This book review, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu Literary Review on April 6, 2013.
Chernobyl is in the past. Well, it’s definitely easy to look at it that way when you think of what you’ve been told happened. On April 26, 1986, an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, then in the Soviet Union, now in northern Ukraine, went awry and caused an explosion and a fire that lasted several days.
Radioactive plumes billowed a kilometre into the sky, and the lands and water in the vicinity were poisoned with toxins that wouldn’t just kill you and then call it a day. They could last for generations, maiming your children and your grandchildren in horrible ways. All you would have to do was inhale the dust, ingest the poisoned food. Even so, it was more than a day later that the 67,000 residents of the nearby settlement of Pripjat were evacuated.
But within the folds of each minute that Pripjat wondered what was going on, why the streams were turning yellow, why the clouds were turning grey, why there were so many trucks moving in and out of Chernobyl, the atoms had connived to work their way into the town’s eyes and ears and noses, bringing on a silence worn well by Ingrid Storholmen’s Voices From Chernobyl.
The radioactivity didn’t just shut down a power plant or blank out an area on the map for habitation. As Storholmen describes it, it killed the fishes, accumulated in their bodies, and then killed the bigger fish that would soon eat them. It stoked to life not the pain of disfigurement, which can be forgotten, but the realisation that it could be perpetrated so easily. It seeped into the soil and blighted the harvest; it infected the trees and wilted the forest.
The breadth of experiences that the voices in the book draw from is remarkable. There are children, and men and women. Then, there are the animals and the trees. Each one is dying or caring for someone or something about to. Autobiographic stories strike the stronger note. On the downside, there are only a few of them, bundled up and preserved as they are for the longer journey after death.
Storholmen’s writing, as such, is commendable. She employs a simple style. She must. What she has been actually wise to do, however, is to let her retelling participate in the confusion that followed the disaster, when mutation-induced paranoia was no different from the harsh calls of a burning reality. The result is a quick alternation between indifference and visceralness that leaves you feeling like you were a helpless witness.
The worst property of the book is that it has no cadence. It simply moves on from one story to the next, like an instruction manual but one careful enough to be doused in tragedy — whether of the body or of the mind. Pripjat must have been horrible, an eidolon of its former self, its beauty reduced to the witness of sunken eyes, but the book does well to paint this picture in the first 40 pages.
The rest simply requires conviction on the reader’s part that the only way to immortalise the horror of a nuclear winter is to read about it again and again. After page 41, Voices From Chernobyl is a litany.
The best is that it reminds you that the essence of the disaster lies in nature’s decision to recede from humanity, to yield no more boar or elk meat that sustained human needs. The author starts in media res; there is no introduction because its patience would have mocked at the desperation among the town’s residents to find nature again, and in the meantime to write off their identities as a sacrifice, that they chewed, swallowed and thwarted something that a traitorous human industry had churned up: The pianist who shovelled away uranium bricks from around the reactor, the volunteers who conducted safety inspections as the fire blazed, the championess who dived into heavy water and accidentally swallowed some…
But as the woman’s face dissolved, as the pianist’s fingers started to rot, as the volunteers’ screams punctuated the cacophony of disaster, the dead had moved on. If the book had done the same a little quicker Ingrid Storholmen’s would have been a name to remember.