Saturday, November 19, 2011

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

As the subtitle implies, Voices from Chernobyl is a collection of interviews of survivors from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  Maybe monologues would be a better term since it's not questions and answers so much as stories ranging from a paragraph to several pages.  They are mostly stories from parents and spouses of people killed by radiation or people dying of radiation.  As you may suspect, it's incredibly sad.

I heard excerpts of this book on the radio which required me to pull my car over and sob for a while as I listened to it.  Many of the interviews in this book are ridiculously sad.  The ones that get to me are wives of the firemen and responders sent into the radiation to help the situation.  They watched their husbands die slowly of radiation, powerless to help.  Other stories involved parents of children born with extreme birth defects, people who chose to live within the radiation area, or government workers involved in the damage control process in various ways.

One thing aspect I was not prepared for was the animal suffering.  Whether it was the author's influence, the culture,or something else, the vast majority of this book's stories mentioned pets.  Pets were sometimes evacuated with their families and sometimes had to be abandoned in the area around Chernobyl.  The people who chose to remain in the contaminated area typically spoke of their animal companions.  The saddest parts were the soldiers sent to slaughter the abandoned pets in the
affected area.  It was pretty brutal reading about the animals suffering and dying.

The misinformation propagated by the government was pretty astounding.  They never told people about the dangers of radiation.  People allowed themselves and their children to be exposed to radiation totally unnecessarily just because they didn't understand it.  The danger didn't seem real because it wasn't something you could see.  Some people mentioned feeling safer within the contaminated area than elsewhere based on violence they had experienced in other parts of Europe.  So much suffering could have been avoided if the government had been honest rather than clamping down on information and telling people not to worry.

I didn't enjoy reading this book as much as I expected to.  Reading it didn't affect me quite as much as I thought it would.  I think this is largely because of how scattered it was.  I recognize that to a degree that's inevitable when the book is made up of interviews.  The interviewees would trail off or change the subject and talk really aimlessly.  In some chapters, it was edited to make it extra scattered by interspersing paragraphs from different interviews.  It was somehow hard to focus on the tragedy when it was jumping around so much. 

I would recommend this book to people interested in this type of history.  It's not a fun read, but it's important.  I definitely knew next to nothing about the Chernobyl disaster and found this book to be educational. 

4/5 stars

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