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Svetlana Alexievich “Chernobyl prayer: a chronicle of the future”

(I don’t know why the discrepancy of titles. My kindle version bills itself as “Chernobyl prayer” and it’s the title I prefer.)

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for a body of work focusing on soviet identity, the first non-fiction writer to win since Churchill in 1953. For her 1997 book on Chernobyl she interviewed 500 eyewitnesses, as many as twenty interviews with any one person. She allows individuals to speak without commentary, providing “a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details.” She distils what people (physicists, party men, doctors, children, wives, clean-up men, firefighters) say and shapes it into testimonies of rage, wisdom, philosophy, poetry and trauma. She sees what she does as a “novel of voices”, allowing her to be simultaneously reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher as she probes “the mystery of the human soul.” 

So many of the voices say how beautiful their landscape was, and what a rich harvest that year, 1986, gave. So many of the voices mourn loss – of children, husbands, homes, communities, a way of life. So many voices record their own casualness and the casualness of the authorities in the face of lethal radiation. So many voices record ongoing fear and the end of so many childhoods. So many voices remember the terrors of war and evacuation, and the sameness yet difference of these evacuations. So many voices apportion blame, or own complicity in awful things. So many voices express the heroics expected of Soviet Citizens. So many voices express the agony of savage deaths.

Her other books document in a similar way Russian women in WW2; soldiers returning from Afghanistan; and Russians responding to the collapse of the USSR. Putin is not impressed, and she spent years exiled from Belarus. Her inspiration was another Belarusan, Ales Adamovich, who developed a genre he called many things: a collective novel; a novel-oratorio; a novel-evidence; an epic chorus; or, simply, people talking about themselves. All these names give a flavour of what Svetlana Alexievich achieves.

This has been a long read and a hard one. 

A short movie, “The door“, encapsulates the experience of Chernobyl people: a father goes back to his contaminated house to get the door so he can lay out his young daughter on it, as is the custom of his people.

After books about Chernobyl and Ravensbrück as my bedtime reading, I turn to something far less gruelling, “Isolarion: a different Oxford journey” by James Attlee (2007). This book is the exploration of a street, framed as a pilgrimage on one’s own doorstep, a cross between William Sebald and Alexandra Horowitz. You meet the shopkeepers; enter many of the shops from sex shop to renovated restaurant; attend a reggae concert; encounter the lepers and the poor houses of the past; attend meetings where the council is attempting to rebrand Cowley Road; learn the history of St Edmund’s well; eavesdrop on a conversation with a young refugee from Albania awaiting deportation; sit down with a rabbi; join the drinkers in the churchyard; take part in a carnival; meet a badger in a bit of managed forest at dusk; talk with a woman reminiscing about the Cowley Road of her long-ago childhood; attend an African church service; watch robots at work in a car factory; and hear about rent stikes and union action in the 1930s. 

Each chapter is essay-like and they are strung together by the road, Attlee’s personality, and Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of melancholy”, which acts as a kind of intermittent commentator. The reader slip-slides around in time, but remains anchored by place. A place which changes while Attlee is making his stop-start pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that makes him feel more connected to the place where he lives.

What now, after this? I fill a hiatus reading samples I’ve plucked out of Amazon-air, rather than embarking on another whole book straight away.

I become fanciful.  I imagine the samples lined up like supplicants with gifts outside my throne-room. I, the monarch, survey the queue superciliously, wondering what the day’s audience will offer my book-greed.

They come in, one at a time

Mark McKenna hands me two shipwrecks and a walk up the 1797 coast from 90 mile beach to Sydney, and encounters with helpful Aboriginal people en route. I’m interested: this is my territory. There are three other lost histories in his book. I’ll deign to read “From the edge: Australia’s lost histories.”

Peter Wohlleben tells me that trees network and look after each other’s well being. He’s a forester, a man of science and observation, not prone to mad imaginings, so I’m looking forward to reading “The hidden life of trees: what they feel, how they communicate.”

The lineup must have learnt that I have a penchant for trees. The next bearer of gifts is Richard Fortey, brandishing “The wood for the trees: a long view of nature from a small wood.” He offers the history over a year of a small patch of English woodland, along with its history, archaeology and geology, so he tells me.

And more trees. Don Watson presents “A single tree: voices from the bush”. He owns up straight away that he’s a compiler, not an author and I briefly take against him. I’m sceptical too of sources in alphabetical order, but maybe that disorder will create its own interest.

Maybe word’s got out that I might’ve had enough of trees. Tim Low submits “Where song began” and enchants me with stories of birds in Australia, unflattering descriptions of their song from early settlers, and their uniqueness as nectar-eaters.

Bruce Pascoe has no humility. He strides in brandishing “Dark emu” and evidence that Aboriginal people were farmers, fish harvesters, bread makers and house-dwellers long before jumped up colonials arrived. He insists that I read his book. Fortunately for him, I want to.

At the end of the queue, there’s that pushy Mark McKenna again, this time with a biography of Australia’s grand old man of history, Manning Clark. He hooks me with his account of trawling the archives (arranged and annotated by Clark himself) and turns me off with the contradictory and irritating personas Clark presents. I’m ambivalent about whether I want to read “An eye for eternity: The life of Manning Clark” and tell McKenna to come back later.

Postscript: There will be no more Cliff Hardy, private investigator, stories, he who was my mainstay in the last days of Warsaw. His creator, Peter Corris, is legally blind and can no longer write, even, or maybe particularly, enlarging the font. He finds it impossible to dictate his fiction. Vale Cliff Hardy.