Oct 21, 2016
History’s Contaminants: On Reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl
I liked what I looked like when I was reading Voices from Chernobyl. Once I looked up at my reflection in the subway train window and I was surprised at how interesting and serious I was. I felt very guilty and strange for these superficial concerns, but not guilty enough to not take a picture. I keep thinking lately that I look like what I want to look like, and it feels good. Especially against a backdrop of things I can’t control.
When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought, “How did I not know about this book about Chernobyl?” I have a general interest in atomic weapons, I’ve looked at pictures online of Chernobyl as it is now, read about Hiroshima and Rocky Flats. The suddenness of it all, the forced preservation for hundreds of years, both are haunting to me. But Chernobyl is different, my interest lies in the fact that the radiation touched me.
My father is the opposite of me, he doesn’t want to consume art about tragedy, about World War II. He grew up steeped in its history, a kid in Communist Poland. I, on the other hand, sought out books about the Holocaust and the Second World War. I would recognize words and names of places from my trips to Poland and my family’s past and I wanted to read more. One book, Letters from Rifka, was particularly formative for me, the tragedy and redemption were powerful forces in my young mind. Rifka escapes persecution, ends up in the Ellis Island hospital, throwing American toilet paper into the ocean as she’s convalescing from ringworm.
Now, I wish my father would tell me what he was thinking when he watched me check these books out of the library. How long had it taken him to tire of seeing his country’s recent history, recent horror, rendered in art, which, for some reason, I sought? He says, “That’s not for me,” if I invite him to a showing of a Polish language film set during 1940.
Did I feel this way (without knowing) about Chernobyl?
In her oral history of Chernobyl, Alexievich pairs everyday thoughts with atrocity. She asks innocuous questions in the face of tragedy. Where did cats and dogs go? What did you wear? What did you do with your furniture? People all over Europe went on admiring their reflections in the aftermath of this nuclear disaster, they had to. My pausing to take a picture of myself in a train window isn’t so asynchronous as I first thought.
Twenty-some years after Chernobyl, my mom said to me, “Make sure you tell the doctor to check your thyroid.” My mother didn’t have a thyroid anymore.
The last bit of testimony in Voices from Chernobyl is from a woman whose husband died. It is very easy for me to relate to her. She describes the absence of happiness in her life now that her husband is gone. My eyes bulged in repressed sadness, imagining myself and my husband inside her life. She loved her husband and his absence made her life newly impossible to navigate. She’d felt happiness with him, and now he is gone.
This could be anyone. If you’re a person who needs to learn that lesson, this book will teach it to you.
I got my thyroid checked. I was told there were little aberrations, nothing serious, but to keep coming back. I haven’t. I am trying to learn my own particular lesson, not one about suffering and loss, exactly, but about heeding warnings to take care of myself. It could be me, watching my husband suffer until he died. Because right now, I am the woman before she lost her husband or child, the woman living an unbearably happy life.
I asked my dad what our lives were like when the Chernobyl meltdown happened, and he said, “Our life was good.” After a pause, he said, “You could see the sea if you leaned out our window.” I was five months and six days old when the cloud of radiation moved above Europe. My dad explained that the only reason they found out about it was because the Swedish nuclear monitoring equipment went off. I asked, and only knew to ask because of the book I was reading, “Did we take iodine?”
“Iodine was only for the children.” he said. My dad and mother didn’t get iodine, but I did. My dad got cysts in his brain, but I didn’t. My mom doesn’t have a thyroid anymore, but I do. I think about how this has to be connected. I feel grateful they took care of me, that at least the children got iodine. I thought about my eight-month-old son, whom we were taking on a walk, my dad’s grandson, and I asked, “Were you worried?”
When my parents began to experience some extreme health issues, at pretty much the same time, I had already moved out of the house. They didn’t tell me much, but things seemed serious. Instead of the normal warnings my father would intone—“Don’t lean back on your chair, you could fall and die” —he was quiet about what he was experiencing. My father was found passed out under his desk at work.
I remembered the time, when I was very young, my father was in a very bad car accident. His tiny Chevette slid underneath a semi-truck. My mom was a nurse at the hospital they brought him to. My little sister and I didn’t know much about what happened as he underwent surgery, we were too little. But I don’t know very much now about what my mother and father experienced as they both suddenly and simultaneously experienced side effects caused by the meltdown of Chernobyl. Like the iodine they had given me, they shielded me from the worst of their health issues when they manifested, twenty years later.In a similar scenario, I know I would give my son iodine from my own ration, but I don’t know what I will do when I get sick.
In the stories Alexievich gathered, there is a therapeutic sense of relief in the language. There isn’t an aura of whining or a complaining, but of unburdening. Deep, personal, familial pain emanates from the page, a pain Alexievich had to tug from her interviews. I’ve heard it in many immigrant mouths, lamenting abandoned relatives. From people who found out family members were actually alive all this time, living parallel lives in Germany. From men who claimed asylum to escape persecution following Solidarnosc.
There are many levels to this pain, and Alexievich is faithful to all of them.
There are the women whose husbands died. The women quickly say they wish their husbands had never gone to Chernobyl. They would give anything to have their husbands with them still. There are the women whose children are sick from the fallout, whose futures are uncertain. There are children who feel like no one will ever love them, branded as “Chernobyl Children.” There are men who went and survived, who bristle with the memories of dosimeters, rounding up “hot” pets, burying the ground.
They tell their stories to Alexievich, who listened to them and now tells us their stories. She’s the mediator, the repository for the pain that’s been shared with her. In a way, she is everyone’s sibling in suffering, listening to the ills of their father, the Soviet Union. In an effort to protect its citizens, the Soviet Union withheld crucial, and so much, information. In an effort to prevent panic, people were allowed to drink contaminated milk, eat contaminated meat, wear contaminated clothes. The Soviet Union willfully sacrificed its people into the maw of Chernobyl. On another level, Alexievich is also like a parent to her readers, but unique. She is forcing her readers to confront brutality and ugliness. That pain is her way to teach us lessons.
I don’t know how many of us have parents like that—unblinking, truthful, unreserved. Most parents seem to prefer to protect unconditionally. To tell us as little as possible so we can enjoy our lives. What kind of parent would I be if I were to get thyroid cancer? Where would the pain go?
Sometimes the people speaking to us through Alexievich wonder how it could have been better. I couldn’t help but picture a more organized response; a border, checkpoints, plastic wrap, masks. “They should have blocked off a border!” I think, unable to go so far as “This should not have happened,” not even in my imagination. They should have done a lot of things.
Sometimes, we don’t like it when people tell us the truth. Were Soviet officials right to let people live in ignorance? Could I be relentless in exposing truths?
Perhaps a way to navigate these questions is to explore the respect I have for Alexeivich against the backdrop of the respect I have for the people steadfastly living despite their suffering. Perhaps a way to find out what kind of person I am is to ask myself who I think is stronger: an author fighting systemic repression, or victims of systemic injustice?
There is something admirable in simple persistence and self-perpetuation. In the Soviet pervasiveness, in Alexievich’s courage, in the resigned way we suffer. Perhaps what I admire is what lives on, and right now, it very much seems like Voices from Chernobyl will live on, will set a new and dominant narrative. Alexievich was able to show us the human side, the ever-ongoing side of Chernobyl. There are people still living there. Somehow, she was able to quantify the unfathomableness of half-lives and reactors and desolation and destruction. Alexeivich gave the people who suffered Chernobyl a voice. Am I taking it from them by chiming in? I feel chided by her power and the strength in her aggressive detachment. I want it for myself, but instead, it makes me think about my parents. About my son drinking contaminated milk.
In the war of admiration in my mind between detachment and investment, investment wins. Detachment and investment aren’t mutually exclusive, they’re not harbingers of neutrality or empathy. In one way, detachment is more powerful. Allowing suffering to speak for itself. But presenting a shell of suffering for a reader to inhabit is brash and powerful. Over and over, with every book I read, with every story I hear and tell, empathy wins.
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