One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”
This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the decades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.
But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.
The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.
The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.
The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.