No literary response to Chernobyl deserves a wider readership than Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, represents the broadest range of a society whose alienation makes them “a separate people. A new nation.” In these pages, harrowing stories of lost loved ones sit alongside litanies against technological hubris; the history of ideas—“the era of physics ended at Chernobyl”—contrasts with spots of black humor; science collides with superstition. The cumulative effect is not the absorption of Chernobyl, but rather an unlimited expansion. More than any other work, Alexievich’s provides a direct, vertiginous glimpse of Chernobyl's abyss.
As sensed by Christa Wolf, the abyss threatens to void the written word of meaning: “There’s nothing heroic here,” says a liquidator, “nothing for the writer’s pen.” Perhaps, a historian muses, only Dostoyevsky could have made any use of Chernobyl. Many of the voices are rightly skeptical of those drawn to the story: “[Chernobyl] has its own writers,” a journalist says. “But I don’t want to become one of the people who exploits this subject.” It’s a testament to Alexievich’s gifts that she manages to include critiques of her chosen medium, and yet produce a work that speaks to the enduring power of language. “I’ve read a lot of books, I live among books,” says the wife of a liquidator, “but nothing can explain this.” Nothing can. But Voices From Chernobyl forges a bond between reader and survivor; understanding exists without explanation.
The sheer richness of Voices From Chernobyl suggests why the disaster has been so tantalizing for literary depiction, and writers are bold for taking on such a painful and complex subject. At the same time, however, Chernobyl comes freighted with an automatic gravitas. A common phenomenon in the Zone is what’s known as radiophobia, psychosomatic sensations—sore throats, blurry vision—prompted simply by an awareness of being in the Zone; it’s a false response to something real. In novels, and even in an essay such as this, the very word Chernobyl strikes a note of tragic awe, and so it’s unusually susceptible to being invoked for prescribed effects.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2014), a historical novel by Darragh McKeon, is the most recent entry into Chernobyl literature. It tells the intertwining stories of a surgeon called into the fallout area, his ex-wife, and her nephew, a piano prodigy in Moscow. Taken together, they’re intended to chart the final decline of the Soviet Union, to which Chernobyl contributed. What they actually present is a kind of literary radiophobia, the false effects of invoking Chernobyl.
McKeon acknowledges his debt to other books on the subject, including Voices From Chernobyl, and his novel includes passages drawn directly from the oral history. But while McKeon admirably read everything written about the disaster, he missed the skepticism toward literary convention essential to the best examples. Many solid things, it turns out, haven’t melted into air, among them uncomplicated heroism, clear moral distinctions, and a teleological view of history. Chernobyl is harnessed to signify Tragedy, and a sonorous literary cadence seems to invade, rather than emerge from, the Zone—an odd effect for a book in which people say things like, “The past demands fidelity ... it’s the only thing that truly belongs to us.”