyl Prayer tells of the returnees, going back to their homes, in spite of the killing radiation they will find there, and eating the beautiful vegetables that are, invisibly, hopelessly contaminated. It tells what it’s like to watch the people you love die deaths of great suffering. It tells of the country people from Pripyat and environs, trying to adjust to life in the city. It tells of their love of nature, and the difficulty of comprehending how flowers, trees and animals that were still so beautiful could be radiating death.

It’s not possible to overstate the power, horror and beauty of this book, its expression of humanity confronted with extremes of experience and catastrophe, the stories of people who were present at the end of the world, the primacy of love in the midst of disaster. It’s a remarkable document, an indelible book of slow death and demise, the story of a poisoned world, told by the survivors of an apocalypse.

I look forward to the other volumes of Alexeivich’s work that will follow, soon, in translation.

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