Review

People’s Chorus: Extracts from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voice from Chernobyl, In Lieu of a Review

“You know, a second ago I thought I’d caught it, a second ago – it makes you want to philosophize. No matter who you talk to about Chernobyl, they all want to philosophize.”

“I don’t know what I should talk about-about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about?”

“To write about that now, when only ten years have gone by. Write about it? I think it’s senseless. You can’t explain it, you can’t understand it. We’ll still try to imagine something that looks like our own lives now. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. The Chernobyl explosion gave us the mythology of Chernobyl.”

“At first the question was, Who’s to blame? But then, when we learned more, we started thinking, What should we do? How do we save ourselves? After coming to terms with the fact that this would not be for one year or for two, but for many generations, we began to look back, turning the pages.”

“The Zone is a separate world. A different world in the midst of the rest of the world. It was invented by the Strugatsky Brothers, but literature stepped back in the face of reality.”

“It’s such beautiful land out there. The old forests are still there, ancient forests. The winding little streams, the color of tea and clear as day. Green grass. People calling to each other through the forest. For them it was so natural, like waking up in the morning and walking out into your garden. And you’re standing there knowing that’s it all been poisoned.”

“What do I remember from those days? A shadow of madness. How we dug. And dug. Somewhere in my diary I wrote down that I understood, in the first few days I understood – how easy it is to become earth.”

“We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful.”

“We were expecting our first child. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors tried to convince me: ‘You need to get an abortion. Your husband was at Chernobyl.’ He was a truck driver; they called him in during the first days. He drove sand. But I didn’t believe anyone.

The baby was born dead. She was missing two fingers. A girl. I cried. ‘She should at least have fingers,’ I thought. ‘She’s a girl.'”

“It was theater of the absurd.”

“We always lived in terror, we know how to live in terror, it’s our natural habitat. In this our people have no peers.”

“But nobody complained. If we had to do it, we had to do it. The motherland called and we went. That’s just how we are.”

“I’ll tell you, every person dies just like an animal.”

“I don’t want to talk about this. I won’t. I know just one thing: that I’ll never be happy again.”

“There’s something I felt in Chernobyl, something I understood that I don’t really want to talk about. About the fact, for example, that all our humanistic ideas are relative. In an extreme situation, people don’t behave the way you read about in books. Sooner the other way around. People aren’t heroes. We’re all – peddlers of the apocalypse. Big and small.”

“You felt how some completely unseen thing can enter and then destroy the whole world, can crawl in and enter you.”

“It’s not just the land that’s contaminated, but our minds. And for many years too.”

“I hear – the adults were talking – Grandma was crying – since the year I was born [1986], there haven’t been any boys or girls born in our village. I’m the only one. The doctors said I couldn’t be born. But my mom ran away from the hospital and hid at Grandma’s. So I was born at Grandma’s. I heard them talking about it.

I don’t have a brother or sister. I want one.

Tell me, lady, how could it be that I wouldn’t be born? Where would I be? High in the sky? On another planet?”

“It was funny and tragic at the same time.”

“I’m afraid to say it, but we love Chernobyl. It’s become the meaning of our lives. The meaning of our suffering. Like a war. The world found out about our existence after Chernobyl. It was our window to Europe. We’re its victims, but also its priests. I’m afraid to say it, but there it is.”

“Chernobyl is a theme worthy of Dostoevsky, an attempt to justify mankind.”

“You can’t understand anything without the shadow of death.”

“We – I mean all of us – we haven’t forgotten Chernobyl. We never understood it. What do savages understand about lightning?”

“Children grow up in their houses, without the forest and the river. They can only look at them. These are completely different children. And I go to them and recite Pushkin, who I thought was eternal. And then I have this terrible thought: what if our entire culture is just an old trunk with a bunch of stale manuscripts? Everything I love . . .”

“I used to write poems. I was in love with a girl. In fifth grade. In seventh grade I found out about death.”

“I’m not afraid of God. I’m afraid of man.”

“Why are these things together – love and death. Together. Who’s going to explain this to me? I crawl around the grave on my knees.”

“I’m not a philosopher and I won’t philosophize.”

“Why do we keep hovering around death?”

 

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