Thursday, July 06, 2006

Walking ashes, talking earth

I have just read a most extraordinary book--if you only read one book this year, it should be this one (did I already say that about something else recently? I expect so, but it doesn't stop me from meaning it again this time)--it is stomach-turning and heart-breaking and altogether quite the most disturbing thing I have read for a long time, Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl. (Here's the Complete Review's page with links to various other reviews, and here's the publicity page at Dalkey Archive Press.)

I am not even going to try to describe this one. Get it and read it, though. I thought quite a bit about this question of nuclear power this year because of being at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is one of this country's prime movers for nonproliferation; one of my colleagues in the Visiting Scholars Program was working on the legacy of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons complex, and we had many fascinating and disturbing conversations about this and related matters. This book would make a good reading assignment for one of those programs where they ask first-year college students all to read the same book for workshops as school starts; you couldn't ask high-school students to read it, I think, it's just too upsetting.

Anyway, here is the author in the book's coda (and the whole thing is very ably translated by Keith Gessen; it's a beautifully well-written book, Alexievich spent three years interviewing people and must have been almost overwhelmed with the volume of evidence but the material is astonishingly well-selected and assembled):

I used to think I could understand everything and express everything. Or almost everything. I remember when I was writing my book about the war in Afghanistan, Zinky Boys, I went to Afghanistan and they showed me some of the foreign weapons that had been captured from the Afghan fighters. I was amazed at how perfect their forms were, how perfectly a human thought had been expressed. There was an officer standing next to me and he said, "If someone were to step on this Italian mine that you say is so pretty it looks like a Christmas decoration, there would be nothing left of them but a bucket of meat. You'd have to scrape them off the ground with a spoon." When I sat down to write this, it was the first time I thought, "Is this something I should say?" I had been raised on great Russian ltierature, I thought you could go very very far, and so I wrote about that meat. But the Zone--it's a separate world, a world within the rest of the world--and it's more powerful than anything literature has to say.


  1. it's better never see the pictures of the children AFTER that ...

  2. Oh, yes, the book is so sad when it's the mothers of the children talking, how heartbreaking--but I think the book handles really well the quite unspeakable nature of this story.