Friday, October 9, 2015

A Look at One of Svetlana Alexievich's Books

I don't know enough about the hard sciences to judge if the people who get Nobels for them truly deserve them. But literature is usually written for the enjoyment of non-specialists, I speak the language of this year's winner natively and I love good writing, so I decided to check out one of her works.

Of course I know that she got this prize for hating Putin and Lukashenko. But there are lots of writers like this, and some of them are bound to have more talent than others. If in some alternate universe I got a place on the Nobel-giving committee, I'd promote my politics through it as hard as the current members promote theirs. People's lives and the future of civilization depend on the outcome of ideological struggles. But the Nobel is a great brand, and the height of the soap box that it provides partly depends on the quality of the winners. So of all the writers with whom I mostly agree I'd pick the ones with the awesomest style - people like Roissy/Heartiste, Jim Goad, Greg Cochran or the Derb. Is the Nobel organization well-run enough to do that now? That was one of the things I wanted to find out.

By the way, if you think that the authors I mentioned above shouldn't qualify because what they do isn't literature, you should know that the Derb has published novels, while Svetlana Alexievich, this year's winner, has not. She's a journalist instead.

The first book of hers that I found on the Internet for free was about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and is called Chernobyl Prayer (a Chronicle of the Future).

It starts with a vague epigraph: "we're air, we're not land...." That's followed by a quote from a Belorussian newspaper: "Belarus... for the world we are terra incognita, an unknown, unexplored land."

OK, so she aims her writing at the kind of people who need "terra incognita" translated to them. Interesting to know.

"White Russia - this is approximately how the name of our country sounds in the English language."

No, it's not. English speakers don't know that the Bel part of Belarus means "white". I've only read two sentences and there's already a factual inaccuracy.

A few lines down it says that the population of Belarus is still mostly rural. I thought "that can't be true". Checked the Wikipedia - yep, it hasn't been true since 1975. Both of these errors occur in quotes that Alexievich put at the start of her book under the heading "historical reference", so it's clear that she thought that this was accurate info.

"Among the causes of demographic decline [in Belarus] radiation takes the first place." Oh come on, even she can't possibly believe that. The quote is from 1996, when all of the non-Muslim parts of the former USSR, even the ones located 10 time zones away from Chernobyl, were suffering huge demographic declines due to the catastrophic impoverishment brought on by the liberal gangsters and thieves whom Alexievich supports. Chernobyl was child's play compared to the human toll of her benefactors' hatred and greed, and I say this as someone who lost his thyroid to Chernobyl-related cancer.

"In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from the Chernobyl accident, mortality was 20% higher than natality."

Specifically in 1996 deaths outnumbered births in Russia by 59%. 1,304,638 births and 2,082,249 deaths. Russia is huge and the wind after the accident wasn't blowing its way, so it wasn't affected by radiation much. I only got sick from it because 5 years later I, my mom and her sister spent 2 weeks in Chernigov, a Ukrainian city close to Chernobyl. It's where my mom's parents were from, and we still had relatives there. While in Chernigov we must have eaten something that was grown locally that had radiation in it because two of us (my aunt and I) lost our thyroids later.

"Over the last 10 years mortality increased by 23.5%" She's quoting a Belarusian newspaper about Belarus here. Well, in Russia from 1986 to 1994 the number of deaths per year increased by 53.6%. That's not radiation, that's liberalism. And this woman is a liberal.

After a few more paragraphs of history and statistics, all of it quoted from other publications, Alexievich starts her actual reporting with the story of the wife of a fireman who died after helping put out the fire on the day of the accident. The style is exactly like that of my grandma and her friends talking about their long-suffering lives on some park bench back in Moscow. This narrative is recorded as direct speech, so I still haven't encountered Alexievish's Nobel-calibre style at this point.

It's all very sad of course. Women love to hear and tell personal stories like this, but being a nerd I would have rather read interviews with engineers about what actually went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

Throughout this very feminine story I got occasional unintentional glimpses of the magnitude of the containment and evacuation operations that went on in the days after the accident. The organizational capacity of the late Soviet state on display here reminded me of those stories of hurricanes killing thousands in the Dominican Republic but leaving Cuba largely unscathed. A country looted out by Alexievich's liberal friends wouldn't just suffer more accidents than the late USSR, its response to them would also be dozens of times smaller and less efficient. Oh, why am I saying "would"? The modern Ukraine is exactly that kind of a country.

As I read more and more, I'm trying to remember April of 1986 myself. Even in Moscow there was some fear and anxiety. My parents tuned in to the BBC's Russian Service for info. I remember it being said that a particular type of mushroom, often sold at outdoor markets, absorbed radiation more than other kinds of foods.

The woman's story about the illness and death of her firefighter husband and of her infant daughter ends. It was insanely depressing, but all female stories about suffering and loss are like that. Shouldn't Nobel winners be at least unique?

At the start of the next section Alexievich tells us that the Chernobyl accident was "the main event of the 20th century, in spite of all the terrible wars and revolutions for which that century will be remembered". I'm chalking that up to chick logic. A certain quantity of pseudo-profound nonsense follows. I'm finally up against this year's Nobel prize winner's own voice. It's boring and pompous: "Chernobyl is a secret which we will still have to uncover. An unread sign. Perhaps a mystery for the twenty-first century. A challenge to it." Of course she's not talking about anything technical here - it's all hot air.

"The facts were simply not enough anymore, one was drawn to look beyond the facts, to get into the meaning of what was happening." Oh really? The carelessness she showed with the "facts" which she quoted at the start of this book suggests that she's simply bored by them instead.

She says that Chernobyl left everyone confused because throughout the ages the measure of horror was war. "We are in a new history, a history of catastrophes has begun." She is utterly devoid of any sense of historical perspective. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics - never happened. She goes on and on about the revolutionary newness of radiation's invisibility, but viruses have always been invisible too, and much more deadly.

After that there is another interview with a survivor, who compares Chernobyl to the horrors of WWII, which he had seen as a child.

By this time I got an idea of what this book is like - survivors' tales and the author's feelings about them. That's not terrible. I've skimmed through much worse books than that in my life, and lots of them. But it's not the kind of stuff I would have picked if I were a PC liberal on the Nobel Prize committee. There must be thousands of better liberal writers in the Russosphere.

I must say that the reminder that the bad guys are sometimes seriously inefficient offset some of the horror left in me by the book's vivid descriptions of radiation sickness.

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