Book Recommendation. Chernobyl Prayer —A Chronicle of the Future.
This is a post from my old blog, I wrote this in May 2019, just after the release of the HBO series Chernobyl. I'm gathering my various posts into one place, in a vain effort to look organized, and not sketchy.
Now that Chernobyl has been turned into an English language drama in the form of the new and acclaimed series by HBO I thought I'd take the opportunity to recommend the book Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. Also published as Voices from Chernobyl, this is a book that delivers a profoundly emotional and human take on the effects of the catastrophe. First published in 1997, a decade after the initial disaster it's composed of mainly verbatim eyewitness accounts.
From the wikipedia page about the author and the book: “Alexievich was a journalist living in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 1986 at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. (At the time Belarus was part of the Soviet Union as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.) Alexievich interviewed more than 500 eyewitnesses, including firefighters, liquidators (members of the cleanup team), politicians, physicians, physicists and ordinary citizens over a period of 10 years. The book relates the psychological and personal tragedy of the Chernobyl accident, and explores the experiences of individuals and how the disaster affected their lives. Chernobyl Prayer was first published in Russian in 1997, and a revised, updated edition came out in 2013”
In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature, the citation from the Nobel committee reads;
“for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”
The book isn't written as much as it is orchestrated into a series of thought provoking chapters and subsections with lyrical titles such as “Monologue on why people remember.” “Monologue on a song without words” and “Three monologues on ancient fear, and on why one man stayed silent while the women spoke.” I've read a few books on the events of the night the disaster happened and the immediate aftermath, but none of them have the depth, honesty or sheer emotional gut-punch of Chernobyl Prayer.
I've excerpted a short section to give you a flavour of the book. A small content warning, this excerpt includes a description of birth defects and disability.
The Crown of Creation
Monologue on the old prophecies
My daughter. She's different from the other kids. She'll grow up and ask me, “Why am I different?” When she was born... It wasn't a child, but a little living sack, stitched up on all sides , without a single slit, only the eyes were open. Her medical record said: “Girl born with complex multiple pathologies: anal aplasia, vaginal aplasia, and left renal aplasia.” Thats what they call it in scientific language, but in plain words she has no private parts, no bum and just the one kidney. On day two, the second day of her life, I took her to be operated on. She opened her eyes like she was smiling, and at first I thought she wanted to cry. Oh my God, she smiled! Other babies like her don't live, they die straight away. What kept her from dying was my love for her. She's had four operations in four years. This is the only child in Belarus to survive with such complex pathologies. I love her so much. (She pauses) I can't give birth ever again. I wouldn't dare. I got back from the maternity ward: my husband would kiss me at night, and I'd tremble all over —but we can't. It would be a sin. I'd be scared to. I overheard the doctors saying “That girl wasn't born in a caul she was born in a shell. If they showed her on TV, not one mother would ever give birth again.” Thats what they said about our little girl. How could we love each other again after that? I went to church, I told the priest. He said we needed to pray for our sins. But none of our family has ever murdered anyone. What is it I'm guilty of? At first, they wanted to evacuate our village, but then they crossed us off the list: the authorities didn't have the money. And thats when I fell in love. Got married. I didn't know that we couldn't love each other here.
—Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, pages 94-95.
by Svetlana Alexievitch
Link to the book on the publishers website https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/295984/chernobyl-prayer-by-alexievich-svetlana/9780241481837