My rating: 2 stars
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich could have been an informative and absorbing read. However, it failed to enthral me, since the testimonies presented throughout this non-fiction book weren’t edited, analysed nor properly contextualised. Occasionally, it raises interesting questions, but they are never fully explored.
The Chernobyl nuclear accident, which happened on 26 April 1986, didn’t affect only Ukraine. High levels of radiation were reported throughout Europe. No country was as affected as Belarus, though. The incidence of cancer increased immensely, as did the mortality rate. Svetlana Alexievich decided to give a voice to some of those who were affected. She interviewed former workers of the power plant, people who returned to a village that had been evacuated, doctors, scientists, displaced people and soldiers. Many had already died when the book was first published.
The Communist authorities lied and hid critical information. They didn’t explain how the accident happened, and the population wasn’t informed about the consequences. Military officers and clean-up workers, for example, weren’t told about the dangers of exposition to radiation. The main security agency for the Soviet Union, KGB, ordered them never to speak about what they had seen. Propaganda was successfully employed to the point that even engineers started to believe in it. This is some of the scant significant information that I was reminded of while reading.
The book is a collection of several testimonies. They are written in the first person and are sometimes accompanied by short asides by the author, mentioning gestures or facial expressions. They seem to be just unedited transcriptions of the interviewees’ statements and are not supplemented with established facts about the incident. This causes a problem. If a couple of testimonies are touching and informative, the majority of them are superfluous and repetitive. Some don’t even recall specific personal experiences about the incident, but are mere rants. This is obviously not a criticism of the people that were interviewed and suffered so much, but of the author, who didn’t fully do her job as a storyteller.
Finishing this book was a struggle. I had to skim through it looking for interesting testimonies, which I then read more attentively. Two of them deserve to be highlighted. The first one is a powerful, touching monologue by the wife of a firefighter who was pregnant at the time. And, near the end, we are presented with an enlightening and informative testimony from a former director of the Institute of Atomic Energy, which could have served as the structural spine of the book.
When I got to the end of Chernobyl Prayer, I wasn’t much better informed about the accident. Maybe this wasn’t the purpose of the book. I was expecting it to be more than an assortment of testimonies, however.