Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: 'Chernobyl' by Frederik Pohl

3/5 Stars

Pohl’s novel appeared in hardback in September 1987, and this paperback version in 1988; thus, it was written barely a year after the Chernobyl disaster. Of course, some things about the accident and the response to it have come to light in the ensuing years that were unavailable to Pohl while he was writing ‘Chernobyl’. These things, had they been incorporated into the narrative, may have been beneficial for the novel. As it stands, I found that ‘Chernobyl’ started promisingly, but ran out of momentum in the second half, as too much attention is diverted from the accident scene per se in order to focus on the various personal crises of the featured characters.
These characters are fictional, but represent person(s) in action at the nuclear power plant located just three kilometers from Pripyat, a small new city in what is now the independent nation of Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, an explosion took place in reactor No. 4; the reactor was essentially destroyed, and large chunks of its uranium and graphite core were blown into the immediate environs of the plant, starting serious fires that threatened to involve the other reactors at the site. Smaller radioactive particles and dusts were dispersed into the atmosphere and contaminated an enormous swath of western and eastern Europe. The reactor core was set afire, and only a herculean, thirteen-day effort by the Soviet government appears to have extinguished the fire ( some observers feel the fire went out on its own, and that efforts to put out the fire by dumping material onto the flaming core actually increased the likelihood of further catastrophe). An equally massive cleanup effort was then launched to dispose of dangerously radioactive debris, and the remains of reactor No. 4 were entombed in an immense concrete and steel ‘sarcophagous’.
Nearly 50 people died as a result of the blast, or acute radiation exposure following the blast. As far as the long-term public health consequences are concerned, depending on who is publishing the statistics, thousands, or even millions, of radiation-related cancers and other diseases among European residents are due to radioisotopes generated by the disaster.
The Gorbachev regime, in typical Soviet fashion, refused to release any information about the disaster until a radioactive cloud had been detected in Scandinavia nearly two days after the first explosion at reactor No. 4. When the Soviets did release information they withheld many details, which angered many otherwise liberal western European governments; Chernobyl was in many ways instrumental in the downfall of the Soviet Bloc. However, to this day most Americans have only a vague knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster and the profound impact it had on modern European history and politics. In this regard, ‘Chernobyl’ is useful entry in the English-language literature on the topic.
Pohl’s treatment follows a set of Ukrainian and Russian characters from the days preceding the accident to the construction of the sarcophagous starting in late May 1986. The first third of the novel does a good job in carefully explicating the setup of the RBMK reactor No. 4 and the reasons for its explosion (an ill-designed experiment to see if a powering-down reactor was still capable of delivering power to the electrical grid).
The main character is one Simyon Smin, director of the plant, and (presumably) the fictional counterpart of real-life director Viktor Bryukhanov. Other characters include the plant engineer; a KGB overseer; a power plant technician; an indifferent soldier; and assorted wives and relatives. They are all well-drawn individuals and the narrative introduces them, and involves them, in the unfolding drama in a smooth and readable manner for the book’s first 175 pages.
Unfortunately, it’s the remaining 182 pages that tend to be a letdown. Pohl increasingly turns his attention away from the accident and the desperate measures to deal with it, to instead focus on the personal and political dramas of his main characters. The reader has to slog through extended hospital-bed conversations and the like, all the while wondering to himself or herself: what is going on back at Chernobyl?!
Things aren’t helped by the insertion into the narrative of too many passages of questionable relevance to both the disaster and the campaign to ameliorate it. For example, we are treated to the antics of an affluent, but clueless American couple who are on vacation in the Ukraine; Simyon Smin’s elderly mother is used to give ponderous exposition on historical anti-Semitism in the region; and there is a young American embassy clerk in Moscow who gets second-hand info from various Soviet apparatchiks, thus giving Pohl an opportunity to learnedly hold forth on the state of glasnost ca. 1986. It’s frustrating to have to wade through this filler material.
It may well be that Pohl, lacking access to in-depth information about the circumstances surrounding the disaster and the cleanup, was forced to rely on weaving these personal dramas into his plot. But I think the book could have been improved by jettisoning such diversions and instead placing the emphasis on the inherently gripping drama surrounding the damaged reactor. Pohl’s ‘Chernobyl’ is a decent enough read, but in my opinion, the definitive English-language novel about Chernobyl remains to be written.

1 comment:

LAZ said...

You might be interested in Frederik Pohl's blog,