McKeon's Gripping Novel about Chernobyl

Darragh McKeon
Harper Perennial, 452 pages, 978-006062246875
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The title of Darragh McKeon's novel about Chernobyl is lifted from The Communist Manifesto. The complete passage is: "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." Karl Marx certainly did not have a nuclear power plant meltdown in mind when he wrote those words, but they are eerily apt to describe what happened on April 26, 1986 outside of Pripyat, Ukraine. In retrospect, one could date the beginning of the Soviet Union's demise to Chernobyl.

Many of you are probably thinking, "A novel about Chernobyl? Who wants to read anything that depressing?" I won't lie; there are parts of McKeon's book that are horrifying, but it's also a gripping tale of perseverance, courage, and the search for justice and meaning. Some of life's biggest questions are aired: duty versus honor, order versus sanity, and silence versus the risk of speaking out. Above all, it's about how Soviet citizens were forced to (paraphrasing Marx) face the realities of their real conditions—in this case, a failed state held together by paranoia and fear directed by soulless apparatchiks. After Chernobyl, though, what greater fear could the State invoke? What induces more paranoia than a silent killer like radiation? Officially, 31 people died when the power plant core melted; unofficially the ultimate toll will likely be closer to 40,000–once all the radiation-induced thyroid cancers and leukemia reap their final harvest. A few doomsayers say that a half a million people will suffer health problems.

McKeon pulls no punches in describing agonizing final throes of radiation poisoning, first responders vomiting within minutes of arrival, and peasants being left in harm's way because to evacuate them would violate the State's official statement that everything was under control. It wasn't, of course–all that was (seemingly) solid melted both literally figuratively. We see the tragedy up close through the eyes of a peasant lad named Artyom, who knew something was amiss when the sky turned crimson. He and his remaining family flee to Minsk (which should have also been evacuated), and McKeon vividly relates the things terrified families sought to carry with them when finally ordered to leave. What would you take–that which is valuable or that which was enriched by sentimental value? Artyom's father tries to carry off an unhinged door upon which he had recorded his children's growth–a disobedience of orders that leads to his forced conscription with a clean-up crew.

We also meet Grigory, a heroic doctor sent to Chernobyl with nothing more than a single box of iodine pills and his iron resolve to convince a hidebound government safe in Moscow that the situation on the ground was disastrous. For his troubles, he gained KGB attention. The KGB already knew his ex-wife Maria, once a dissident journalist and now a harassed factory worker. Others want Maria to take up her pen again and let the word know of Soviet perfidy, but she's just trying to keep body and soul together so she can help her nephew Yevgeni, a piano prodigy who doesn't even have regular access to an instrument. How best to survive is the dilemma facing each of the four main characters: Artyom in a Felliniesque refugee camp, Grigory in a field hospital with no more personal protection than a paper mask, Maria from prying KGB eyes, and Yevgeni from a social system that already has him pegged as a future factory worker.

  McKeon invoked Marx, but what happened at Chernobyl is also well summed by Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." New York Times critic Anthony Marra called Chernobyl the greatest story of "displacement" since Dunkirk. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but such is the power of McKeon's novel that it might make you think so. And, if we take displacement to mean something broader than a movement of people, it was mighty enough to fell a Soviet empire built upon air, not solid blocks.

Rob Weir

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