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Review of Chernobyl: The Zone

By Anastasia Ulanowicz
Bustos, Natacha and Francisco Sánchez. Chernobyl: The Zone Centrala, 2015.

Of the many powerful motifs in Francisco Sánchez’s and Natalia Bustos’s graphic narrative, Chernobyl: The Zone (Centrala, 2015), perhaps the most arresting is that of the matryoshka. Indeed, Bustos’ and Sánchez’s narrative of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine,[1] is practically bookended by images of this iconic Slavic nesting doll[2]: they first appear in its exposition and later feature prominently in its concluding frame. Moreover, the text makes both visual and verbal allusions to this literal figure throughout the body of its narrative: in one episode, for instance, a key character refers to her pregnancy by likening herself to a matryoshka. Initially, such allusions to an easily recognizable artifact of Slavic folk-art appear rather clichéd and forced, not least because they imply a certain quick-and-cheap mode of establishing the text’s Soviet-era mis-en-scène. And yet, a closer analysis of Bustos’ and Sánchez’s narrative suggests a much richer and more nuanced use of this central and deceptively simple motif. Indeed, repeated references to the matryoshka—a doll within a doll within a doll—not only uncannily correspond to the multiple concrete sarcophagi that serve as tenuous barriers between Chernobyl’s failed nuclear reactor and the practical well-being of global humanity, but also pointedly allude to the legacy of this ecological and cultural disaster over successive generations of (post-) Soviet citizens.

In fact, the very formal structure of Chernobyl: The Zone resembles that of a traditional Slavic nesting doll. Ultimately, the purpose of Bustos’s and Sánchez’s graphic narrative is to offer an account of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl as it was experienced by three generations of one Ukrainian family. To this end, each of the three chapters of their text is devoted to one respective generation–the first, an elderly couple, the second their daughter and son-in-law, and the third, the elders’ grandchildren–in such a way that verbal and visual elements of one section lead into and are taken up by the next. The effect of reading the text, then, is analogous to the process of unscrewing a wooden doll and discovering within it another that simultaneously corresponds to and departs from its container’s design. Indeed, such a nestled narrative structure invites readers to consider how intergenerational responses to a traumatic historical event involve repetition and difference.

The first chapter of Chernobyl: The Zone, entitled “Leonid and Galia” depicts the return of an elderly couple to their still-quarantined native village on the outskirts of Pripyat, the city adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The first page of this section is purposefully slow-paced: the introductory, frameless quarter of the page presents two barely-perceptible human figures at the center of an arid landscape, and the subsequent three frames bring into gradual focus a wizened pair who walks toward and ultimately beyond the eye-sight of the reader. In the almost entirely wordless sequence that follows, the couple surveys their ruined homestead and gradually, over a visible passage of seasons, restores it to a functioning subsistence farm. From the very outset, then, Bustos and Sánchez deny their audience the fast-paced and sensational disaster narrative they might expect from a representation of one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century. Rather, by beginning with the plodding but nevertheless obstinate efforts of two elderly peasants, their text takes great care to exposit the socio-geographical and historical context in which this specific event took place. Indeed, given the rural mis-en-scène of this narrative sequence–there is no evidence of cars, tractors, or other forms of modern technology within any of the frames, and Leonid and Galia’s small and sparsely appointed home is typical of that of an early twentieth-century peasant household–the couple might just as well be returning survivors of turn-of-the-century pogroms, or the Stalinist-engineered famine of 1932-1933, or the Second World War Nazi occupation (Figure 1). Ultimately, such potentially palimpsestic expositional images serve to intensify Bustos’ and Sánchez’s later depictions of the nuclear disaster, since the discerning reader is prompted to recognize how the global catastrophe now known as “Chernobyl” was itself a part of a larger chain of traumatic events that occurred within what historian Timothy Snyder has called the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe.[3]

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It is only in the final sequence of this first chapter that its eponymous characters are explicitly revealed as late-twentieth-century Chernobyl survivors: Galia’s death-bed hallucinations summon memories of men in snorkeled hazard-suits, and Leonid’s last mortal effort is to return to an abandoned apartment complex in Pripyat. The second chapter, “Vladimir and Anna,” begins exactly at the site where the first left off–that is in Pripyat–albeit at least a decade earlier, in April, 1986. Crucially, however, the first few frames of this chapter render this shift in time difficult to decipher: indeed, its expositional images of a veritably de-populated 1980’s-era corner of Pripyat are uncannily similar, if not nearly identical, to the vacant street-scenes that Leonid confronts during his post-disaster visit in the preceding section. This first disorienting sequence of images is immediately followed, however, by those that not only establish its late-Cold-War-era setting but that also confirm its connection with the events in the preceding chapter. Here, we see younger versions of Leonid and Galia visiting with their pregnant daughter, Anna, her husband, Vladimir, and their young grandson Yuri in Pripyat in anticipation of the opening of the city’s amusement park. In one particularly haunting sequence, son-in-law Vladimir photographs the three generations in front of the giant ferris-wheel that has since become an iconic image of the radical disruption of everyday life wrought by the nuclear accident (Figure 2). A frameless three-quarter-page illustration of the moment the photograph was taken–accentuated by a framed inset image of Vladimir’s fingers on a Soviet-made camera and an expressive “CLICK” on the bottom left-hand corner of the illustration–intensifies the iconic significance of the ferris wheel by depicting a provincial family whose relatively insouciant existence will soon be broken by a global disaster.

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Notably, the heavily pregnant Anna, unlike the rest of her family members, does not smile at the camera at this crucial moment of the narrative–and her melancholy, if not wary, expression foreshadows the chain of events that will soon follow. Indeed, shortly after this sequence, Bustos and Sánchez suddenly depart from the slow and steady narrative pace they have heretofore established as they bombard their reader with a number of scenes in quick succession: an explosion against a still, black skyline; the hurdle of Chernobyl employees, Vladimir among them, to the reactor site; the numbed response of Pripyat’s citizens, who attempt to go on with their daily lives in the wake of the emergency; the arrival of masked soldiers who break the initial shock by herding citizens onto a convoy of buses; the perplexed responses of neighboring villagers who gaze on the reactor’s plumes from afar; and finally, the soldiers’ systematic shooting of household pets left behind by evacuating families. The transitions between each of these scenes are jarring and disorienting, and are rendered all the more so by Bustos’ busy and cross-hatched illustrations that crowd the borders of each frame. Consequently, the reader is given at least an impression of what Chernobyl survivors such as Anna and her young son Yuri experienced when their everyday reality effectively imploded.

If Bustos’ and Sánchez’s second chapter leaves its audience in an analogous state of shock, their third and final chapter, “Yuri and Tatiana,” attempts to reorient the reader and offer her an early twenty-first century perspective of the event. Like the second chapter, this one begins immediately where the preceding one left off: here, Anna and Yuri, packed into a bus of evacuees, gradually become aware of the catastrophe they have escaped, as well as the possibility that Vladimir, a Chernobyl engineer, may not have been so lucky. Indeed, two following juxtaposed scenes – one of the safe birth of Anna’s daughter, Tatiana, and the other of Vladimir’s death by radiation poisoning – confirm their initial suspicions. Soon thereafter, however, the narrative transitions to the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April, 2006. Yuri, once the wide-eyed boy who looked forward to the convocation of a neighboring amusement park, is now a photojournalist who documents the birth defects suffered by progeny of Chernobyl survivors as well as on-going protests launched on behalf of the plant’s “liquidators.”[4] Despite his activist efforts, however, Yuri remains haunted by his childhood memories of the disaster; thus, accompanied by his sister, Tatiana, he makes a pilgrimage to the heavily-guarded “Zone” in order to visit his abandoned apartment building and gaze upon the ferris wheel he once dreamed of riding. Although Tatiana, who has no memory of the disaster, finds the visit “overwhelming,” (154), Yuri remains restless and comparatively underwhelmed until he reaches the abandoned homestead of his long-dead grandparents, Leonid and Galia. Here, the narrative comes around full-circle: Yuri discovers, among the debris, a beloved childhood toy that Leonid recovered during his lonely sojourn to post-disaster Pripyat. This sense of closure is further signaled by the final appearance of a matryoshka–initially divided in the first frames of the narrative and now reconstituted in the concluding one (Figure 3).

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To be sure, the conclusion of Chernobyl: The Zone is a sentimental one that, in offering pathos and a sense of easy closure, appears to soothe its Western readers at the expense of acknowledging the raw and unresolved mourning of millions of (post-)Soviet citizens affected by the nuclear fallout of the Chernobyl disaster. Indeed, as the Nobel Prize-winning Belorussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich makes clear in Voices From Chernobyl (1997) this Cold War-era disaster remains an open wound in the post-Soviet nations of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. And yet, despite its tidy ending, the text’s content is often as brutal and uncompromising as some of the most graphic passages of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand witness narratives–and perhaps even doubly so, since Bustos’ illustrations of bloated and veritably skinless Chernobyl employees, as well as her ruthlessly matter-of-fact depictions of soldiers’ extermination of beloved domestic animals, complement and concretize these testimonies. Crucially, moreover, Sánchez and Bustos–much like Alexievich–manage to avoid sensationalism even as they offer uncompromisingly horrific images of catastrophe. For example, although they well might have depicted the initial reactor explosion through the use of conventional comic book icons–blooming and towering clouds, rains of debris, montages of grimaced faces, and the rest–they instead present this singular, monumental event as a small, white flare set at the bottom of an otherwise blackened page (Figure 4). The effect of this intentionally understated image is not unlike that of a key passage in Cormac Mc Carthy’s devastating post-apocalyptic novel, The Road (2006), in which the narrator describes the ultimate cataclysm simply as “a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (52). Indeed, Chernobyl: The Zone renders harrowing passages from fictional works such as McCarthy’s even more disturbing insofar as it reminds us that they have already occurred within history: to be sure, thousands, if not millions, of Eastern Europeans are still stranded on its proverbial road, and we are all even now living in the wake of a nuclear apocalypse.

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Certainly, Sánchez and Bustos take a considerable risk in depicting such a momentous event. This is not least because, much like other twentieth century traumas, Chernobyl has often been the subject of hackneyed documentaries and exploitative travel programs whose hosts titillate audiences by tramping through a near-abandoned landscape in search of illicit bites of contaminated sausages and shots of radioactive vodka. The creators’ mindfulness of this risk, however, is evident not only in their contextualizing exposition, carefully calibrated pacing, and subtle focalization, but also in their paratextual materials. The narrative of Chernobyl: The Zone is immediately followed by an appendix which includes Sánchez’s account of his research visits to Ukraine and the interviews on which he based his characters, as well as Bustos’s “work diary” of her visual adaptation of Sánchez’s original narrative and aesthetic vision. The appendix also includes an afterword written by Sánchez in the voice of his character Yuri, which offers a comprehensive overview of the accident’s technical causes and socio-environmental effects; an essay by Lourdes Segade that introduces readers to photographs from “the zone” on which Bustos’s illustrations were modeled; and a worldwide map of functioning nuclear power plants. Clearly, Sánchez and Bustos are invested in demonstrating how their narrative, though it might be a work of fiction, is nevertheless informed by scrupulous research and a sensitivity to the rich history and socio-geographical landscape of their setting. 

Even so, readers would do well to keep in mind the substantial mediation of Chernobyl: The Zone. On the one hand, certain details of this text–for example, its informal identification of characters only by their first names rather than by their formal patronymics and surnames–suggest Bustos’s and Sánchez’s deliberate effort to render its characters and setting more familiar to Western readers’ cultural sensibilities. On the other hand, however, the text’s occasional, and arguably gratuitous, incorporation of Cyrillic letters into English words implies not only a vision of its (post-) Soviet Ukrainian setting as foreign, exotic, and ultimately inscrutable but also an uncritical assumption that readers already regard it as such.[5] As insignificant as they might initially seem, textual moments such as these place into relief the fact that this otherwise well-researched and carefully organized narrative is in the end one produced by Western Europeans who write for a largely Western audience. Of course, this is not to say that Eastern European depictions of the same event are more “authentic” or comparatively unmediated: after all, even Alexievich’s assemblage of first-hand testimonies in Voices From Chernobyl demonstrates her editorial decisions and clearly places into relief the subject positions and attendant biases of her witnesses. And yet, precisely because Chernobyl: The Zone bids readers to examine the multiple and overlapping facets of an historically traumatic event much as they might unpack the contents of a matryoshka, so too does it invite them to investigate its own construction.

Notes

[1]The Ukrainian transliteration is “Chornobyl.” In both Ukrainian and Russian, the word “Chornobyl” or “Chernobyl,” respectively, refers to a species of wormwood – a detail that has excited those who perceive a correspondence between this name-place and apocalyptically portentous images in the biblical book of Revelation. What is often disregarded, however, is that the name of this site is a portmanteau of the Ukrainian/Russian words for “black” (chorno/cherno) and “white” (biliy/beliy). Although it may or may not have been their initial intention, Bustos’s stark black-and-white illustrations subtly underscore the etymological significance of this name – and arguably, Sánchez’s narrative complicates it by offering multiple, intersecting, or effectively “graying” perspectives on the same historical event.

[2]Although matryoshka (literally: “little mother”) dolls are conventionally considered as specifically Russian artifacts, it is important to note that they traditionally have been produced throughout Eastern Europe, including regions of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Balkans. In this context, this distinction is especially significant, since the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster immediately affected the (post-) Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus.

[3]In his critically acclaimed history, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), Snyder documents the artificial Soviet famine of 1931-1933, the Stalinist purges, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the Nazi occupation of regions of the USSR, and the establishment of Nazi death camps and the Soviet archipelago in order to demonstrate how (inter-)War-era Eastern European was inordinately traumatized in the first half of the twentieth century. In his conclusion, Snyder calls to attention the ongoing legacy of this history, especially in the post-Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. The insights he offers are likewise expressed in other scholarly texts and aesthetic works, most notably Igort’s The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks (2016), which visually depicts complexly interrelated cultural memories of the Soviet famine, the Second World War, and Chernobyl.

[4]The term “liquidator” was used to designate those individuals who initially responded to and assisted in stabilizing the crisis, including plant employees, firefighters, police forces, military personnel, and engineers. This chapter of Bustos’ and Sánchez’s narrative refers to demonstrations in Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine in 2006, in which liquidators and their survivors marked the 20th anniversary of the disaster to protest inadequate compensation and medical support for their sacrificial efforts.

[5]To readers of Cyrillic languages, the Cyrillic-Latin amalgam of Chernobyl reads something like “Sneyaivchyl” – a completely nonsense word. This should place into relief the ways that apparently “playful” amalgamations immediately privilege latinized languages and their readers and discount the existence of inter-linguistic and trans-cultural readers/readings.


Works Cited

Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices From Chernobyl Trans. Keith Gessen. Dalkey Archive P, 2005.

Bustos, Natacha and Francisco Sánchez. Chernobyl: The Zone. London: Centrala, 2014.

Igort. The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks. Trans. Jamie Richards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic, 2010.

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