At 1.23 a m on April 26, 1986, a sudden and unexpected power surge in reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine triggered a series of explosions, blowing away the reactor's roof. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. The blaze lasted several days, but the locals were evacuated only 36 hours later. The Chernobyl disaster is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, matching the scale of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe in 2011.
Ingrid Storholmen, a Norwegian, was then 10 years old, and was playing with her two sisters outside their home in an area of central Norway, and the radioactive fallout was carried by the wind from the east to this area of Norway. Ms Storholmen's two sisters needed to have their thyroid glands (which absorb radioactivity) removed and, she writes in the afterword, "they still have scars shaped like a necklace on their throats". Clearly, in Ms Storholmen's case, the scars penetrated much deeper. The result is this book, written in the shape of an elegiac novel, after a two-month-long visit to the affected areas in Ukraine and Belarus.
The book was first published in Norway in 2009 (the English translation has been published this year), prompted, Ms Storholmen writes, "by fear of the tendency to see nuclear power as a correct environmental choice in comparison with energy forms with large carbon emissions". (That is also a key rationale for India's strenuous pursuit of nuclear energy, particularly under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.)
The area around the Chernobyl plant has become completely uninhabitable, she writes, adding: "To play down the risks of nuclear power is to forget Chernobyl." But her most chilling words are undoubtedly these: "Chernobyl is still going on. People are still falling ill in Ukraine and Belarus but also in Norway. Even now the ground is condemned, even now sheep and deer have to be given clean food. The time it takes for certain radioactive materials to break down is extremely long. Chernobyl is a catastrophe that has only just begun."
The book tells stories about contaminated food and water, poisonous rain, aborted babies, deformed children, doctors traumatised by the injuries they see, weddings called off, crops burnt, pets shot and killed, the slow deaths that the bereaved are dying, and of lives and livelihoods disrupted. The book is peopled by characters such as Vitya, a worker at the plant who first sees the alarm flashing, realises it's his death knell and wants to warn his wife Lena; red-haired Yuri, whose mother cannot locate him in hospital; Kolya, a tractor driver who tries not to think at all; an old man who has to bid goodbye to his apple trees before being evacuated from his farm; Raisa, who is unable to sleep because of fearsome nightmares; Ivan, who can no longer play the piano after the accident and has a seizure nearly every day; Yevgeni, who has finished painting pain and now wants to paint hope; and Nadia, who washes her hair several times a day because it can never be clean enough, and who has made up her mind not to have children because she has seen too many deformed babies.
The story is told in the voices of the disaster's many victims. In an interview with the poet and environmental activist Teji Grover and the book's Scandinavian translator Marietta Taralrud Maddrell (who has written about her travels in India) at the end of the book, Ms Storholmen is at pains to point out that the "plot is not of prime importance to me", and that as a poet, she is "more interested in situations, details, moments, and 'odd' uses of language". Even in her prose, she emphasises, she tries to use "rhythm and metaphors and different kinds of language 'tools' to create a language that is far from the everyday language, or the language you find in official reports and in the newspapers". People's feelings and fears cannot be expressed through reportage, she says. At another point, she explains that she likes to use "literary form as a part of the content".
This is a political novel, and Ms Storholmen's message is that nuclear power plants are highly unsafe. After all, the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster has only just passed on March 11, and it could take decades to clean up the site of the plant. The book should strike a chord in India, since the country has seen an agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant and there is an ongoing movement against the plant that is to come up at Jaitapur in Maharashtra. In Norway the book won several prizes and critical acclaim, with critics noting the importance of writing poetically about political subjects. An elegy, the Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us, is "a mournful poem, typically a lament for the dead". Ms Storholmen, though a poet, employs prose in this book, whose chilling style (aptly described by Ms Maddrell as "the clamour of different voices" in the interview, though the author herself prefers "choir of voices") should have the intended effect.
VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL
(Translated from Norwegian by Marietta Taralrud Maddrell)
175 pages; Rs 299