Chernobyl Prayer – Review
Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, by Svetlana Alexievich, April 2016. Penguin, 304 pages, ISBN 978-0241270530. RRP £9.99 (paperback)
I had not heard of Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, until I picked up the Observer recommendations for holiday reading. In these, Craig Taylor recommended her writing and declared his resolve to read “seriously” Chernobyl Prayer. What is this book, I wondered, that it can only be read “seriously”, perhaps as some sort of devotional exercise?
Svetlana Alexievich is from Belarus and although the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is in the Ukraine it is close to the two countries’ border. Some of the very worst effects of the nuclear disaster were felt in Belarus because of the direction taken by the fallout at the time of the accident. This book is not an account of why the disaster occurred, but an edited testimony of those who suffered the consequences, in terms of the loss of their health, their loved ones, their futures and their homes.
In a series of heartrending monologues the people of Chernobyl describe what happened to them and their families. These stories are not easy reading; they can only be read slowly, seriously and with deep sorrow.
A valuable aspect of the testimonies is the insight they offer into the mentality of the Soviet regime and its loyal citizens and servants. The people of the Soviet Union believed, inspired by the ideals of Communism, that nature could be tamed and the human race herded into happiness. Chernobyl wasn’t only a moment when lives and homes were destroyed. It was also a moment when a faith was seen to collapse.
In the end, this book, which deserves to be read and pondered by all Green Christians, is not about physics but about metaphysics. It’s about nature and our relationship with nature. Is it really a prayer? It’s certainly a lament. It also enlarges our humanity, our sympathy and our capacity to love. But just as it warms the heart, it also chills the mind. Read it and allow yourself to be changed.