Confronting the Worst: Writing & Catastrophe
I’d like to remember the great Chekhov and his play Three Sisters. The main character in that play says over and over, “Now life is terrible, we live in squalor, but in a hundred years, a hundred years, how beautiful, how fine everything will be.” And what has happened a hundred years later? We have Chernobyl; we have the World Trade towers collapsing. It’s a new age in history. What we have experienced now not only goes beyond our knowledge but also exceeds our ability to imagine.
We are turning into a civilization of fear. Because what is a disaster? A disaster is a high concentration of fear. The commodity that our civilization creates in the largest quantity today is fear. The things that are happening to us today are unbelievable. The human mind is incapable of grasping them: They happen with incredible speed. I worked as a journalist for ten years before I started writing books, and realized that you cannot capture with words and language what is going on. Words and language are smaller than the event.
I don’t know what it’s like here; I’m not familiar with American culture. But for people who live in Russia and in Slavic countries, the spoken word is extremely important. I began to understand that what I was hearing people say on the street and in the crowds was much more effectively capturing what was going on than anything I was reading in print. And I began to think that with what’s going on today, it would be impossible for one person to write the book that encompasses everything the way that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was capable of doing in the nineteenth century. We need a book where lots of people can make a contribution; one person may speak half a page, someone else a paragraph or five pages.
I refer to my genre as “the novel of voices,” and you might say that my work is just simply lying outside on the ground: I go and pick it up and put it together. If Flaubert said, “I am a man of the plume,” I can say that I am a person of the ear. It’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve worked in this genre, which I’ve done for thirty years now, that there is much about the human being that art cannot convey.
I’m interested in human feelings and human turmoil. I try to make a guess about what’s going on inside of people, and what has meaning for them and what causes them to suffer. Right after Chernobyl happened, when I made my first trips to that region, I saw dozens if not hundreds of journalists there, and I said to myself, “Those guys are going to put their books out really fast, but the book that I’m going to write will take years.” Indeed, I worked on the book for ten years. When I speak of these journalists’ work, I am talking about books filled with facts, with medical information. Because try as the Soviet authorities might to suppress that information, it did get out. Chernobyl gave rise to anticommunist books, anti-Russian books, books against the atom, but the most important lesson that we needed to learn from that event took more time to emerge.
All of us found ourselves in terra incognita. Belarus, a patriarchal society based on the peasantry, was suddenly out there in front of the rest of the world. Imagine this incredibly crazy picture: A policeman is walking alongside a woman who carries a basket of eggs. He walks with her to make sure that she buries the eggs in the ground because they are radioactive. They buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread; it was like an endless funeral procession for inanimate objects. Thousands of soldiers sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone who was involved turned into a philosopher because there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation. In the Zone, which is what the area surrounding the nuclear stations was called, everything looked as it had before. You had rivers, you had forest, you had earth, but you couldn’t walk through the forest. You couldn’t wade in the river. You couldn’t sit on the ground.
The feeling was that previously in the world, it had been humans who were in charge, who decided what they were going to kill and what they were going to spare. It was as if the earth had risen up and rebelled and was now taking charge. And you felt that you were surrounded by death, but death that had taken on a different guise, which you were incapable of understanding. Radiation is invisible; you cannot see it. It makes no sound; you cannot hear it. It does not have a odor; you cannot smell it. Our five senses, which equip us to protect ourselves, provided no assistance whatsoever.
For the first seven days after the disaster, the bees did not fly out of their hives and the worms burrowed down into the earth. The smallest creatures that creep and crawl on the earth understood what to do and that something was wrong, but we human beings, what did we do? We watched TV, we listened to Gorbachev, and we watched soccer. And we who work in the world of culture, we weren’t prepared either; we didn’t know how to tell people about what was happening, and people didn’t even know how to talk to each other about it.
The transcript of this event is available in its entirety in PEN America 7: World Voices.