As Haruki Murakami did in Underground, his oral history of the gas attack on Tokyo's subway, Alexievich puts full faith in the power of people's testimony, constructing a narrative from them alone. "I don't know what I should talk about," says the first voice, belonging to Lyudmilla Ignatenko. Her husband was a first responder, as they're called today. He rushed to the scene with other firefighters and tromped on the burning graphite with his feet. He died 14 days later, choking on his liquefying internal organs.
The title of this book suggests a mosaic of gruesome description. It's not. With the exception of those who received the heaviest exposure, radiation is an invisible killer. "People have covered up," remembers one woman. "They're hiding. Livestock is moaning, the kids are crying. It's war! And the sun is out."
All of this made the rush to leave surreal. A soldier recalls seeing an old man lying in the road crying. "I'll just get up, and walk to the cemetery," the man said, resigned to his fate. "I'll do it myself."
Authorities hit the airwaves telling people to evacuate, to leave their pets. Belongings were forbidden. One man recalls stealing the door from his own home — it was how he carried his father to his coffin years before. A few years later, he used the same door to carry his poisoned daughter to her grave, too.
The trauma of the experience gouges out memories from other traumas. Men and women remember brutalities they witnessed fleeing civil war in Tajikistan. They come to Chernobyl even though it is contaminated because no one will bother them there. The land and its poisoned fruit are theirs. "Don't worry," says one woman about her apples. "They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss."
One of the fascinating things about Voices from Chernobyl is the awful beauty one encounters in testimonies of pain and suffering. It's worth recalling that these are not writers or singers, but ordinary people who have forged language into a crutch, a sword, a shield, shelter. There is nothing extraneous in their stories, as in this devastating passage:
"I go to the cemetery. My mom's there. My little daughter. She burned up with typhus during the war. Right after we took her to the cemetery, buried her, the sun came out of the clouds. And shone and shone. Like: you should go and dig her up. My husband is there. Fedya. I sit with them all. I sigh a little. You can talk to the dead just like you can talk to the living. Makes no difference to me. I can hear the one and the other. When you're alone ... And when you're sad. When you're very sad."
With comments like these, it would take a fool to ask why Alexievich chose to present this book as an oral history rather than as a conventional narrative. These voices are essential, powerful, and brave. One can only hope the half-life of their suffering is not so long.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.