Some books might as well be written in blood. Most are quite the opposite. Most books are fun, or they keep you company, or they make you feel smart. Then out of the blue comes another sort entirely, not out of the blue exactly but back from the brink, and not books exactly but bulletins, broadcasts about human breaking points. Not secondhand or down the wire but direct. Written in blood.
It costs a lot to be a dispatcher from hell — not a generic, nightly-news sort of hell but the personal kind. Describing it in detail, sticking with it, costs a lot.
It cost Svetlana Alexievich her health. After three years spent interviewing hundreds of those affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident — working and writing in the gorgeous, contaminated forests and fields of the zone itself, where sunflowers once grew as wide as cartwheels — the Ukrainian journalist now suffers from an immune deficiency syndrome. Alexievich’s own voice never intrudes into Voices from Chernobyl, her collection of interviewees’ monologues first published in Russia in 1997, ten years after the accident.
Because she won’t interrupt, the effect is harrowing, intimate — and, even in translation, you are there. It’s like sci-fi, but it’s not, and thus it should be required reading. A stroke of genius, this chorus of cussing invalids and disillusioned scientists and distraught lovers is about faith and the end of faith. The disaster contaminated a vast portion of Belarus and yielded untold numbers of casualties. Seventy villages were buried forever underground and nearly five hundred more were evacuated: their residents removed in government buses, forbidden to return — though some sneaked back, defiantly reaping their radioactive wheat. We hear from them: A grandmother who continues to farm in an evacuated village muses, “What’s it like, radiation? … If it’s colorless, then it’s like God.” We learn of couples warned never to reproduce. An ailing soldier jokes: “After Chernobyl you can eat whatever you want, but bury your shit in lead.”
In every faraway catastrophe, the worst unseen casualty is always love. One monologuist recalls her husband, who received massive doses of radiation while fighting the reactor fire: “He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering, ‘I love you!’ Walking in the hospital courtyard, ‘I love you.’ Carrying his sanitary tray, ‘I love you.’ … I pick him up, and there are pieces of his skin on my hand, it sticks to my hand. … It’s all mine. It’s my love.”
Some of the speakers in this book insist that they don’t want to talk — that they won’t. But then of course they do. Details gush out. In Shadowchild, Dutch novelist P.F. Thomése writes with that same urgency about the death of his infant daughter. Personal trauma is a powerful emetic. But while any sufferer can spew, streamlining all those raw edge-of-reason images and emotions into literature — call it textual healing — takes a certain skill. Alexievich achieved it by hewing to her speakers’ own language, editing with a nearly invisible hand. Thomése does it by refining and faceting and buffing this chunk of his past, knowing it as a very hard gem indeed.
His daughter was only a few weeks old when he and his wife raced with her to the hospital and “realized she was hopelessly lost,” although “our little girl never let on. She had taken cover deep inside herself. … But then, she can deal with the situation so much better than we can. She just lies there, while we cry and cry.” Life thereafter is surreal, still tinted with the candy colors of babyhood, still littered with diapers and toys and tiny soft blankets that wait, in a sun-bright bedroom, to be boxed up and given away. Like a figure in a horror film, Thomése plunges down dark corridors lined with what-ifs and now-whats. “What you left behind,” he tells his dead child, “are days to come that come to no one.” Her unused name resembles “a package left unclaimed, a letter undelivered, a bill whose last reminder has expired.” All her unlived futures loom like performances on a stage, and “I can count on you forever, here in the wings. … Even when the crowd has gone home and the lights are out, you’re still ready to go on.” Jerking back and forth in time, past present past present past, is a big stylistic risk. But here it works, replicating the twitchy forward-rewind-delete mental patterns of grief. The disorientation into which this throws the reader mocks the polished precision of Thomése’s prose, just as a body’s lurking chaos mocks its perfectly smooth skin.
But we should never make assumptions about the future based on appearances, Arnaud Maitland warns in Living Without Regret. Having studied under the Tibetan Buddhist Lama Tarthang Tulku since 1976, UC Berkeley grad Maitland watched the long slow decline of his beloved mother, an Alzheimer’s patient.
After a memorial ceremony at a temple where the author and his companions “blew the conch shells, emitting heart-piercing sounds like a herd of trumpeting elephants,” Maitland set out to “begin to say goodbye.” He begins each chapter with a scene from his mother’s life, and these too are presented out of chronological order: the elegant matriarch in eveningwear, proposing a toast; the busy club member, entertaining guests; the college coed fascinated with handwriting analysis. The lessons that follow, and which comprise the bulk of the book, are earnest and Buddhist and thus will be best appreciated by those readers who might actually buckle down and use them — but Maitland’s memories of his mother are inspiring on their own, for their universal glimpses of a parent forgetting who her sons and husband are, while “slipping away like a shadow.”
With poems masquerading as paragraphs, each occupying its own page, Gary Young processes a lifetime’s worth of deaths in No Other Life. They pulse and wrench and flutter past like fever-dream scenes, not linked directly yet evoked in shaved-smooth prose by the same shell-shocked, virtuosic dreamer. His suicidal mother picked her cuticles and his adolescent zits until they bled; and he lost lovers, friends, and fleeting acquaintances to illness, suicide, accidents, and massacres: “The service was brief. Hot and vulnerable in the sun, we were careful not to touch.” “When I was away, a woman was dragged from her home and shot to death in front of her son. When the boy refused to have sex with the corpse, he was killed too.” A dying child’s caregivers “bandaged his eyes while his small life collapsed within him … the bandage was meant to hold what light was left inside.” Young might not mean to leave readers feeling punched in the gut, staggering away from the couch nearly blinded by the brutal bearing-witness clarity of, say, a cremation scene in which “the head rose from the table, the arms flew open and the body sat there for a moment in the fire. The flesh peeled away from the bones.” He might not mean to do this, but he does.
Emerging from such books, the reader blinks. In horror, in shock — in gratitude for what passes for normal, for what is good and calm, for now.