I suddenly started to wonder what’s better — to remember or to forget? I asked my friends. Some have forgotten, others don’t want to remember, because we can’t change anything anyway, we can’t even leave here.
Here’s what I remember. In the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic. There was even a joke that if Chernobyl had blown up near the Papuans, the whole world would be frightened, but not the Papuans. There were no medical bulletins, no information. Those who could, got potassium iodide (you couldn’t get it at the pharmacy in our town, you had to really know someone). Some people took a whole bunch of these tablets and washed them down with liquor. Then they had to get their stomachs pumped at the hospital. Then we discovered a sign, which all of us followed: as long as there were sparrows and pigeons in town, humans could live there, too. I was in a taxi one time, the driver couldn’t understand why the birds were all crashing into his window, like they were blind. They’d gone crazy, or like they were committing suicide.
I remember coming back one time from a business trip. There was a moonlit landscape. On both sides of the road, to the very horizon, stretched these fields covered in white dolomite. The poisoned topsoil had been removed and buried, and in its place they brought white dolomite sand. It was like not-earth. This vision tortured me for a long time and I tried to write a story. I imagined what would be here in a hundred years: a person, or something else, would be galloping along on all fours, throwing out its long back legs, knees bent. At night it could see with a third eye, and its only ear, on the crown of its head, could even hear how ants run. Ants would be the only thing left, everything else in heaven and earth would have died.
I sent the story to a journal. They wrote back saying that this wasn’t a work of literature, but the description of a nightmare. Of course I lacked the talent. But there was another reason they didn’t take it, I think.
I’ve wondered why everyone was silent about Chernobyl, why our writers weren’t writing much about it — they write about the war, or the camps, but here they’re silent. Why? Do you think it’s an accident? If we’d beaten Chernobyl, people would talk about it and write about it more. Or if we’d understood Chernobyl. But we don’t know how to capture any meaning from it. We’re not capable of it. We can’t place it in our human experience or our human time-frame.
So what’s better, to remember or to forget?
instructor at Gomel State University
From 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s essential collection of oral histories, Voices from Chernobyl.
Of course, by now we all know that forgetting is easier, and a hell of a lot more profitable, than remembering. The forgetting described above is the familiar scripted amnesia we see applied wherever radiation, and other fruits of industrial civilization, have irrevocably demented the landscape. In Fukushima, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, the Yangtze, Bhopal, Fallujah. Colombia, Appalachia. The Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Black and the Red Seas. The Gulf of Mexico and the Albertan oil sands. Hanford, WA and the Ohio River Valley. the whole American Southwest. The entire Pacific Ocean. Pretty much everywhere on Earth has its tale of irreversible anthropogenic ruin. And there’ll be more coming, every year. Every single time we’ll be taught to act surprised, as if it were the first and last time. And then, to preserve our sanity, we’ll forget, all over again.
American Ground Zero is another excellent book — I found it by accident in 2007, browsing the discarded-book stacks at the San Francisco Public Library. Unlike Alexievich, its author never won a Nobel (insert jaded aside about lingering Cold War double-standards here), but this work is equally affecting, giving voices to other ignored and marginalized populations who have been heavily irradiated and sickened, intentionally (or at best flippantly), by the US government’s decades of misadventure in above-ground nuclear testing, uranium mining, and waste storage. The book is too good and too important to be forgotten, out of print and going for four bucks on amaz0n*; if you’ve read this far, your life will be, ah, enriched by reading it. (You can also get it for seven times the price at powells.com if you prefer. Or maybe your public library hasn’t tossed it yet!)
As folks used to say in Hawai’i, back while the US Marine Corps was killing all the oysters in Kaneohe Bay with toxic runoff: i never forget to remember; i just remember to forget.
*[1/14/16] It’s worth noting that the copy i recently ordered online was also discarded from a library, in Carmel, Indiana. It’s in excellent condition. Hmm.