Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh
Translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Lelive & Reilly Costigan-Humes
Ever since I read the chapter on disaster tourism in Mark O’Connell’s book Notes From An Apocalypse (reviewed here) in which he visited Chernobyl, I’ve wanted to read more about the exclusion zone. In this book written in 2014 and now translated into English, the reader can really see what it’s like from someone who has explored it extensively and illegally.
Kamysh was born two years after the Chornobyl disaster in 1986. (Note ‘Chornobyl’ is the Ukrainian spelling, which I shall use henceforth.) His father was a nuclear scientist, who worked as a liquidator after the meltdown; he died in 2003. Before the catastrophe, the area was booming; the nearby city, Prypyat, was going to be a paradise. All abandoned as inside the exclusion zone due to the radiation. Kamysh was a student in Kyiv but dropped out in the mid-noughties, drawn by the exclusion zone and wanting to write about it.
Over the course of several chapters, he describes his explorations, sometimes leading a group in, at other times hiking into the further reaches of the zone either with friends or just alone. Prypyat and the Chornobyl reactor are in the NW of the area, and Kamysh wants to explore all the other abandoned villages. Having been a few times, he describes becoming addicted to it, planning longer and longer trips. He calls himself and the others ‘decadent and depraved’, they will go in to drink, drop acid, party, but it’s almost exclusively a male thing! Why does he do it?
They’ll ask me, “You come here so often. Aren’t you afraid of radiation?” And I’ll tell them, “No. It’s only here that life won’t slip by me, for I’m living it in the most exotic place on Earth.”
When people ask me about my health, I really have no idea what to tell them. Yes it’s very harmful. […] But life often happens to us, and sometimes death does too. Sometimes we’re given good health, and sometimes we’re harmed. And I firmly believe that, in two decades, I will meet those boys and girls who kept me company during my travels around the Zone in the chemotherapy room of a nice cancer clinic in Kyiv. And I know that we’ll smile at each other.
The text is accompanied by bleak but eerily beautiful black and white photos of abandoned structures. You can understand why he went there, but to go back so many times, in all seasons, all weathers, wild camping in abandoned buildings burning the furniture to keep warm, hearing the wolves howl in the distance, not to mention the possibility of getting caught – it really did become an addiction for him. He writes with passion and wit about what drives him to return. Absolutely fascinating! I loved it.
Source: Own copy. Pushkin Press larger flapped paperback, 144 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Tanya Leslie
After French author Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, I went into my local indie bookshop Mostly Books and asked if they had anything by her in stock. They did – I came away with this slim paperback of memoir/diaries, reprinted by Fitzcarraldo in their distinctive white cover for non-fiction.
Ernaux’s mother began to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s a couple of years after a serious car accident. When Ernaux discovered she could no longer look after herself, she brought her to her family home, but she deteriorated and was hospitalised periodically, ending up on a long-term geriatric ward where she died of an embolism in 1986.
In her own introduction to the text, Ernaux tells of its genesis and much later publication. During the last year or so of her life, Ernaux started to keep a diary of sorts – more vignettes scribbled on scraps of paper, which she put away, later deciding to publish them unaltered in 1997. She says:
I have delivered these pages in their original form, echoing the bewilderment and distress that I experienced at the time. I have chosen not to alter the way I transcribed those moments I spent close to her, removed from time (except maybe form an early childhood regained), removed from any thought except: ‘She’s my mother’. She had ceased to be the woman who had always rules my life and yet, despite her misshapen features, because of her voice, her mannerisms and her laugh, she remains my mother, more so than ever.
What follows are the fragments of diary put into chronological order, beginning in December 1983. Her mother is at home with Annie and her family, exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. It is in January 1984 that Ernaux discovers what will be the last thing her mother writes which gives the book its title:
I came across a letter she had begun writing: ‘Dear Paulette, I remain in darkness.’ Now she can no longer write. The words seem to belong to another woman.
This book is very powerful indeed. Even unedited, Ernaux’s diary entries have a literary quality, in spite the outpouring of emotion that goes into them that could make them overwrought. She also has a matter-of-factness about bodily functions and the body in general, describing the never-ending task of trying to keep her mother clean, of the ‘vaginas’ on show on the ward where other patients had removed their gowns etc. Then Ernaux will drop in a devastating one-or-two-liners that made me stop in my tracks, like this one after her mother wet herself at a doctor’s appointment:
I thought back to the cat who had died when I was fifteen: she had urinated on my pillow before dying. And to the blood and bodily fluids I had lost just before my abortion, twenty years ago.
It’s not mentioned again. Some time later a nurse tells Ernaux that her mother is always talking about her, and only her, which brings this thought to her mind.
I was born because my sister died. I replaced her. Therefore, I have no real self.
This book is quietly devastating, but is also full of love, and Ernaux’s own journey as she witnesses her mother’s last years and her grief on losing her. A tough read, but I would like to read more by Ernaux who wrote both novels and non-fiction.
Source: Own copy. I Remain in Darkness by Annie Ernaux (1997, transl 1999) Fitzcarraldo edition 2021, flapped paperback, 80 pages.
BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)