Chernobyl – Reading About Disaster

I have not posted on this blog for a few weeks, partly because I read two books on Chernobyl back to back before beginning to read a book about fictional events taking place at Scotland’s Secret Bunker. I had thought to do one huge post with mini reviews of all three books – but I gave up on the bunker book due to its overly simplistic narration, disjointed narrative of chapters within chapters, lack of proper characterisation (one character was not named until sixty pages in), and constant repitition of established facts. Instead of writing these mini-reviews, therefore, I’ll be briefly discussing something that came up in discussion with my dear friend Mon yesterday, when I had just finished reading Chernobyl Prayer.

Why did I do this?

Why did I deliberately read two books about the worst nuclear disaster in history back to back? I have no plans to watch the TV series. The play I’m planning to write is set in the 1930s, not the 1980s, so this doesn’t count as research. Yes, I have read another book by Alexievich and was interested to read another but… why Chernobyl? What is it about the infamous nuclear disaster that continues to horrify and fascinate, whether in fact or fiction? As mentioned, there’s a very popular series airing just now. Serhii Ploky’s book was published very recently, and won a number of awards. I understand this fascination – how could this have been allowed to happen? What actually happened when the reactor exploded? – as so many of the details have been classified for so long, and there has been so much misinformation and speculation. Chernobyl is now so much more than the name of the power plant near the city of Pripyat. The exclusion zone is the setting of horror films, violent mutant-killing video games, and you can even visit the zone as a tourist. What actually happened in 1986 is overtaken in the popular consciousness by images of mutant animals and people, horror stories of the dangers lurking within the abandoned city.

Reading these two books back to back helped me to gain a clearer and less sensationalist understanding of what occurred, both in terms of the history and what actually happened, and the effect the disaster had on people living near the reactor. These stories are often shocking and horrifying, it is true, but that is because they are real. There are no cows with three heads here, instead there are soldiers being ordered to shoot all the pets citizens left behind during the evacuation, cats and dogs who eagerly approached them upon recognising human voices. There are no stories of zombies glowing with radition, instead there are clean-up workers who had to move radioactive material with their bare hands, later dying gruesome deaths from radiation sickness. Plokhy’s book is clearly written and deals with the facts yet it reads like a thriller, while the interviews Alexievich has conducted range from optimism to hopelessness to anger – but perhaps the most enduring emotion was confusion. Why did this happen? Why was this kept from us? Why did no one tell us…?

These books, and others like them which look into the truth of what happened, are incredibly important. They need to be read, to dispell the falsehoods and the overdramatic exagerrations. The real stories of the workers, teachers, scientists, young and old – they need to be remembered.

But with that being said, I’m still questioning my decision of reading these books back to back. Wasn’t one book about a nuclear disaster enough? Clearly two wasn’t either, since I then started reading about a secret nuclear bunker in Scotland. Granted, I had recentley visited the bunker, that’s where I bought the book, but my point still stands – the world is a dark and frightening place, but must the entertainment I consume, the books I choose to read to get away from the world for a bit… why must they be frightening too? It took me a long time to read Chernobyl Prayer in particular as what these people had to endure was so horrifying, and when I finished reading it I had to just sit there for around half an hour, in order to try and process what I had read. What had really happened.

Our world is sadly not one of sunshine and rainbows and unicorns, no matter how much I wish it was sometimes. I understand that not all stories end happily. But I do know that the next book I read will be of a much sunnier disposition than these.

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