Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, called the nuclear catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima events that people cannot yet fully fathom and warned against the hubris that humans have the power to conquer nature.
The 68-year-old Belarusian writer was in Tokyo at the invitation of researchers at the University of Tokyo, where she gave a lecture on Friday. More than 200 people attended.
The Nobel laureate, who writes in Russian, is known for addressing dramatic and tragic events involving the former Soviet Union – World War II, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the 1991 collapse of the communist state.
Her style is distinctive in that she presents the testimonies of ordinary people going through traumatic experiences as they speak, without intruding on their narratives.
Alexievich, who visited the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido in 2003, recalled a remark by an official there that a catastrophe like Chernobyl would not happen in Japan because “Japanese are well-prepared for quakes and are not drunken, unlike Russians.”
“But 10 years later, the wonderful civilization turned into garbage,” she said through a Russian-Japanese interpreter, referring to the 2011 Fukushima core meltdowns.
“Humans have occupied a position in nature that they should not. It is impossible for humans to conquer nature.
“Nature is now rebelling against humans. We need a philosophy for humans and nature to live together,” she said.
Referring to the policies of Japan and other countries to stick with nuclear power even after Chernobyl and Fukushima, she said: “I think that, unless we change our thinking, nuclear power generation will continue.”
Alexievich also said that documenting catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima, whose effects will last for decades, is a big burden for writers. Listening to the voices of people affected by a catastrophe is like being forced to relive it, she explained.
Yet, pointing out that fictional works on Chernobyl, such as novels and movies, have not been successful, she stressed the importance of collecting the voices of citizens.
“A catastrophe has not yet been incorporated into culture. The only language that has been able to convey a catastrophe is testimonies (by people who have experienced it), she said.
She cited the story of a Soviet pilot who died of radiation exposure after splashing sand over the radiation-spewing Chernobyl plant. She remembers him as telling her: “I could not understand what I saw with my eyes. You will not understand, either. But you must record it and hand it down to future generations. Then they may understand it.”
Alexievich acknowledged that people today live in a difficult era.
“People are looking to the past to find solutions for today’s problems. This trend is testified to by the rise of conservatism. Never before in the past has the vulnerability of democracy manifested itself so clearly,” she said.
“Remembering that even German fascism and Soviet communism are gone, intellectuals need to encourage people so that they will not despair.”