Brazos Best: Painting With Water on Walls

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The Book: VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, by Svetlana Alexievich, our April Brazos Best pick
The Chatters: Mark Haber (Floor Manager), Keaton Patterson (Buyer), and Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director)
The Plot: An oral history of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—a nuclear meltdown—told through many different voices of people affected directly and indirectly by the tragedy

Keaton: I have to say, when Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize, my first thought was, "A journalist and historian won this prize?" But after reading this book, I am a convert; it’s very easy to see why she was awarded.

Ben: Journalism and history writing are not always considered terribly literary or aesthetic genres. But this is a very literary and aesthetic book.

Keaton: Most of the time, when people are writing “serious history,” they focus on facts and dates to try to explain what happened. But Alexievich calls herself “a historian of emotion.” This book is about the human element of history, which is usually overlooked in academic writing.

Mark: Some of the voices are educated, some are uneducated. Some are peasants, others are historians or professors. You really glimpse the totality of the Russian spirit. These people seem like they’re out of Dostoyevsky novels sometimes, the way they speak. Reading a lot of Russian novels when I was younger, I always thought, They don’t really talk like that, it’s fiction.

Ben: Or the characters in VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL learned how to talk like this from reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy! Because I’m struck by the amount of times people in this book are looking toward art to try and understand what has happened, and how that fails. That seems, more than the history of Chernobyl, what this book is about: all the ways you try to make sense of something, but how you just look into a deeper and deeper abyss the more you try to figure it out.

Keaton: It’s beyond human comprehension, this disaster.

Ben: And there’s no attempt in this book to record the actual blow by blow of what happened at the reactor. I had to go to outside sources to look that up and remember what had happened. The explosion itself remains something that gets never explicated in the book—something that remains an abstraction in the background of everything.

Keaton: There is a quick historical note at the beginning, which gives you the bare bones of what happened, but the book as a whole really focuses on the decentralized experiences of people in different walks of life.

Mark: And you see a lot of suffering, the array of human emotions.

Keaton: The descriptions of acute radiation poisoning, especially in the very first and last monologues, and all the talk of deformed children: that was hard to get through.

Mark: There are parts that are heartbreaking, yet I don’t think it’s a dismal book. It’s a heavy book, but not without hope. Anyone I’ve given it to has been appreciative. They haven’t said, “Oh, that brought me down.” Maybe it’s the artistry of Alexievich that makes it feel so worthwhile.

Ben: So what do you think people get out of it? Or, what did you guys get out of it? It is dark, it is heavy, it is dense...but it also isn’t dense, I suppose, because with all the voices, it has the quality of…

Mark: ...of speech, of listening…

Keaton: Well, there was no one Chernobyl experience. That’s what comes through. After reading VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, I put it on a pedestal along with THE PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES [by Howard Zinn], or A DIFFERENT MIRROR [by Ronald Takaki], or 1913: THE YEAR BEFORE THE STORM [by Florian Illies]. These books seem to capture the essence more than the historical structure of the event.

Mark: Reading this book, I did better understand the historical context, though. I was a little kid when Chernobyl happened, but to read the details and how eerie it was—it happened, but the government hushed it up, and people went on living—all of that insight, I really got a lot out of that.

Ben: It’s a very empathetic book in the sense that all great literature is or ought to be…

Mark: ...aspires to be…

Ben: ...and yes, the book’s about Chernobyl, but a book like this could be written about any tragedy that happens. School shootings…

Mark: ...L.A. Riots…

Ben: ...yeah, whatever: a view that understanding these things goes beyond mere facts or historicity.

Keaton: Anna Deavere Smith did TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES 1992, speaking of L.A. Riots. Oral history is a very effective way of communicating the actual livingness of history. Chernobyl, even though it’s at the forefront of this book, is almost a metaphor. There are twin narratives: not only the events of Chernobyl itself, but also the decay of the Soviet Union, and the end of a belief system. Not only do people fail to comprehend of this tragedy through art, they also fail through ideology.

Ben: Right, because everybody in this book is displaced in one way or another. All of it winds up speaking figuratively for the dissolution of the Soviet Union: people getting scattered, people clinging to the thing they know…

Mark: ...people losing a loved one from either radiation or from being abandoned, there are all these different types of disillusionment.

Keaton: And think about the timeline: you have the Soviet-Afghan War; then right after that, Chernobyl happens; then, three years later, the Soviet Union’s gone, the regime collapses. In VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, you really see the disintegration of an empire. And toward the end, man, when the voices are describing people fleeing ethnic fights and violence—all these refugees fleeing Soviet satellites—and going to Chernobyl. They know it’s not healthy, but they go there because it’s the only place they can live in peace. What does that say?

Mark: It’s a really heavy book. But there are also moments of great beauty, the way these people talk about what they’ve experienced.

Ben: Yes, in the book, everyone keeps coming back to the notion of how beautiful the land itself is.

Mark: Right! “This can’t be poisonous, it’s so beautiful!”

Ben: But the land, while remaining pretty, is falling apart, or rotting away from the inside. The natural order is upside down. People milk the cows, but then they pour the milk out because it’s radioactive. Dogs start eating cats because they’re running out of food. Everything is bizarre in the natural world, even as it remains very lovely.

Keaton: Everything is saturated with death.

Ben: And yet, somehow it’s funny.

Mark: There’s humor in the book—or at least, there’s absurdity.

Keaton: And there are numerous moments of gallows humor. “The only salvation is humor,” someone says at one point. If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry.

Mark: Exactly. And soldiers go to Chernobyl, willfully ignorant of dangers. “I’m not gonna wear my gas mask!” They’re drinking vodka and making moonshine and sleeping out in tents, having fun, because they’re getting these big checks that most of them won’t even survive long enough to use.

Ben: It’s funny in the way that Kafka is funny: bizarre logic applied to illogical situations. There’s the story of the men going to replace the flag on the reactor after it keeps burning away, and of course all these men get sick and die. Yes, you’d have to go up and replace the flag after it burns—it’s logical to do that—yet that logic gets applied to a situation that’s wholly ridiculous.

Keaton: They keep repeating that lives just got thrown at the fire, thrown at the reactor—which is also what the Soviet Union did during World War II. It’s how they beat Germany: they just kept throwing bodies into the fray. Of course, many of these monologues happen ten years after the events of Chernobyl, so people have distance on the absurdity of the self-sacrifice—all these people dying for the Motherland, while at the same time you have the bureaucratic higher-ups flying in dosimeters and fresh food for themselves while telling everyone else, “Do your duty, nothing’s wrong.”

Ben: But this is an old story of war, right? The higher-ups, the bureaucracy, does not care one bit about the civilians. But it’s interesting that, even in the story about the soldiers putting the flag up and all dying, the guy who tells that story says that he would’ve done it in a second if they’d asked him, and he’s an educated man, a historian! He’s not the sort of person who you’d think would be susceptible to that blind, pointless ideology.

Mark: If you were raised in it, it’s all you know.

Keaton: It’s a weird, two-sided thing. In the Soviet system, there’s no value imposed on the individual human life, but individual acts of sacrifice in the name of the greater good are put on a pedestal. Take, for instance, when soldiers are working on the roof of the reactor, the most dangerous place you could be. You’re only supposed to be up there for thirty or forty seconds, and one guy stays up there for almost half an hour, and others are cheering him on: “You’re doing it for Russia!” And the government gives paper certificates of accomplishment to people dying horrendous deaths—man, this is one of the books that’ll stick with me for life.

Ben: Me too.

Mark: It’s an unforgettable book.

Ben: But it is really beautiful.

Mark: Strangely beautiful.

Ben: At one point, somebody explains their feelings about Chernobyl like this: “It’s like I’m painting with water on walls…”

Mark: What an image!

Ben: And what a way of conveying the idea of being haunted by something that you can’t talk to anyone about.

Mark: And if you do talk about it, nobody can see it. It dissolves. There’s nothing to see.

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