Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 is arguably one of the most horrifying industrial disasters in human history. Chernobyl Prayers (1997) is fundamentally about the fallout of grand ideas or epoch making discoveries that haunts every sphere of ordinary life. It’s the history of victim, doomed and fading souls which are the raw materials requisite for the constitution of an eventful century. Shanta Halder reviews the book.
AGAINST the backdrop of a greater yet ironically named project ‘Voices from Big Utopia’ of the writer Svetlana Alexievich, the schema of Chernobyl Prayer reveals. This project involves direct presentation of raw, uncensored tales told primarily by rural, forgotten women whose reminiscences, as the writer describes, constitute a missing history. A kind of history that remains stubbornly unknown. It’s the history of victim, doomed and fading souls which are the raw materials requisite for the constitution of an eventful century.
Chernobyl Prayer from that single perspective of background, is no exception to its earlier installations.
On the night of 26 April 1986, Reactor No. 4 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was brought down by a series of blasts. This disaster released fifty million curies of radioactivity of which 70 percent fell in Belarus. Twenty three percent of the country’s land became contaminated with levels above 1Ci/km2 of caesium-137. This disaster is termed as the gravest technological catastrophe of twentieth century. That alone provides the raison d' être for this book except the fact that Chernobyl Prayer doesn’t necessarily rest upon that. It’s rather, in the exact wording of the writer ‘a book on the world of Chernobyl’. The fallout of two disasters, one in the social arena and the other in cosmic competes with each other throughout the book on the only standard ‘wreaking havoc’ on the victims. It simultaneously divulges the crooked deceptions practiced by the then incumbent government upon the victims of the disaster for which, plausibly, this very book faced difficulties in publication.
There are personal oral accounts presented as monologues which one after another weaves together an epic exposition that undermines one’s notions of fact or fiction, or perhaps, literature itself. These accounts often turn into gritty, incoherent or sheer jejune ones. The presentation of monologues with the likewise names as follows ‘Sacrificial priests and victims’ or ‘Monologue on something more remote than Kolyma, Auschwitz and the Holocaust’ provides a kaleidoscopic read throughout.
The writer describes in her only initial interview the behavior of the firemen who went immediately to extinguish the fire at the nuclear reactor who as well were kept unaware of the nature of the fire (mortally radioactive) and the subsequent clean-up workers around the epicenter as ‘collective suicide’. Later even, the fact of high doses of radiation workers were receiving was either manipulated or was deliberately concealed from them.
The book seems to be a suggestion or a distant bell spelling warning. The recurrent suggestion of rethinking our relationship with nature in her full form has been esoteric. In the writer’s wording ‘the disaster threatened the continuity of life itself’. She continues, ‘When I visited clean-up workers I heard their stories of how - first on the scene and for the first time ever - they dealt with the new human yet inhuman task of burying earth in the earth, meaning they buried in concrete bunkers contaminated layers of soil, along with the entire populace of beetles, spiders and maggots…..they had an entirely different understanding of death, encompassing everything: from birds to the butterflies.’
What does a common man feel? How does he behave when faced with overwhelming circumstances that tear apart his understanding of the world? What does he dream of when his days are doomed? These questions, as they are posed in the motif, make this work a masterpiece.
It’s a gritty, bold and inherently tragic work. It’s about not mincing one’s words. It’s is not about propaganda or being mired in or reducing the only capital ‘suffering’, as the book describes it, into propaganda. Neither does the author attempt to trade on the only capital ‘suffering’ through her book in her own language. Neither does it portray any grand vision or discovery. It’s fundamentally about the fallout of grand ideas or epoch making discoveries that haunts every sphere of ordinary life that has been described.
Deduction of the suggestion of a wholesale review of the humanist thoughts won’t be a distant one. Insightful ridiculousness lies in the strand that ideas are being dissipated by bureaucracy. The portrayal of a vulnerable race called homo-sapiens which could be corrupted is unflinching.
Radionuclides strewn out across the area tend to live for thousands of years. That itself poses a mortal threat in an ever-present scale apart from the one of social sphere. The oral accounts tell of a generation that have been deluded and lied to. A generation to whom time itself can’t offer anything but suffering. Time seems ashamed of itself, devoid of its capability.
Do the raw accounts of the victims, of the wives of victims of what they went through or of the doom they face still, when one goes through the book, not suggest perversion of humanity itself?
‘Chernobyl for them’ as the writer puts it ‘is no metaphor, no symbol: it is home’. Of course, it is the story of Chernobyl and this pattern is the story of every living survivor. Or perhaps, of everything going to live with or without human expression. And it’s more about ordinary souls. About ordinary feelings. About the wise, sublime and incoherent aspects of the feelings of such lives.
The author’s way of merciless dissection of the degree and depth of suffering of the survivors transcends the mere corporeal dimension of the subjects. That turns this aggressive attempt of pursuing deep down inside a living existence a new literature.
Chernobyl Prayer from this perspective is an embryonic version of the way of abstraction of obscure and mortally omnipresent and treacherous circumstances which the writer describes as ‘challenges more fiendish and all-embracing yet hidden from the view’. ‘Yet after Chernobyl something had cracked open’ she fears.
The finesse of addressing both the circumstances and creation has much importance considering the present turbulent times of war and displacement.
The fundamental question that haunts me still is ’How much suffering without meaning can a human being bear?’ Well, from that perspective, Chernobyl Prayer is just a milestone (if not gravestone) in the long way of our epistemological evolution.
Shanta Halder is a student of University of Dhaka.
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