Is There Polyphony in the Chernobyl Choir?
(Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich, Penguin Modern Classics)
Written by: Milena Ilić Mladenović
Translated by: Aleksandra Stojković
Chernobyl is aportal to infinity. I remember discussions about the fate of Russian culture, its pull towards the tragic. You can’t understand anything without the shadow of death. And only on the basis of Russian culture could you begin to make sense of the catastrophe.
Before she was a professional author, Svetlana Alexievich was a reporter and scriptwriter of documentary films. This could be a relevant enough fact for us,because keeping this in mind, it is clear to us why she envisioned her novels with a documentary structure which she literary (insufficiently?) shaped.
In her novel Chernobyl Prayer, which brought her world fame, the author documents the testaments of the people who lived or still live in the vicinity of the Chernobyl atomic plant. The plot is based in a real disaster, and in this plot, Svetlana divides this documentary structure (fire / contaminated waste / evacuation of citizens / killing animals / radiation sickness in people directly exposed to the radiation or in people close to them / death) between her characters, linking the stories of the witnesses of this disaster.
Ales Adamovich, the Belarussian author, had great influence on Svetlana’s style. He created the new genre, the so-called polyphonic literature or the “novel-oratorio”, “collective novel”, “novel evidence”, “epic chorus”, a novel where we have“people talking about themselves”. The Swedish Academy explained their reasoning for awarding Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel prize for Literature in 2015. when they said that the prize was earned exactly because of her style of storytelling, “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,”. Still, it’s questionable just how polyphonic her writing truly is. Was it the authors intention to express polyphony in her novel Chernobyl Prayer?
In A Dictionary of Narratology (pg.19) the entry “polyphonic narrative” instructs us to look under the entry dialogic narrative where “in dialogic as opposed to monologic narrative, the narrators views, judgements and even knowledge do not constitute the ultimate authority with respect to the world represented, but only one contribution among several” In the novel Chernobyl Prayer, the testaments are marked as “monologs” and not dialogs (or interviews, as was promised). Under monologic narrative we find the definition of “a narrative characterized by a unifying voice or consciousness superior to other voices or consciousnesses in that narrative”. In this type of narrative “the narrators views, judgments and knowledge constitute the ultimate authority with respect to the world represented” This is exactly the kind of narrative we encounter in the novel Chernobyl Prayer.
There is an authority in regards to the represented world. It is not the authority of a certain character, narrator, focal character or some other concrete superior consciousness. The novel Chernobyl Prayer was envisioned as a collection of diverse testaments, and it is because of that number of differing voices and perspectives that the narrative requires a much defter stylistic differentiation of individual narrators. In the novel, anything spoken by Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, could have been said by Gennady Grushevoy – stylistically speaking, there is no difference. Every testament is broken and smothered by ellipses. Let us leave the option that the author had a different idea, that her intention was not to write a polyphonic novel, but to meld those voices into one unique voice. Perhaps it is the voice of Chernobyl itself that becomes the narrator and speaks of everything it brings (takes away) with itself. Perhaps this is why a dialog is impossible.
The only “dialog” which we encounter in the book is an interview the author conducts with herself. Everything else is a monolog – a testament the inclusion of a second speaker, without an initial question and no specific answer from the other side. A monolog can be a lament, but also an acceptance of the fact that an answer doesn’t exist. Chernobyl is everything – both question and answer. The represented world is the world of Chernobyl – a world where Chernobyl becomes both enemy and friend, past and future, hell but also heaven. A grim reality.
The subtitle of the novel is “A Chronicle of the Future”. One of the ideas of the novel is that in a world after Chernobyl, there is no future. Nor is there a past. For the people who stayed to live in the Zone, Chernobyl is a sort of never-ending present, a twisted reality. A reverse chronicle. Children are born old. They already have one foot in the grave. Girls in primary school think of how they will give birth to damaged children, whom they’ll love regardless. Children don’t look like children. They are not curious, they are vacant, pale and don’t do silly things; if a child accidentally breaks a window or makes some other mistake, the teachers rejoice. When they take these children on a field trip out of the country, they will let them pick flowers, sit on the grass, make flower crowns, swim in the river. To the children, this will seem exotic. In one of the monologs, the narrator asks: “What am I thinking of? What… Yes, we can treat them, but how do we give them back their old world? How do we give them back their past? Their future?”
In a world without future, people are no longer people, but also radioactive objects (especially the firefighters who doused the flames in the first few days, but who were also the executioners of their own families) “with a strong density of poisoning”. “That’s not a person anymore, that’s a nuclear reactor.” The people become what is killing them. Walking death, living corpses. A danger to themselves and others. The babies born of mothers who spent time with their husbands who were “eliminating the damage” with firefighters and so-called executioners, were stillborn. “My little girl saved me, she took the whole radioactive shock into herself, she was like the lightning rod for it.”, says the mother to a stillborn child in the first monolog.
The people who decided to stay in the Zone are “rare exhibits”, not exactly popular company. Many will return to their villages, at night through woods and swamps, to come home. Some may never leave. Some may be forced to stay. Many will feel like strangers anywhere else, as if the rest of the world is afraid of them. This catastrophe will turn them into Chernobylites. It will no longer matter whether they were Russian, Belarussian or Ukrainian. A new nation was born. Some will see Chernobyl as a possibility to more closely determine their national identity. When we say “Chernobyl” we usually think of Ukraine and Russia. The fact is that this disaster impacted Belarus greatly, which up until then was terra incognita, only to now receive a new, more recognizable face. A Chernobyl face. One of the victims will say “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.” It’s interesting, that way of forming a national identity though disaster, as the only possible way for the invisible to become visible again.
The question of freedom is connected to this, and its incorporated in several of the monologs. People who are now alone, no one is bothering them, the government can’t touch them. Some will even run from the war into the Chernobyl Zone. There they will be free. there the enemy is invisible. Some are in a way Robinson Crusoes, who have returned to their deserted land. On the other hand, the Chernobyl man is “A person in a vacuum, a person with nothing.”. People sneak throughthe woods, at night to their villages, to come back to where they feel like themselves, not caring about the price they must pay.
Those who are forced to abandon their homes, what do they take during evacuation? There are people who will only bring a scarf just in case it’s cold, while Nikolai Fomich Kalugin will want to bring his house door, because his late father laid on it before he was put into the casket. A few years later, his seven-year-old daughter will lay on the door, the door he secretly drove through the woods out of Chernobyl. “My whole life is written down on this door. How am I supposed to leave it?” Kalugin will wonder. The photograph of his little girl lying on the house door is one of the most memorable and successful photographs of the novel, illustrating a complicated time where chronology no longer exists. This is why people from Chernobyl are forced to live through past and future in a both realistic and unrealistic space. A life after life. Death lurks all around.Because it formed a familiar face, it ceases to be a taboo. Death is spoken of freely, without any reservations. On the other hand, death is, just like radiation – invisible. It is a fear that doesn’t speak to the senses – “we can’t hear it, we can’t see it, we can’t smell it, it has no scent or color”, although as people change so does “the blood structure, the genetic code and the landscape…”
Let’s pause for a second on that changing landscape. We are looking at a pastoral view, we are told of an almost idyllic view where everything is blooming, but the narrator tells us they are losing their sense of smell due to radiation poisoning and that very impossibility to smell the blossoming cherry tree gives the impression of the unreality of the sight. The schematics of reality that people are used to are lost. Mushrooms can’t be picked even though they are there, strawberries can’t be eaten, even though they are there. “Fear stopped being a separate thing from beauty, and beauty from fear.”
In Chernobyl there are no opposites, everything is in a sort of odd cohabitation. Nothing is separate. Fear and beauty, life and death, childhood and old age, past and future. Shovel and atom. Freedom and war. In a world where some “lower life forms1 “My grandfather kept bees, five nests of them. They didn’t come out for two days, not a single one. They just stayed in their nests. They were waiting. My grandfather didn’t know about the explosion, he was running all over the yard: what is this? What’s going on? Something’s happened to nature. And their system, as our neighbor told us, he’s a teacher, it’s better than ours, better tuned, because they heard it right away. The radio wasn’t saying anything, and the papers weren’t either, but the bees knew. They came out on the third day.”” have more developed mechanisms, man who tries to control nature and technology is trapped in a vacuum and forced to adapt and all over again bow down to what he tries to control. It is interesting to see how those Chernobyl animals react to this silent war. How sometimes, some seemingly pitiful existences, like worms know how to protect themselves better? They are able to burrow down to the depths where there is less radiation. And man? Man relies only on what he sees and hears. On however much he is allowed to see and hear.
That is why in the Chernobyl choir there are no pitiful existences, no pitiful voices – every voice matters, even if behind it there is only silence. Every voice in this novel is interwoven, merged into one, which is equally a lament and an acceptance, a scream from the Zone and a warm smile of the people who want to live in their own country, in their (grim) reality.
Alexievich Svetlana, Chernobyl Prayer, Penguin Modern Classics, 1997
Prince Gerald, A Dictionary of Narratology, U of Nebraska Press, 2003
Milena Ilić Mladenović: Born in 1986. Graduated from and completed her master’s studies at the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. Writes short stories and long poems, incompetent essays, and competent recipes. Records stories of her sons.
Translator Aleksandra Stojković, born August 23rd 1995, lives and attends University of Belgrade. She is currently in her final year of studies in the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade, department of English. She works as a freelance translator and voice actress. She loves stories in all their forms, whether they be comic books, video games, movies or television shows.
This article was published in March of 2019, within the Russian Libartes topic.
Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.
This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by Aleksandra Stojković.