Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich


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Voices from Chernobyl (The oral history of a nuclear disaster ) by Svetlana Alexievich

Ukrainian Non-Fiction

Original title – Чернобыльская молитва

Translator – Keith Gessen

Source – Library book

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

I choose Bob Dylan’s a hard rain is going to fall a song wrote years before Chernobyl but about the effect of a nuclear fallout .

Now this is always the time of year I try to squeeze in one or two names from the list of Nobel hopefuls .For the last couple of years Svetlan Alexievich name has been one that has risen in the betting .Svetlana born in Ukraine grew up in Belarus , became a journalist and wrote a few novels then she developed first via Zinky boys her account of the fighters in Afghan wars a technique of gathering first hands accounts from people and crafting them into monologues .This book won the National book critics circle award for its English translation .

The smoke was from the burning bitumen , which had covered the roof .He said later it was walking on tar .they tried to beat down the flames ,They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet … they weren’t wearing their canvas gear .They went off just as they were , in their shirt sleeves .No one told them .they had been called for a fire , that was it

Lyudmilla on how Vasily her husband a fireman attend the disaster , he later died .

Voices from Chernobyl blends the voice of those directly connected to the disaster .The books opens with the account of the wife of one of the fireman that first attend the explosion at Chernobyl . Her’s is a very touching account of how her husband died after he had been there that day , but also little things like how the doctors that helped that day were all destined to die .Then about how the disaster effect the land nearest the blast .As the monologues build we see , how the disaster effect the land , moved people made some act one way and others act another day . How the children born at that time are sick .So the events of that day in 1986 and the years after how the government tried to cover up how bad it was in the reality .

My little daughter – she’s different .She’s not like the others .She’s going to grow up and ask me :” why aren’t I like the others ?”

When she was born ,she wasn’t a baby , she was a little sack , sewed up everywhere , not a single opening , just the eyes .The medical card says :”Girl born with multiple complex pathologies :aplasia of the anus , aplasia of the vagina , aplasia of the left kidney .” That’s how it sounds in medical talk , but more simply : no pee-pee ,no butt , one kidney on the second day I watched her get operated on , on the second day of her life .She opened her eyes and smiled , and I thought that she was about to start crying .But , God, she smiled !

Larisa talking about the birth of her daughter effected by the Chernobyl disaster .

I loved the style of this book Alexievich has a great way of mixing the voices she has recorded  . She really pulls together whatwas told to her the first account in this book was so powerful Lyudmilla telling the story of her late husband Vasily Ignatenko .The style is like one of those collages made up of smaller photos that when you step back and look forms that iconic image of the blown reactor at chernobyl .For the second time in a few weeks I rediscover the strength of non fiction writing from the former soviet bloc , like Dubravka Urgesic Svetlana Alexievich shows the power of good non fiction writing for hitting home with the reader , what you get from these accounts is a sense of the  sheer despair at how the government failed , lives fell apart and people were rip away from their homes and left without anywhere to really be .I can see why here named is mentioned as a potential Nobel Literature winner .I know need to find a copy of Zinky boys to read by her .

Have you read her books ? Do you have a favourite Non fiction writer in Translation ?




Raven by Vasyl Shkliar

Raven by Vasyl Shkliar

Raven by Vasyl Shkliar

Ukrainian fiction

Translator – Sj Speight and Stephen Komarnychyj

Orginial Title – Залишенець.

Source – Review Copy

When I was offered chance to read Vasyl Shkliar ,I was happy after reading about him and what he does .Vasyl Shkliar is considered the father of the modern Ukrainian novel .Vasyl Shkliar was born in Hanzhalivka in the centre of Ukraine ,his grandfather was a Cossack Warrior ,who too like this novel fought in the Ukrainian Uprising  against the Soviets in 1920 .Shkliar went to a school in a nearby town and spent his summers like many youths in his day working on the farm .He eventually went to university and became a journalist ,whilst doing this he was covering the assassination of a well-known Chechen leader .This later became the basis of his first novel  which in part was based  on this event .The Black Raven was published in 2009 and won the Ukrainian book award that year .

Veremii’s gang has reappeared in the Hunskyl forest and comprises of 80 infantry and 30 cavalry ,with two maxim machine guns and 5 lewis guns .The bandits  made a sudden raid on Zlatopol in broad daylight ,robbed the local executive committee telephone exchange and captured the chief of police ,who , by some accounts is believed to work for them .It is known  that it is the custom among the bandits that when the leader dies one of them takes his name ,but there is  reason to believe that the chieftain ,Veremii was not killed and continues his bloody business .Efforts are being made to confirm this .

The authorised officer ,Diakonov

One of the reports from 1921 from the soviets .


The book Follows A gang of Ukrainians that are fighting against the Soviets in 1921 .The gang is led by a man they call the Raven ,he was a former Tsarist officer ,he is described as thirty years with a black beard and long black hair with deep-set eyes and uncompromising .The group of bandits he leads is about 300 infantry men , 75 cavalry and heavily armed bandits ,they operate in zvenyhocodka ,Cherkassy and shpola forests .We see this band of men causing trouble in these regions we follow their  story as they initially do well ,but then things start to go wrong ,  but at the end of every chapter we follow the soviet attempts to capture these men ,in the form of reports as  ravens gang as they wreak havoc .We see how the gang gets on .We follow the highs and lows of this uprising against the Bolsheviks .we feel the dirt and hunger at times ,the power struggles ,mistrust and also how good comrades can be .Also what it meant to be a Cossack !

Raven passed through villages ,forests and fields to reach the Bohunovi farm by evening .Which was just at the edge of the lebedyn forest .It had grown dark early for ,which was laid up at Yevdosia’s Saint Varvava had increased the night , but not the day ,The silver German pocket watch ,which the raven took out of his pocket .

Indicated it was only 5pm  night had already begun to fall

Things get hectic and the raven is constantly moving later in the book


This book was very eye-opening as I had never heard of this uprising in Ukraine against the soviets ,but also the divides it caused to everyday life .I also felt this book given the time it came out and the fact the Shkliar was writing the book for 13 years before it was published ,just as the face of modern Ukraine was developing .Although he has said it wasn’t about the events at the time of writing but the fact the history had echoed the present .Now to the spin on this book it has caused sparks ,a polish director refused to be involved in a project to film the book  ,I believe this film is still being made as an interview here shows and also a number of people protested it winning the national book prize .Now I am not overtly political and just found it a ripping good historic novel about what where brave men trying to fight to keep the country free .If you like corners of unknown history and want to discover a totally unknown writer in the west I suggest this is the book for you .

The milkman in the night by Andrey Kurkov

The milkman in the night by Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian fiction

Translator – Amanda Love Darragh

Andrey Kurkov the ukrainian writer is probably best know for the first of his Penguin books death and the penguin which I reviewed a while ago here  ,he has written 13 novels and a number of children’s books in his time .He is well known for his dark humour and satire .

This his latest book in translation ,is yet again set in and around the capital  of Ukraine Kiev .Yet again like in death and the penguin the main character is a middle-aged man .Semyon a body-guard by day , he is married but has starterd to sleep walk every night ,and appear with his clothes in a mess every morning ,his wife doesn’t believe he is sleep walking so he asks his friend to prove this is the case and he find as out he visits a women every night  .Elsewhere Irina a single mother sells her breast milk to a strange variety of characters .We also have a politician Gennady a man who is on the rise with influence post orange revolution ,his is a double edge character thou good and generous but also easily cuts people off .Elsewhere the is Dima an airport security guard at Borysil airport with his sniffer dog , who finds and then  steals a case contain a mysterious drug ,the maker of the drugs we also meet at the start as he is murdered ,oh and then there is fluffy the cat as well .

 ”  Fluffy ! Fluffy ! ” Dima heard the voice of his wife ,Valaya .He had been trying to sleep .”fluffy ! where are you ? ”

Just the he heard from outside the familiar unpleasant snarling of the neighbour’s bull terrier ,which went by the name of king .Dog and owner were equally objectionable .Instead of taking the dog for a walk its owner would sometimes just let it out in his front yard ,whereupon it would make a beeline for Dima and Valay’s front yard and do its business and chase their cat Fluffy if he should happen to be nearby -before retreating to its own territory .

Dima’s home life early on in  the book .

Now as you see this book has a number of smaller stories making it up into a whole the stories do cross at points during the book ,its like the film short cuts or Magnolia  where we dash in and out of the lives of people as we view a cross-section of Kiev from the rich to the poor single parent ,families and even the pets make appearances  here .Kurkov,s talent is keeping you interested in the vastness of the work with out making you feel you have to take notes to keep up , every twist and turn the stories of their lives gets more comic ,in some ways this could be fraiser (us tv show) as scripted by Anton Chekov  it has the feel sometime like Frasier the characters get caught up in a comic moment from one action .This will appeal if you liked death and the penguin, but the again  if you though death and the penguin a little to surreal to read maybe this one will appeal  more, it is tinged with surrealism but not as much .This book made me laugh and made me cringe at times .The translator is different from his earlier books I prefer This translator to the earlier one for some reason can’t put my finger on it just seemed more straight forward .

Kurkov has done a podcast for Vintage I ve not listen to it yet but here is the link 

Death and the penguin by Andrey Kurkov

Source – personnel copy

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer he grew up under the soviet system ,his father was a test pilot and his mother a doctor .He trained as a Japanese translator and did his Military service as a prison guard in the southern Ukraine city of Odessa ,he has publish thirteen novels and some children’s books .His books have been translated into numerous languages

Death and the penguin was Kurkov’s debut novel and was written in russian and translated here by George Bird ,he has translated Kurkov’s over novels .The book centre’s on Victor a writer struggling to make a living at his craft he has a companion Misha a Penguin he rescue from a local zoo that had to get rid of its animals .The book starts with victor been offered a job which he takes as Obituary writer ,so he then seems to be boosted in the world of politics and corruption as he meets and chats to the friends and family of the recently deceased  or to be deceased as it turns out along the way Victor meets another Misha a human thou which made me laugh as she is referred to as the non penguin Misha through the book .There is also two women that seem to end up at the funerals and a shadowy figure called that fat man ,A downward spiral of disaster awaits Victor as the hapless writer gets drag into a conspiracy ,which means he has to escape and Misha the penguin ends up getting sent to her home in the Antarctic .

Two days later the phone rang ,

capital news. Sorry to trouble you said a crisp ,clear female voice I have the editor in chief on the line .

The receiver changed hands .

Viktor Alekseyevich a man’s voice enquired couldn’t pop in today could you ? or are you busy ?

no said Viktor .

The phone call that sets Viktor on a troubling path and a start in writing Obituaries

This book was dark and comic novel ,a look at post communist Ukraine ,I felt Misha and Viktor maybe symbolise Ukraine a little Misha a nation flightless and out-of-place and Viktor an artist want to find its voice amongst corrupt people and crumbling system .Kurkov’s writing is fast-moving and lyrical at times .Most of the story is told from Viktors point of view as he gets caught up in troubling times .Misha is his escape from his everyday world this penguin that needs him to look after him and ultimately set her free on her new life and in doing so sets himself on a new life path .This book has a follow-up penguin lost

This is one of my eastern european reading challenge choices ,

Have you read this book ?

June 2023


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