Half-lives, Half-truths: Svetlana Alexievich and the Nuclear Imagination by Hedley Twidle

18 Aug 2016
Half-lives, Half-truths: Svetlana Alexievich and the Nuclear Imagination by Hedley Twidle

This is part of the PEN SA literary essay series. If you are interested in submitting a piece, contact us on communications@pensouthafrica.co.za.

Half-lives, Half-truths: Svetlana Alexievich and the Nuclear Imagination

By Hedley Twidle

In my twenties I worked for a while as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went ok, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You never worried whether the person next to you was enjoying it. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.
++++++++I watched hundreds of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that “The Fat Years Are Over” – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They take him to a remote cabin and try some political re-education, intent on making him see the error of his ways. (It turns out, of course, that he was once a passionate anarchist in his youth.)
++++++++I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise – this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue – is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point. It has certainly been on my mind while following the creeping, secretive progress of the Zuma administration’s nuclear ambitions. The Presidency is pushing for a new nuclear build, one that will add up to nine new reactors to our coastline; that may cost well over a trillion of our weakened Rands; that will most likely be built by one of the autocracies in the BRICS alliance: Russia or China. Or perhaps France, which violated international embargoes in the 1970s and 80s to provide the apartheid government with Koeberg, a facility just outside Cape Town that is (for now) the only nuclear power plant on the African continent.
++++++++Zuma’s “Presidential legacy” project will be, if it comes off, the biggest procurement in our history; and yet it is being rushed through with little open debate. If it happens, South Africa will be locked into this energy path at the moment when the “old” nuclear powers are moving away from the technology, realizing the astonishing expense and difficulty involved in decommissioning plants and dealing with their waste. But the technocratic, business-minded language surrounding our nuclear future seeks to present it as a done deal, with only the details about costing to be ironed out. Even its opponents in the financial pages couch their objections mainly in economic terms. All in all, it is the impermeable, bloodless language of state power welded to corporate power and the market – a language invested in the belief (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it is GDPs and stock prices and all the other metrics of global capital that provide the best guide for how to act, how to be in the world, how to calibrate ethical decisions, environmental risks and social policy. What is the counter-voice to this entire syndrome of non-communication? What is the antidote?
++++++++Here is where I indulge in my own abduction fantasy: ideas of corralling members of the pro-nuclear lobby, then subjecting them to a syllabus in the nuclear humanities – an array of texts, films and artworks that would consider this energy path in a fuller sense, accessing registers of experience (memory, history, imagination, philosophy, ethics, dreams, delusions) that NDPs or IRPs or EIAs have no interest in admitting to.
++++++++There are many options for this nuclear curriculum, of course: the subject has infiltrated a vast body of 20th-century art, film and literature. I am particularly drawn to those works where such questions are taken up in non-fiction narratives, often in experimental or generically innovative ways. There is John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a landmark six-part article for the New Yorker that is often regarded as a forerunner of the New Journalism; it refracts the “noiseless flash” of 6 August 1945 and its hellish aftermath through the experience of six different characters, using fictional techniques to evoke the real. There is Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, an activist memoir that is also an intertwined history of Yosemite National Park and the Nevada Testing Range: both revealed as landscapes of a war against Native American peoples. Or John D’Agata’s About a Mountain – a work of creative non-fiction that explores the abandoned project of Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas: what was once going to be the final storage facility for the United States’s high level “legacy” waste. Yucca was perhaps the most studied place on earth; yet still it was finally deemed too unpredictable – the rock was porous, the mountain was still moving.

If I could choose only one book, if I had the Energy Minister’s undivided attention for only that long, I know what it would be. The name on the title page is Svetlana Alexievich, the first non-fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize in 50 years. But it is a work of other people’s voices, of interweaved testimony about the greatest technological catastrophe of the 20th century. Subtitled “The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster”, Voices from Chernobyl is one of the most astonishing reading experiences I have ever had. As soon as the Nobel was awarded I ordered up the first, now out-of-print English translation and sat for two days with it in the British Library. Firemen’s wives, farmers, scientists, Party officials, children, soldiers, nurses – their relentless, hypnotic monologues form a documentary oratorio or “novel of voices”, a “new kind of literary genre” (in the words of the Nobel committee) which on almost every page throws up an image that is indelible, unimaginable, impossible to look away from.
++++++++We hear the testimony of the “liquidators” who move through the evacuation zone – the Zone of Alienation – charged with burying everything in the ground: crops, topsoil, whole villages. Old women milk cows and soldiers stand by to make sure the milk is immediately poured away. “We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big rugs. We’d pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. And bugs, and spiders, worms. It was work for madmen.” The same process was repeated following the Fukushima disaster: hence the photographs of neatly stacked bags in their thousands, heaped in parks, on riverbanks, dotted through rice paddies – black bags full of contaminated soil. “We buried the forest”, says one Chernobylite, “We sawed the trees into meter-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves.” “We buried earth in earth”, says another, “such a strange human activity”.
++++++++The book begins with a short section of “Historical Background”: excerpts from encyclopaedias and technical reports telling of how on 26 April 1986 at 1:23:58 a series of explosions destroyed “the fourth energobloc” of the Chernobyl station; how the catastrophe released 50×106 curies of radionuclides into the atmosphere, of which 70 per cent fell on neighbouring Belarus; how every fifth person there lives on contaminated ground; how this small republic of 10 million people lost 485 villages and settlements; how 20 tons of nuclear fuel still sit within core of the fourth reactor, beneath a cover of concrete slabs mounted remotely by helicopters and robots – a structure known as “The Sarcophagus” or “The Shelter”.
++++++++Yet such facts and numbers soon come to seem less like necessary background than an example of how inadequate mere information can be. In a Foreword titled “Interview by the Author With Herself About Missed History” (one that seems to have dropped out of the newer edition), Alexievich states that she was not interested in the event per se, not concerned with “what happened that night at the station and whose fault it was…how many tons of sand and concrete were needed to build the sarcophagus over the fiendish pit.” Instead, “I wanted to know the feelings and sensations of people who had touched the unknown”. On 26 April 1986,

Something occurred for which we do not yet have a conceptualization or analogies: something to which our sense organs and even our vocabulary is not adapted. Our entire instrument is tuned to see, hear or touch. But none of that is possible. In order to comprehend this, humanity must go outside its own limits.


What follows is a work in prose that exists at the very limit of what can be imagined, what can be told, what can be read. In the prologue, “A Solitary Human Voice”, Lyudmilla Ignatenko relates the death of the man she loves after he has gone to fight the reactor fire in his shirtsleeves. The details of what happens to his body in a Moscow hospital bed are not images that I would even want to quote outside the context of her extraordinary monologue; they should properly be experienced only within it. “You have to understand,” the doctors explain, “This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning”. Towards the end of her story, she talks of giving birth to a girl two months later:

She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty eight roentgen…Four hours later they told me she was dead…My little girl saved me, she took the whole radioactive shock into herself, she was like the lightning rod for it.


++++++++There are many different moods and registers in the work, however; it extends far beyond the tragic. Anecdotes, philosophizing, mantras, jokes – many jokes. As micro-stories that concentrate so much cultural data, they track the effects of radiation into the most intimate realms. The sexual: “The prayer of the Chernobyl liquidator: ‘Oh, Lord, since you’ve made it so that I can’t, will you please also make it so I don’t want to?’ Oh, go fuck yourselves, all of you.” The scatological: “You want another joke? After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your shit in lead.” It is a carnivalesque outpouring that circles around a mystery, an almost religious ineffability produced by secular Soviet history. “How do you evacuate a pigeon or a sparrow?” one of the liquidators wonders: “We don’t have any way of giving them the necessary information. It’s a philosophical dilemma. A perestroika of our feelings is happening here”. The Russian word for the political and ideological “restructuring” which signalled the end of Soviet Communism is read across into a history of feelings, into the psychic archive, into questions of ecology and inter-species relations. The theme recurs later, with variations: “After Chernobyl – there was an exhibit of children’s drawings, one of them had a stork walking through a field, and then under it, ‘No one told the stork.’”

In reading and teaching Alexievich’s work over the past year, and now trying to write about it, I have found that it poses a technical problem for literary studies. What, after all, is to be done with verbal data this self-sufficient and powerful? When everything seems so self-evident, when the reality effect is so strong, is the function of the critic (as Lionel Trilling once said of Tolstoy’s greatest passages) simply to point? In reading responses to her work, I could recognize this temptation to quote compulsively, simply to reanimate the voices again, to pass them on. “We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature”, she remarked in her Nobel lecture of 7 December 2015: “But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk…I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion”.
++++++++But of course, Voices from Chernobyl, like all her books, is not simply dictation. It is a carefully shaped and crafted verbal artefact, the product of a particular quality of attention and selection. There are passages of Ignatenko’s opening monologue, Alexievich remarks, that are worthy of Shakespeare: “But do you know how long it took to get her to produce those two pages of text?” Much of the literary skill here is invisible or irrecoverable. Yet it stands as a reminder that creative power comes (mostly?) from subtraction and deletion; that it might take greater artistic judgement to remove a paragraph than to include one. These are long exercises in listening beyond pre-rehearsed monologues and received memories, beyond the newspaper reports or the public narratives that have already taken hold. Alexievich’s central achievement, as Timothy Snyder writes, has been the recovery of experience from myth: “a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story”.
++++++++The events of 1986, she writes, marked a double order catastrophe: “the social one – an enormous socialist continent drowning before our eyes – and a cosmic one – Chernobyl”. The actual and political fallout of the event signalled a moment in which the Soviet experiment (one involving the longest unbroken experience of totalitarianism in human history) reached its limit. The collision of radioactive half-lives with the half-truths of the Party is often figured by speakers as a kind of scientific phenomenon, like the smashing together of atoms in the particle accelerator of history. “They didn’t understand that there really is such a thing as physics”, one remarks, “There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx.”
++++++++It is the simultaneous invisibility and ubiquity of the nuclear disaster that produces the unique and deeply strange mood of the book, where phenomena are both obvious and concealed, banal and mysterious, earthy and unearthly. On the one hand there is the new kind of sensory data produced by the high-level radiation moving through the landscape: pine trees turning red, milk turning to powder, gardens turning white:

I had that radiation in my garden. The whole garden went white, white as white can be, like it was covered with something. Chunks of something. I thought maybe someone brought it from the forest.


Whiteness recurs throughout the book, offering itself as a kind of metaphor or symbol – but a symbol of what? This is another of the riddles posed for a critic: do figures of speech function in the same way in this kind of text as they do in a poem or novel? “I remember coming back one time from a business trip”, one speaker recalls:

There was a moonlit landscape. On both sides of the road, to the very horizon, stretched these fields covered in white dolomite. The poisoned topsoil had been removed and buried, and in its place they brought white dolomite sand. It was like not-earth.


++++++++On the other hand, there is sensory absence. We are talked through the non-sensible, nonsensical nature of events – both the physical phenomena and political cover-ups – that are literally beyond human powers of perception. In one passage, a filmmaker who has been brought in to make propaganda reels remembers:

I started filming the apple trees in bloom. The bumblebees are buzzing, everything is bridal white. Again, people are working, the gardens are in bloom. I’m holding the camera in my hands, but I don’t understand it. This isn’t right! The exposure is normal, the picture is pretty, but something’s not right. And then it hits me: I don’t smell anything. The garden is blooming, but there’s no smell! I learned later on that sometimes the body reacts to high doses of radiation by blocking the function of certain organs.


The world around Chernobyl becomes, in multiple ways, impossible to read, to parse. Rather than a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter, we have a rural landscape of high summer: “The worst part was, the least comprehensible part, everything was so – beautiful! That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful.” The sensory cues point in unexpected, counter-intuitive directions. This has become a world suffused with phenomena that were not coeval with human evolution, and which as a result lie aslant to our systems of signs and meanings: “Do you know…how pleasantly the air smells of ozone after a nuclear explosion?”

At a recent conference on international literary journalism (held in Brazil, another troubled BRICS member on the verge of a Presidential impeachment), Alexievich was the subject of many panels. We heard about her place in the canon of war reportage; her complex reception in contemporary China; her affinity with the Polish tradition of literatura faktu, “the literature of fact”. Many of the delegates (and I could relate) struggled to do more than point, quoting passage after passage, moreishly.
++++++++The most original approach was taken by a scholar, Robert Alexander, who placed her work in the tradition of the skaz narrative. This is a Russian term for fiction relayed by a deliberately ignorant or limited narrator: a simple man (or woman) of the people, perhaps uneducated or with restricted intellectual horizons. Someone marginal or typically ignored, but now addressing listeners of his or her own milieu in oral narrative. The result is the kind of faux-innocence you find in the work of Nikolai Gogol: spontaneous, non-linear, sometimes ungrammatical, often vulgar or colloquial. In South Africa, Herman Charles Bosman’s stories work like this: they trade on the ironic distance between a backward, sometimes bigoted narrator and a larger, implied authorial meaning that readers must recover for themselves.
++++++++In one sense, many of the stories in Voices from Chernobyl do read like skaz. They retain a strong sense of spokenness, where narrating is an event in itself rather than just the record of an event. They hold the particular verbal signature, the idiolect, of each speaker; they log the crabwise, unpredictable progress of human storytelling. As Masha Gessen remarks, Alexievich answers questions of consequence – Did this person survive? Did she see her family again? – “not when they would naturally occur to the reader, as a journalist might, but, in the way of a novelist, when her character addresses them, which may be never”. Read with one eye closed, they could even be tales, or even fairy tales:

If you don’t play, you lose. There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. “Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!” Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. “Don’t worry!” she says. “They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.”


Many passages are suffused with an absurdist comedy in which the inhabitants of a rural backwater – alternately suspicious and superstitious – have suddenly been caught up in a nuclear disaster zone. Even technology becomes a fetish:

The dosimetrists – they were gods. All the village people would push to get near them. “Tell me, son, what’s my radiation?” One enterprising soldier figured it out: he took an ordinary stick, wrapped some wiring to it, knocks on some old lady’s door and starts waving his stick at the wall. “Well, son, tell me how it is.” “That’s a military secret, grandma.” “But you can tell me, son. I’ll give you a glass of vodka.” “All right.” He drinks it down. “Ah, everything’s all right here, grandma. Don’t worry.” And leaves.


This folkloric, magical realist quality is one of the most striking things about Voices from Chernobyl. Its mingling of radioactivity and orality evokes another astonishing literary response to the nuclear age, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, which evokes a post-apocalyptic Britain in a pidgin of folk metaphors and archaic Anglo-Saxon. Many of the “re-settlers” who move back to the territory around Chernobyl are women beyond child-bearing age, sometimes beyond caring, and who subject events to the hardiness and scepticism of peasant wisdom. Some refuse to believe that anything out of the ordinary has happened.
++++++++But of course, the monologues in Voices from Chernobyl can’t really be skaz, since we have crossed into the zone of non-fiction. These are not invented characters, and there is no larger, implied or hidden narrator. And so, there is no possibility of the ironic distance which so much literary fiction trades on. Or is there? When I asked the conference presenter, he suggested that for the speakers in Voices from Chernobyl, perhaps the missing “author” of their stories was the Party and Soviet ideology itself: once an all-powerful master-narrative that sought to modify every aspect of human behaviour, now revealed as an enormous political fiction, inept and in decay. More than once, the endlessly frustrated attempts to read the mind of the State evoke another of Gogol’s descendants, Franz Kafka. In the section titled “About Expensive Salami”, we read:

Our family tried not to economize, we bought the most expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat. Then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.


Kafka, after all, is the great master of brief and painfully funny stories about totalitarianism. A joke told by soldiers clearing radioactive graphite from the reactor roof:

An American robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then – breaks down. The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: “Private Ivanov! In two hours you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break.” Ha-ha! [Laughs.]


In another scene, radioactive fallout rains down on a May Day parade in Minsk: an invisible emblem of the disregard or even contempt of those in power for their most loyal supporters. Knowing the scale of the disaster, but still reluctant to admit it publically, the Soviet authorities refuse to distribute the iodine tablets stockpiled in case of nuclear war. What we are left with in Voices of Chernobyl is a world of ironies that are no longer of any use to anyone; a book of parables that teach only how difficult it is to recover the truth – and how, even then, it may make no difference.
++++++++Here, finally, is the problem with my initial, naïve fantasy of “educating” the powerful. It assumes that more information inevitably leads to social progress, or progressive action; that disinformation can be shown up, revealed, reduced, reversed. If only you knew what I knew, things would change around here – this is the belief of those three vainglorious activists who go round kidnapping captains of industry. But Alexievich’s survivors speak knowing that knowledge and authoritarianism can go very well together; that truths can co-exist perfectly happily with lies.
++++++++Re-visiting these monologues during a year of local political meltdowns, I began having the auditory hallucination of hearing them delivered in a South African accent. All too easily, I could imagine a local, answering echo of these Belarussian voices. The monologue of the MyCiti bus driver asked to go up the R27 towards a nuclear emergency (as the Koeberg evacuation plan demands). The B&B owner at Pearly Beach, sealing himself off behind the sliding patio door, confused by the contradictory information coming from the SABC. The commuter looking up the coast and realizing that, this time, the plume of smoke is not from a veld fire, and that she must get her family out of the city. A traffic officer trying to control the mass exodus from the metro, huge chaotic bottlenecks on the N1 and N2, the Huguenot Tunnel blocked, Sir Lowry’s Pass at a standstill.
++++++++A comparable collection of testimonies, that is, from the residents of Atlantis, Melkbosstrand, Gansbaai and other towns near our proposed reactor sites – a truth that will only emerge late, too late, after the fact. “I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumour, vision”, writes Alexievich in her closing words:

Why repeat the facts – they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them. These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.

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