Feature: Nuclear Summer

By Hedley Twidle

In December 2015, I took part in a ‘walking residency’, making my way from Cape Point to the city centre of Cape Town along the spine of Table Mountain National Park. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics – twelve of us hiked along ridges and coastlines, firebreaks and informal settlements. We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the sites of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the land; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, chased by baboons, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. We put away our electronic devices and began remembering our dreams.

Then we came down the mountain like Rip van Winkles to find that the world had changed in a week. The good news was that a surprisingly strong climate agreement had been signed in Paris. The bad news was that South Africa’s currency seemed poised to collapse, following President Jacob Zuma’s decision to fire a respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, without consulting anyone. The rand hit an all-time low of 24 to the British pound.

For this rambling seminar, we had all been asked to bring work in progress, and mine was about nuclear power. In secrecy and haste, the South African government under Zuma is pushing a deal for a new fleet of reactors. It will be the biggest procurement in our history, with a projected starting price of over a trillion rand – but nuclear builds are notorious for running over budget. The reason for the firing of Nene, some analysts suggested, was that he was stalling on the nuclear option, trying to protect the fiscus from a ‘presidential legacy’ project that shows every sign that it will contaminate our economy, and our whole national project, for the rest of our lives.

We all have things that keep us up at night, and the prospect of South Africa being locked into a ‘nuclear renaissance’ with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is mine. One of the troubling things about the debate is the language in which it is conducted: the technocratic confidence and business-minded briskness that pretends it has everything figured out. Debates about energy policy happen in the language of developmental economics and financial modelling, in long and acronym-riddled policy documents, in boring technical reports. Decisions are taken amid the short-term cycles of party politics and cabinet reshuffles, not in mind of the long history of building and decommissioning nuclear plants, then disposing of their waste. But beyond even this, do we have the imaginative capacity to understand what a nuclear future entails? I want to suggest that when it comes to nuclear power and its afterlives, we (in a deep sense) do not know what we are talking about.

On either side of the argument, there are articles with titles like ‘Nuclear: What You Need to Know’ or ‘Nuclear Power: The Facts’. But what about all those things that cannot be rationally calculated, risks that cannot be conceptually grasped or understood? Such as: what does it mean – culturally, philosophically – to produce isotopes that are invisible to our senses but lethal for thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of years? What does it say about our civilisation, the geological layer we will leave behind, the Anthropocene? What is the lifespan of a human ‘fact’ when read across the expanse of deep time?

My idea for the residency was to work through all this while walking from Cape to Koeberg. While the others stopped in town, I pressed on up the coast towards what is (for now) the only nuclear power plant on the African continent. Built by the apartheid government in a gesture of defiant, embattled nationalism after 1976, it lies 30 kilometres up the west coast from the city centre – shockingly close, yet also somehow distant from current debates. The beach houses end and then suddenly appear the twin towers of the two pressurised-water reactors in the middle distance, surrounded by a nature reserve where you can see zebra, ostrich, antelope. Huge pylons march away to the highway over the coastal scrub. Signs posted on the long white beach tell you to go no further.

When Koeberg opened in 1984, the whole population of Cape Town was given iodine tablets, since, in the event of an accident, any of the winter northwesterlies would carry the radioactive ‘plume’ right towards the city. Iodine reduces the absorption of radionuclides by the thyroid gland: the first line of defence in a nuclear emergency. Looking at the evacuation plan, the city’s chief health officer at the time accused the national electricity supplier, Eskom, of ‘absolute naivety’ and moved out of the metro in protest. The activist group Koeberg Alert was founded (its newsletter was titled Fission Chips) and an unlikely alliance formed between Atlantic seaboard estate agents and anti-apartheid activists from the nearby ‘Coloured’ planned city of Atlantis.

The African National Congress was resolutely antinuclear during the Struggle, even backing an expensive sabotage of Koeberg while it was under construction. Four limpet mines were smuggled in by an employee, Rodney Wilkinson, who went entirely unsuspected; he even endured a surprise farewell party after he had planted the explosives (praying that they would not go off ahead of schedule). Escaping over the border to Swaziland on a bicycle, he eventually reached Maputo, where Oliver Tambo embraced him tearfully and triumphantly. The sabotage of Koeberg was one of the most costly blows ever inflicted against apartheid’s infrastructure, and a coded message that far worse could be done if there was a will to do it. Greenpeace campaigners made a similar point in 2002 when they landed in rubber dinghies at dawn, scaled the towers and draped a banner saying: Nukes Out of Africa. They were shocked at how easy it was.

But, for the most part, the reactors exist as a blur on the edge of consciousness, innocuous as grain silos on the outskirts of a metro that has now grown to 4 000 000 people – and one that would have to be evacuated for centuries if anything went seriously wrong. But the evacuation plans show little change from the 1980s: they only deal with a 16-kilometre radius from Koeberg, and no further iodine tablets have been issued. What should you do in a general emergency? ‘Stay indoors,’ says the government website: ‘Listen to Good Hope FM and KFM 94.5.’ If evacuation is ordered: ‘Drive carefully and take neighbours if necessary.’

When I reached Koeberg two days after the end of the official residency, the staff were driving home ahead of Reconciliation Day. I too was surprised at being left to wander around unmolested, and seemingly unmonitored. A hiking trail meandered around a perimeter fence far less forbidding than that of the average suburban house. I pointed my phone controversially at the national key point, trying to get the tortoises and succulents in the foreground. The plant hummed in the distance, pumping in cold Atlantic water to cool itself.

The question of nuclear, it seems to me, lives a kind of half-life in the cultural imagination. Debates that obsessed a whole generation of environmental activists in the second half of the 20th-century now seem distant and half forgotten, even though the waste and the warheads remain. ‘We have talked our extinction to death,’ as the poet Robert Lowell put it in the 1960s, thoroughly sick of having to think about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Writing against India’s nuclear ambitions in her stinging 1998 essay ‘The End of Imagination’, Arundhati Roy registers a similar sense of rhetorical exhaustion. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer, she says, than to restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world, ‘and made passionately, eloquently and knowledgeably’. But, she goes on, she is prepared for this humiliation, because silence would be indefensible:

So those of you who are willing: let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our secondhand lines in this sad second-hand play. But let’s not forget that the stakes we’re playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us.

On the one hand, I arrived at this question, and Koeberg, without being against nuclear per se. Looking at those innocuous silos, you can understand the mid-20th-century fascination with the atom as ‘the peaceful worker’, the promise of electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. No smokestacks, a ‘clean’ power plant that you could imagine jogging around after work each day. There are strong arguments by some environmentalists that nuclear must remain part of the energy mix in dismantling the fossil fuel economy and meeting climate change targets. Coal kills more people when it goes right than nuclear does when it goes wrong – this is the mantra of nuclear convert and writer George Monbiot. He even hints that an obsession with nuclear disaster may be a kind of psychological displacement activity: a way of ignoring the everyday apocalypse of the fossil fuel era that is now upon us.

But, on the other hand, I have come to realise that there is no per se. Nuclear energy does not ever exist in some neutral realm; it is always deeply enmeshed in political contexts, and (as South Africa’s own strange nuclear history shows) it is always linked intimately to state power. The uranium oxide lying around the Witwatersrand as a byproduct of Johannesburg’s gold mines set the country on a distinctive course through 20th-century geopolitics. Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, was ardently pro-nuclear, and Winston Churchill (whose war cabinet he sat on) coveted his country’s uranium. So did America, and France: the apartheid state was engaged in covert deals supplying these powers throughout the Cold War, receiving scientific expertise in return. So began the growth of what the ANC in exile termed a ‘nuclear Frankenstein’ at the tip of Africa.

Hendrik Verwoerd was even more ardently pro-nuclear, championing it as an icon of nationalist modernity, and setting in motion the programme that would eventually lead to the development of six nuclear bombs from the late 1970s. These were destroyed in the early 1990s, making South Africa the only country ever to have dismantled an entire nuclear arsenal. Which sounds idealistic at first, until you trace the murky politics underwriting it all: the outgoing apartheid government’s wish to keep its nuclear history secret; the resentment felt by an incoming ANC that the role of being Africa’s sole nuclear power was not being entrusted to a democratically elected government. The international community, they noted, seemed far more worried about the ‘new’ South Africa’s nuclear stockpile than it had ever been about the old. From the Congolese uranium that exploded over Hiroshima to the infamous ‘yellowcake’ that the Bush administration claimed was being imported by Saddam Hussein from Niger, tracing the path of this mineral and those who mined it reveals a complex story about the half-lives of Western imperialism in Africa. A toxic history, and one that is now being reactivated in the direction of a toxic future.

As I was trying to pick my way through the pro- and anti-nuclear debates within the British left about the construction of two new reactors at Hinkley Point C in Somerset (a power plant that is being spoken of as the most expensive object ever built), I came across a dialogue between Monbiot and anti-nuclear campaigner Theo Simon called ‘The Heart of the Matter’. It is an eight-month email exchange in which Simon outlines what Monbiot admitted was the most compelling anti-nuclear argument he had ever heard. At the crux of it, Simon makes the point that nuclear power is by its very nature anti-democratic.

While Monbiot claims that ‘there is no contradiction between favouring the machines and opposing the machinations’, Simon replies that this is fundamentally to misunderstand the nuclear option. Because its installations are a prime target for terror, a prime source for lethal military material, and so potentially hazardous that all activity around them must be tightly and carefully controlled, this is an industry that demands impenetrable security, armed policing and authorised-only access. The paradox, he writes, is that ‘as one of the most uniquely toxic industrial processes we have ever developed, the greater good requires that there is total public scrutiny of its affairs. But the world is not safe enough for that, so we must rely on unaccountable self-regulation instead.’

In other words, it is an energy path that requires, that mandates, that fits perfectly with centralised state control and secrecy, hence its ongoing appeal to authoritarian governments. It is the opposite of decentralised, small-scale technologies that are possible for renewable energy. Following the events at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011 most social democracies have turned away from nuclear. Russia, India, China and now South Africa are some of the few states looking to major expansion in the sector, even as the rest of the world regards it as a dying, expensive industry, and one which has never solved the problem of the long-term toxicity it produces (or, in the industry’s euphemism, its legacy waste).

The cleanliness and bracing sea air of Koeberg are an illusion, of course. Somewhere inside that perimeter fence, the high-level waste of spent fuel rods is being stored in 181 cooling ponds. Low- and medium-level waste is driven up the N7 highway to be buried in an open pit at Vaalputs, in the dry landscape of Namaqualand. But the most lethal waste, hundreds of tons of it, remains on the premises, too dangerous to move. Outside the closed visitor centre, there were notices about the construction of a new ‘Transient Interim Storage Facility’ within the grounds, using the dry casks in which the nuclear industry parks its most dangerous legacies. The doubled-up adjective is telling: the strategy for this kind of waste is always temporary, transient, interim. It places an unasked-for burden not just on ‘future generations’ (that tired phrase) but even on future species of hominid that might evolve in the geographic space that is known (for now) by the bland name of South Africa.

This space has been peopled for as long as there have been people. By 100 000 years ago, ‘modern’ humans were distributed throughout the landmass. Shell middens of the kind we saw on our walking residency, stone tool arrays, engraved boulders, rock art – these are some of the traces left by this immense time depth of human occupation. When thinking about how to communicate the hazards of nuclear waste to the future, those working on deep geological repositories in Scandinavia use a thought experiment that reaches into the past. What would it mean to convey the concept ‘radioactivity’ to the cave painters of Lascaux, or to the Neanderthals? The lethal time capsules being built deep underground are meant to reach as far into the future as human symbolic behaviour reaches back into the African past: 100 000 years.

To even begin to conceive of what the nuclear option means, you have to abandon opinion pieces, leave rational argument and enter the realms of speculative fiction. In 2117, 100 years from now, will the people required to take care of the waste of Koeberg (or Thuyspunt, or Schulpfontein, or Duynefontein) understand what they are being asked to do, and why? Will they have the technology to do it, and the money? Will they still be filing progress reports to a nuclear regulator? What language will be spoken here? Will those two silos still be there at the water’s edge, or will they be drowned by rising sea levels?

What about in 3017, 1000 years from now? Will ‘South Africa’ still exist? Will there be any remnant of Atlantis, or the national road system along which the dry casks will (supposedly) be transported to their final resting place at Vaalputs? Will there be any trace of the companies that profited from the nuclear furnaces, after all the CEOs and the P As and the PRs and the shareholders and their children’s children’s children unto the 20th generation are no more than ash on the wind? Let’s go one further. What about 10 000 years from now? Can any symbol or sign system speak across so many millennia of unstable above-ground conditions? And even if the hominids of AD 12 000 do understand the warnings about a slow poison buried deep in the desert, will they heed them?

The 2010 documentary film Into Eternity meditates on the construction of Onkalo, the world’s first geological disposal facility, now nearing completion beneath a Finnish island. Amid long takes of underground blasting and a slow ballet of earth-moving machinery, it asks: should we even try to communicate the dangers of buried waste to the deep future? Because even if the warnings were understood, might they not be ignored, like the curses on Egyptian tombs, or the runic instructions found (and ignored) by archaeologists on a face-down stone in Norway: ‘Not to be touched by misguided men.’ We always know better, even when we absolutely don’t. Is this, then, the final logic of the nuclear age, that we must cultivate an absolute forgetting of our world?

A few weeks later, I extended my journey to the mountains near Porterville, a couple of hours’ drive from Koeberg. Here there is a famous rock art panel named the Porterville Galleon. It shows a ship under sail, painted in red ochre. If one looks closely, it might even be possible to imagine a padrão to the left, one of the large stone crosses that Portuguese mariners planted along Africa’s coastline. Far inland and isolated from other rock art sites, it comes as a psychic jolt to see colonial history suddenly impinging on the scenes of animals, hunting and trance dancing – scenes that form part of what is perhaps the longest unbroken artistic tradition in the world.

What might one draw in ochre on a rock wall to signify the nuclear legacy, a still more unimaginable rift in the order of things? Could a question like this please be tabled among all the IRPs and EIAs and risk assessments and costing exercises that go on for 100s of pages but never get to the heart of the matter? Those paper-thin arguments in which language is used less to communicate than to disguise risk and evade the real questions posed by nuclear, questions of time, ethics, inter-generational responsibility – questions about the kind of human experiment we want to be part of. Would the Honourable Member care to explain ‘caesium’, ‘strontium’ and ‘plutonium’ to the ancestors?

In my 20s, I worked as an usher at a small cinema in Edinburgh. My job was to tear tickets, sit through the screening to make sure that projection and sound went okay, then clear up any trash. It was a beautifully pure way of absorbing film: you never paid; you never chose. You were alone, dressed in black, invisible.

I watched 100s of films in those dark winter afternoons – from Korea and Cameroon, Iran and Italy, Russia and Romania – most of which I have never seen any trace of since. It was an education. One was about a group of three young anti-capitalists who break into the homes of rich businessmen and leave messages that ‘The Fat Years Are Over’ – this is the original German title. At some point the good-looking threesome (they are also in a love triangle) end up kidnapping some heartless industrialist. They go to a remote cabin for some political re-education, trying to make him see the error of his ways.

I can’t remember how the film ends, but this narrative premise, this fantasy of abducting the powerful and forcing them into dialogue, is one that many frustrated citizens must indulge in at some point. It has been on my mind while following the creeping, secretive progress of the Zuma administration’s nuclear ambitions. If these are not blocked, South Africa will be locked into this energy path at the precise moment when the ‘old’ nuclear powers are moving away from the technology, realising the astonishing expense and difficulty involved in decommissioning plants and dealing with their waste.

But the technocratic and market-derived language of invested parties seeks to present our nuclear future as inevitable, with only the details about costing to be ironed out. While the rest of the city is on holiday, basking in the atomic energy of the sun, I have been wading through technical reports, encountering new nouns that can be placed after the word ‘nuclear’. ‘Deterrent’ and ‘proliferation’ I was already familiar with; ‘renaissance’ and ‘vendor’ were new. All in all, it is the impervious language of state power welded to corporate power and the market, a language invested in the belief (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it is GDPs and stock prices and all the other metrics of global capital that provide the best guide for how to act, how to be in the world, how to calibrate ethical decisions, environmental risks and social policy.

So how does one begin to deconstruct this carefully constructed inevitability? What is the counter-voice? What is the antidote?

Here is where I indulge in my own abduction fantasy: ideas of corralling members of the pro-nuclear lobby, then subjecting them to a syllabus in the nuclear humanities – an array of texts, films and artworks that would consider this energy path in a fuller sense, accessing registers of experience (memory, history, imagination, philosophy, ethics, dreams, delusions) to which NDPs or IRPs or EIAs have no interest in admitting.

There are many options for this nuclear curriculum, of course; the subject has infiltrated a vast body of 20th-century art, film and literature. I am particularly drawn to those works where such questions are taken up in non-fiction narratives, often in experimental or generically innovative ways. There is John Hersey’s Hiroshima, originally a landmark six-part article for the New Yorker that is often regarded as a forerunner of the New Journalism. It refracts the ‘noiseless fash’ of 6 August 1945 and its hellish aftermath through the experience of six different characters, using fictional techniques to evoke the real. There is Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, an activist memoir that is also an intertwined history of Yosemite National Park and the Nevada Test Site, both revealed as landscapes in a war against Native American peoples. Or John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, a work of creative non-fiction that explores the abandoned project of Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas, what was once going to be the final storage facility for the United States’ high-level ‘legacy’ waste. Yucca was perhaps the most studied place on earth, yet it was finally deemed too unpredictable. The rock was porous; the mountain was still moving.

If I could choose only one book, if I had the energy minister’s undivided attention for only that long, it would be Voices from Chernobyl. The name on the title page is Svetlana Alexievich, the first non-fiction writer to win the Nobel Prize in 50 years. But it is a work of testimony, of interweaved stories about the greatest technological catastrophe of the 20th-century. Subtitled ‘The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster’, Voices from Chernobyl is one of the most astonishing reading experiences I have ever had. Firemen’s wives, farmers, scientists, party officials, children, soldiers, nurses – their relentless, hypnotic monologues form a documentary oratorio or ‘novel of voices’, a ‘new kind of literary genre’ (in the words of the Nobel committee) which on almost every page throws up an image that is indelible, unimaginable, impossible to look away from.

We hear the testimony of the ‘liquidators’ who move through the evacuation zone, the Zone of Alienation, charged with burying everything in the ground: crops, topsoil, whole villages. Old women milk cows and soldiers stand by to make sure the milk is immediately poured away. ‘We picked up the earth and rolled it, like big rugs. We’d pick up the whole green mass of it, with grass, flowers, roots. And bugs, and spiders, worms. It was work for madmen.’ The same process was repeated following the Fukushima disaster, hence the photographs of neatly stacked bags in their thousands, heaped in parks, on riverbanks, dotted through rice paddies: black bags full of contaminated soil. ‘We buried the forest,’ says one Chernobylite. ‘We sawed the trees into metre-and-a-half pieces and packed them in cellophane and threw them into graves.’ ‘We buried earth in earth,’ says another, ‘such a strange human activity’.

The book begins with a short section of ‘Historical Background’: excerpts from encyclopaedias and technical reports telling how on 26 April 1986 at 1:23:58 a series of explosions destroyed ‘the fourth energobloc’ of the Chernobyl station; how the catastrophe released 50 x 106 curies of radionuclides into the atmosphere, of which 70 per cent fell on neighbouring Belarus; how every fifth person there lives on contaminated ground; how this small republic of 10 000 000 people lost 485 villages and settlements; how 20 tons of nuclear fuel still sit within the core of the fourth reactor, beneath a cover of concrete slabs mounted remotely by helicopters and robots – a structure known as ‘The Sarcophagus’ or ‘The Shelter’.

Yet such facts and numbers come to seem less like necessary background than an example of how inadequate mere information can be. In a Foreword titled ‘Interview by the Author with Herself about Missed History’, Alexievich states that she was not interested in the event per se, not concerned with ‘what happened that night at the station and whose fault it was . . . how many tons of sand and concrete were needed to build the sarcophagus over the fiendish pit’. Instead, ‘I wanted to know the feelings and sensations of people who had touched the unknown.’ On 26 April 1986, she writes:

Something occurred for which we do not yet have a conceptualisation or analogies: something to which our sense organs and even our vocabulary is not adapted. Our entire instrument is tuned to see, hear or touch. But none of that is possible. In order to comprehend this, humanity must go outside its own limits.

What follows is a work in prose that exists at the very limit of what can be imagined, what can be told, what can be read. In the opening monologue, ‘A Solitary Human Voice’, Lyudmilla Ignatenko relates the death of the man she loved after he had gone to fight the reactor fire in his shirtsleeves. The details of what happens to his body in a Moscow hospital bed are not images that I would even want to quote outside the context of her extraordinary monologue; they should properly be experienced only within it. ‘You have to understand,’ the doctors explain. ‘This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.’ Towards the end of her story, she talks of giving birth to a girl two months later:

She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had 28 roentgen . . . Four hours later they told me she was dead … My little girl saved me, she took the whole radioactive shock into herself, she was like the lightning rod for it.

Yet there are many different moods and registers in the work; it extends beyond the tragic. Anecdotes, philosophising, mantras, jokes – many jokes. As micro-stories that concentrate so much cultural data, they track the effects of radiation into the most intimate realms. The sexual: ‘The prayer of the Chernobyl liquidator: “Oh, Lord, since you’ve made it so that I can’t, will you please also make it so I don’t want to?” Oh, go fuck yourselves, all of you.’ The scatological: ‘You want another joke? After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your shit in lead.’

It is a carnivalesque outpouring that circles around a mystery, an almost religious ineffability produced by secular Soviet history. ‘How do you evacuate a pigeon or a sparrow?’ one of the liquidators wonders: ‘We don’t have any way of giving them the necessary information. It’s a philosophical dilemma. A perestroika of our feelings is happening here.’ The Russian word for the political and ideological ‘restructuring’ that signalled the end of Soviet communism is read across into a history of feelings, into the psychic archive, into questions of ecology and interspecies relations. The theme recurs later, with variations: ‘After Chernobyl – there was an exhibit of children’s drawings, one of them had a stork walking through a field, and then under it, “No one told the stork.”’

In reading and teaching Alexievich’s work over the past year, and now trying to write about it, I have found that it poses a technical problem for literary criticism. What, after all, is to be done with verbal data this self-sufficient and powerful? When everything seems so self-evident, when the reality effect is so strong, is the function of the critic (as Lionel Trilling once said of Tolstoy’s greatest passages) simply to point? In reading responses to her work, I could recognise this temptation to quote compulsively, simply to reanimate the voices again, to pass them on. ‘We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature,’ she remarked in her Nobel lecture of 7 December 2015: ‘But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.’

But, of course, Voices from Chernobyl, like all her books, is not simply dictation. It is a carefully shaped and crafted verbal artefact, the product of a particular quality of attention and selection. There are passages of Ignatenko’s opening monologue, Alexievich remarks, that are worthy of Shakespeare: ‘But do you know how long it took to get her to produce those two pages of text?’ Much of the literary skill here is invisible or irrecoverable. Yet it stands as a reminder that creative power comes (mostly?) from subtraction and deletion; that it might take greater artistic judgement to remove a paragraph than to include one.

These are long exercises in listening beyond pre-rehearsed monologues and received memories, beyond the newspaper reports or the public narratives that have already taken hold. Alexievich’s central achievement, as historian Timothy Snyder writes, has been the recovery of experience from myth, ‘a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story’.

The events of 1986, she writes, marked a double-order catastrophe: ‘the social one – an enormous socialist continent drowning before our eyes – and a cosmic one – Chernobyl’. The actual and political fallout of the event signalled a moment in which the Soviet experiment (one involving the longest unbroken experience of totalitarianism in human history) reached its limit. The collision of radioactive half-lives with the half-truths of the Party is often figured by speakers as a kind of scientific phenomenon, like the smashing together of atoms in the particle accelerator of history. ‘They didn’t understand that there really is such a thing as physics,’ one remarks. ‘There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx.’

The simultaneous invisibility and ubiquity of the nuclear disaster that produces the unique and deeply strange mood of the book, where phenomena are obvious yet concealed, banal but mysterious, earthy and unearthly. On the one hand, there is the new kind of sensory data produced by the high-level radiation moving through the landscape: pine trees turning red, milk turning to powder, gardens turning white:

I had that radiation in my garden. The whole garden went white, white as white can be, like it was covered with something. Chunks of something. I thought maybe someone brought it from the forest.

Whiteness recurs throughout the book, offering itself as a kind of metaphor or symbol – but a symbol of what? This is another of the riddles posed by this genre: do figures of speech function in the same way in this kind of text as they do in a poem or novel? ‘I remember coming back one time from a business trip,’ one speaker recalls:

There was a moonlit landscape. On both sides of the road, to the very horizon, stretched these fields covered in white dolomite. The poisoned topsoil had been removed and buried, and in its place they brought white dolomite sand. It was like not-earth.

On the other hand, there is this sensory absence: not-earth. We are talked through the non-sensible, nonsensical nature of events – both the physical phenomena and political coverups – that are literally beyond human powers of perception. In one passage, a filmmaker who has been brought in to make propaganda reels remembers:

I started flming the apple trees in bloom. The bumblebees are buzzing, everything is bridal white. Again, people are working, the gardens are in bloom. I’m holding the camera in my hands, but I don’t understand it. This isn’t right! The exposure is normal, the picture is pretty, but something’s not right. And then it hits me: I don’t smell anything. The garden is blooming, but there’s no smell! I learned later on that sometimes the body reacts to high doses of radiation by blocking the function of certain organs.

The world around Chernobyl becomes, in multiple ways, impossible to read. Rather than a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter, we have a rural landscape of high summer: ‘The worst part was, the least comprehensible part, everything was so – beautiful! That was the worst. All around, it was just beautiful.’ The sensory cues point in unexpected, counter-intuitive directions. This has become a world suffused with phenomena that were not coeval with human evolution, and which as a result lie aslant to our systems of signs and meanings: ‘Do you know … how pleasantly the air smells of ozone after a nuclear explosion?’

Together with a high dose of radioactivity comes a high degree of what literary scientists call ‘narrativity’: the sense of tale being told, a quality of spokenness where narrating is an event in itself rather than just the record of an event. The monologues carry the particular verbal signature, the idiolect, of each speaker. They log the crabwise, unpredictable progress of human storytelling. As Masha Gessen remarks in a piece titled ‘The Memory Keeper’, Alexievich answers questions of consequence – did this person survive? Did she see her family again? – not when they would naturally occur to the reader, as a journalist might, ‘but, in the way of a novelist, when her character addresses them, which may be never’. Read with one eye closed, they could even be fairy tales:

If you don’t play, you lose. There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. ‘Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!’ Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. ‘Don’t worry!’ she says. ‘They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.’

Many passages are suffused with an absurdist comedy in which the inhabitants of a rural backwater, alternately suspicious and superstitious, have suddenly been caught up in a nuclear disaster zone. Even technology becomes a fetish:

The dosimetrists – they were gods. All the village people would push to get near them. ‘Tell me, son, what’s my radiation?’ One enterprising soldier fgured it out: he took an ordinary stick, wrapped some wiring to it, knocks on some old lady’s door and starts waving his stick at the wall. ‘Well, son, tell me how it is.’ ‘That’s a military secret, grandma.’ ‘But you can tell me, son. I’ll give you a glass of vodka.’ ‘All right.’ He drinks it down. ‘Ah, everything’s all right here, grandma. Don’t worry.’ And leaves.

This folkloric, magical realist quality is one of the most striking things about Voices from Chernobyl. Many of the ‘re-settlers’ who move back to the Zone of Alienation are women beyond childbearing age (sometimes beyond caring) who subject events to the hardiness and scepticism of peasant wisdom. Some refuse to believe that anything out of the ordinary has happened.

As it reveals the Soviet Union as an enormous political fiction, this work of non-fiction begins to sound like something from Nikolai Gogol. In the section titled ‘About Expensive Salami’, we are told:

Our family tried not to economise, we bought the most expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat. Then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.

Sometimes the tone is closer to one of Gogol’s descendants, Franz Kafka, the great master of painfully funny stories about totalitarianism before it happened. A joke told by soldiers clearing radioactive graphite from the reactor roof:

An American robot is on the roof for five minutes, then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then – breaks down. The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: ‘Private Ivanov! In two hours you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break.’ Ha-ha! [Laughs.]

In another scene, radioactive fallout rains down on a May Day parade in Minsk: an invisible emblem of the disregard or even contempt of those in power for their most loyal supporters. Knowing the scale of the disaster, but still reluctant to admit it publicly, the Soviet authorities refuse to distribute the iodine tablets stockpiled in case of nuclear war. What we are left with in Voices of Chernobyl is a world of ironies that are no longer of any use to anyone, a book of parables that teach only how difficult it is to recover the truth – and how, even then, it may make no difference.

Here, finally, is the problem with my naive fantasy of ‘educating’ the powerful. It assumes that more information inevitably leads to social progress, or progressive action, that disinformation can be shown up, revealed, reduced, reversed. If only you knew what I knew, things would change around here; this is the belief of those three vainglorious activists who go round kidnapping captains of industry. But Alexievich’s survivors speak knowing what the demented world of the 21st century internet has revealed to the rest of us, that knowledge and authoritarianism can go very well together; that facts now live alongside alternative facts, that truths can coexist perfectly happily with lies.

Revisiting these monologues during a year of local political meltdowns, I began having the auditory hallucination of hearing them delivered in a South African accent. All too easily, I could imagine a local, answering echo of these Belarussian voices. The monologue of the MyCiti bus driver asked to proceed up the R27 towards a nuclear emergency (as the Koeberg evacuation plan demands). The B&B owner at Pearly Beach, sealing himself off behind the sliding patio door, confused by the contradictory information coming from the SABC. The commuter looking up the coast and realising that, this time, the plume of smoke is not from a veld fire, and that she must get her family out of the city. A traffic officer trying to control the mass exodus from the metro, huge chaotic bottlenecks on the N1 and N2 , the Huguenot Tunnel blocked, Sir Lowry’s Pass at a standstill.

A comparable collection of testimonies, that is, from the residents of Atlantis, Melkbosstrand, Gansbaai and other towns near our proposed reactor sites – a truth that will only emerge late, too late, after the fact. ‘I often thought that the simple fact, the mechanical fact, is no closer to the truth than a vague feeling, rumour, vision,’ writes Alexievich in her closing words:

Why repeat the facts – they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them. These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future.

Hedley Twidle (rhymes with ‘idle’) is a writer, teacher and researcher based at the University of Cape Town. He specialises in 20th-century, southern African and world literatures, as well as creative non-fiction and the environmental humanities. He has written regularly for publications like the Financial Times, New Statesman, Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, and in 2012 was the winner of the inaugural Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Competition for his piece ‘Getting Past Coetzee’. His essay collection, Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World, from which this is taken, was published by Kwela Books in 2017.  You can find him here.

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