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The Chernobyl TV Series and the Impossibility of (Narrative) Closure

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Image by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

The 2019 HBO mini-series Chernobyl has been praised as the best series of all times. Its account of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine and the fates of those dealing with its aftermath touched millions of viewers – but something about the appraising reviews of the series rubbed me the wrong way. It is true that the series is “as stunning as it is gripping”, as a Guardian review by Rebecca Nicholson revels (2019). Watching the series, I was touched by the terrible suffering and moral conflicts of the protagonists following the worst nuclear accident in history, and I recognized the echoes of Svetlana Alexievich’s 1995 Voices from Chernobyl, from which some of the most heart-wrenching storylines were taken.[1] I followed the critical debates about historical accuracy. How indebted is a TV series to its historical sources? And how American is Chernobyl’s view on the inner workings of the Soviet system? After some pondering and reading, I understood that my concern lies elsewhere, with the question of “narratability” and narrative form – and more precisely with the (im)possibility of narrative closure when talking about nuclear accidents.

In one of the few critical reviews of the series, Mike Hale observes how resistant the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seems to be to narrativization: “[…] as a story, it’s hard to get your arms around – sprawling and repetitious, dependent on arcane particulars of physics and engineering, marked by failures to act and by large-scale action that accomplishes nothing” (2019). Forcing it into the “cheap theatrics” of a “creaky and conventional, if longer than usual, disaster movie”, Hale argues, does injustice to the complexity of the events and the multitude of actors attempting to live up to the moment. Indeed, the genre of the mini-series comes with clear requirements in terms of storyline and character constellations. It tells the story of only a few protagonists,[2] and it has a clear narrative arc. In many regards, contemporary mainstream storytelling still goes back to the Aristotelean poetics in which a tragedy requires a clear beginning, a middle, and an end, accompanied by suspense and finally catharsis, the sense of relief as all conflict is solved and equilibrium is restored. But how can such a storyline be adequate for a sprawling and unruly nuclear disaster?

In an essay on “Narrative Closure”, Noël Carroll defines closure as a “phenomenological feeling of finality” (2007) as all questions posed by the narrative are answered satisfactorily for the audience. In the Chernobyl series, the (mostly fictional) showdown trial in which protagonist Valery Legasov recounts in detail how the accident happened, serves exactly this purpose. Loaded with suspense, and then relief, the occasion is used to inform the viewer of the intricacies of the social and technological failures which have led to the explosion of the reactor core, and to install Legasov as the hero that the audience needs him to be. All questions are answered satisfactorily, and the catharsis can resolve any doubts we might have about where the responsibility lies. Chernobyl has an ending in the Aristotelean and in Carroll’s sense. But, as the sociologist Kai Erikson observes in A New Species of Trouble (1995):

Toxic disasters […] violate all the rules of plot. Some of them have clearly defined beginnings, such as the explosion that signalled the emergency at Chernobyl or the sudden moment of realization that opened the drama of Bhopal; others begin long years before anyone senses something as wrong [….]. But they never end. Invisible contaminants remain a part of the surroundings, absorbed into the grain of the landscape, the tissues of the body, and, worst of all, the genetic material of the survivors. (emphasis mine)

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has left 2,600 km2 of marshes, fields and forests uninhabitable for the unforeseeable future both in Ukraine and Belarus. Recent studies hint that reports about undisturbed and flourishing wildlife in the so-called ‘exclusion zone’ might be exaggerated, and that the density of mammals is actually lower than in comparable areas with lower levels of ionizing radiation (cf. Beaugelin-Seiller et al.).[3] And while a WHO report from 2005 sets the number of deaths attributed to radiation exposure at less than 50 (plus around 4000 eventual deaths due to long-term health consequences), recent publications have fuelled discussions about the validity of those earlier accounts (cf. Brown 2019). Irrespective of the exact numbers, anthropological research has shown that the accident still influences and overshadows the lives of thousands of people, and that for them, no sense of closure or ending is in sight (cf. Petryna 2013). The events surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster were not only “sprawling and repetitious” in the 1980s, they continue to reach into the lives of uncountable humans and non-humans, and into the deep and almost unimaginably far future.

Chernobyl makes an attempt to shine a light on the destiny of victims and survivors with an unusually long 5-minute coda, accompanied by a choir performing the Vichnaya Pamyat (or “Memory Eternal”), a hymn usually sung at eastern orthodox funeral services. The coda shows the fate of some of the protagonists of the series, speculates about its political legacy and also includes some drone footage of the abandoned town of Pripyat and the exclusion zone today. The final frame is of the New Safe Confinement completed in 2017, a large arched structure that covers both the damaged reactor and the make-shift concrete sarcophagus constructed directly after the accident. Hidden in this coda, and in the telling title of the final song, is the uncomfortably open ending of the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. However, this openness remains an afterthought, attached to a carefully constructed and contained narrative arc.

This is not to say that the series is bad, or that it shouldn’t exits. However, it will hopefully not remain the only way that viewers are confronted with what it means to live in a nuclear world. As frustrated climate scientists will attest to, we need to be aware of the limits of certain types of stories to grapple with the complexity of environmental (and technological) disaster. There are currently 440 nuclear power plants in operation worldwide, and while most of them are unlikely to spill ionized radiation through an accident, they produce highly radioactive waste for which most countries have no feasible storage solution right now. To confront the “everyday nuclearity” of our planet, we don’t need fearmongering and finger-pointing, no sharp distinction between heroes and villains. Most importantly, we should not embrace the “phenomenological feeling of finality” offered by Chernobyl (2019) but accept the impossibility of narrative closure. What we need is a nuanced knowledge and understanding of both the history and the present of nuclear power, nuclear waste and other nuclear infrastructures (such as mines or weapons). For such an endeavor, Chernobyl might even provide a good start.

Do you want to learn more about the scientific, political and cultural history of ionizing radiation? You might want to have a look at this beautiful website by the Bombshelltoe Collective: https://illuminating-radioactivity.com/

For in-depth discussions of all things nuclear, visit the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/nuclear-risk/


[1] The production team had the permission of the Nobel prize-winning author to weave the oral histories of her book into the series, and thus we now have filmed versions of the stories of young lovers Lyudmila and Vasily Ignatenko, who was a first responder and died from acute radiation sickness weeks after the accident, and the soldiers sent in to kill the pets left behind during evacuation of the zone around the exploded reactor.

[2] This has, for example, led to the creation of the compound character of Ulana Khomyuk standing in for the many Soviet scientists who fought for better access to information and healthcare after the accident.

[3] This is not to say that a purer, undamaged Nature existed around the reactor. The land was heavily cultivated and many of the marshes drained. Nonetheless, these lands have been taken from humans and non-humans alike and will remain contaminated for up to 20.000 years.


Author: Hannah Klaubert is a doctoral student based at Stockholm University and the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC) at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany. Hannah holds a BA in Comparative Literature and Philosophy from Freie Universität Berlin and an MA in Cultural Analysis from the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on fiction from the last three decades dealing with nuclear accidents and disasters. Through an (eco)narratological analysis of the aesthetic forms and strategies employed in literature and film, she aims to understand how the imperceptible threat of radiation and its impact on the human and non-human world are negotiated.

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