review · Translated · Ukraine

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

voices chernobylVoices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen

Dalkey Archive Press, 2005

Originally published as Tchernobylskaia Moltiva, 1997

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’m one of those readers that tries to sample award-winning books/ authors from time to time, and it usually takes me several tries before I find something that I’m in the mood to read. Case in point: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, recent Booker-prize winner, was a little too disorienting for me to finish, but that’s not to say I won’t try it when my attention span is a bit longer. I was a little leery of the heaviness of Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, but the fact that it’s an oral history made it easy to put it away for a time to get ready to go on.

This is an oral history, and Alexievich calls it her attempt to get at the feelings behind the events. It’s harrowing, it’s enlightening about the horrible things that happen alongside acute radiation poisoning, and it’s enlightening about the government response to the fire at the reactor at Chernobyl. Also, I will say that the first story was absolutely the saddest for me. If you can make it past that, it’s not quite as emotionally raw. It’s still harrowing reading though.

Oral histories are a mixed bag for me. I’ve read some that are simply too long and detailed (Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), I’ve read bits of some that are too dismaying (I read bits of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco  in college), but Voices from Chernobyl felt like the right length and the right sort of mix of stories. She collected stories for three years roughly ten years after the fire, and she gets stories about before, during, and looking to the future as people grieve as well as get sick with the effects of radiation exposure. It’s a little about politics, it’s a little about how to live with suffering, it’s a little about science. It’s a very affecting book, and I am eager to find what gets translated into English next.