Category: Non-fiction

At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
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Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

(…)

 

Ghost in the Cloud

Meghan O'Gieblyn for n+1
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Meghan O’Gieblyn writes for n+1 on the relationship between transhumanism and religion.

I DO PLAN TO BRING BACK MY FATHER,” Ray Kurzweil says. He is standing in the anemic light of a storage unit, his frame dwarfed by towers of cardboard boxes and oblong plastic bins. He wears tinted eyeglasses. He is in his early sixties, but something about the light or his posture, his paunch protruding over his beltline, makes him seem older. Kurzweil is now a director of engineering at Google, but this documentary was filmed in 2009, back when it was still possible to regard him as a lone visionary with eccentric ideas about the future. The boxes in the storage unit contain the remnants of his father’s life: photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and financial documents. For decades, he has been compiling these artifacts and storing them in this sepulcher he maintains near his house in Newton, Massachusetts. He takes out a notebook filled with his father’s handwriting and shows it to the camera. His father passed away in 1970, but Kurzweil believes that, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to use the memorabilia, along with DNA samples, to resurrect him. “People do live on in our memories, and in the creative works they leave behind,” he muses, “so we can gather up all those vibrations and bring them back, I believe.”

Technology, Kurzweil has conceded, is still a long way from bringing back the dead. His only hope of seeing his father resurrected is to live to see the Singularitythe moment when computing power reaches an “intelligence explosion.” At this point, according to transhumanists such as Kurzweil, people who are merged with this technology will undergo a radical transformation. They will become posthuman: immortal, limitless, changed beyond recognition. Kurzweil predicts this will happen by the year 2045. Unlike his father, he, along with those of us who are lucky enough to survive into the middle of this century, will achieve immortality without ever tasting death.

But perhaps the Apostle Paul put it more poetically: “We will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”

(…)

Surface Noise

Damon Krukowski for The Paris Review
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In an excerpt from his book The New Analog, Damon Krukowski looks at the aesthetics of noise in analog music—and what we’ve lost in the transition to digital recordings. 

My favorite records sound the worst, because I’ve played them the most. Each time a needle runs around an LP, it digs a little deeper into the grooves and leaves its trace in the form of surface noise. The information on an LP degrades as it is played—as if your eyes blurred this text, just a bit, each time they ran across it.

Analog sound reproduction is tactile. It is, in part, a function of friction: the needle bounces in the groove, the tape drags across a magnetic head. Friction dissipates energy in the form of sound. Meaning: you hear these media being played. Surface noise and tape hiss are not flaws in analog media but artifacts of their use. Even the best engineering, the finest equipment, the “ideal” listening conditions cannot eliminate them. They are the sound of time, measured by the rotation of a record or reel of tape—not unlike the sounds made by the gears of an analog clock. 

In this sense, analog sound media resemble our own bodies. As John Cage observed, we bring noise with us wherever we go:

For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds.

Silence is death, the ACT UP slogan painfully reminded us at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Why seek it out as a part of our musical experience?

(…)

Realism and Fantasy

Louise Glück for Lit Hub
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Louise Glück writes for Lit Hub on different interpretations of realism: 

It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

My earliest reading was Greek mythology. As with my prayers, nothing was ever deleted, but categories were added. First the Oz books. Then biography, the how-to books of my childhood. How to be Madame Curie. How to be Lou Gehrig. How to be Lady Jane Grey. And then, gradually, the great prose novels in English. And so on. All these made a kind of reading different from the reading of poetry, less call to orders, more vacation.

What strikes me now is that these quite disparate works, Middlemarch and The Magical Monarch of Mo, seemed to me about equal in their unreality.

Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. The characters dress in certain ways, they eat certain things, society thwarts them in specific ways; therefore the real (or the theoretically real) acquires in time what the fantastic has always had, an air of vast improbability. There is this variation: the overtly fantastic represents, in imagination, that which has not yet happened (this is true even when it locates itself in a mythic past, a past beyond the reach of documented history). Realistic fiction corresponds roughly to the familiar and present reality of the reader; its strangeness is the strangeness of obsolescence or irrecoverability. Regarding this obsolescence one is sometimes grateful, sometimes mournful. Though the characters in their passions and dilemmas resemble us, the world in which these passions are enacted is vanished and strange. In the degree to which we cannot inhabit that world, the formerly real becomes very like the deliberately unreal.

(…)

An Extract: Notes from No Man’s Land

From Eula Biss's forthcoming essay collection on race and racial identity
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Read an extract from Eula Biss’s forthcoming essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land, published 19 April 2017:

TIME AND DISTANCE OVERCOME

“Of what use is such an invention?” the New York World asked shortly after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his telephone in 1876. The world was not waiting for the telephone.

Bell’s financial backers asked him not to work on his new invention because it seemed too dubious an investment. The idea on which the telephone depended—the idea that every home in the country could be connected by a vast network of wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet apart— seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human voice could be transmitted through a wire.

Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.

“At the present time we have a perfect network of gas pipes and water pipes throughout our large cities,” Bell wrote to his business partners in defense of his idea. “We have main pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings…. In a similar manner it is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, shops, manufactories, etc., uniting them through the main cable.”

Imagine the mind that could imagine this. That could see us joined by one branching cable. This was the mind of a man who wanted to invent, more than the telephone, a machine that would allow the deaf to hear.

For a short time the telephone was little more than a novelty. For twenty-five cents you could see it demonstrated by Bell himself, in a church, along with singing and recitations by local talent. From some distance away, Bell would receive a call from “the invisible Mr. Watson.” Then the telephone became a plaything of the rich. A Boston banker paid for a private line between his office and his home so that he could let his family know exactly when he would be home for dinner.

Mark Twain was among the first Americans to own a telephone, but he wasn’t completely taken with the device. “The human voice carries entirely too far as it is,” he remarked.

By 1889, the New York Times was reporting a “War on Telephone Poles.” Wherever telephone companies were erecting poles, home owners and business owners were sawing them down or defending their sidewalks with rifles.

Property owners in Red Bank, New Jersey, threatened to tar and feather the workers putting up telephone poles. A judge granted a group of home owners an injunction to prevent the telephone company from erecting any new poles. Another judge found that a man who had cut down a pole because it was “obnoxious” was not guilty of malicious mischief.

Telephone poles, newspaper editorials complained, were an urban blight. The poles carried a wire for each telephone— sometimes hundreds of wires. And in some places there were also telegraph wires, power lines, and trolley cables. The sky was netted with wires.

The war on telephone poles was fueled, in part, by that terribly American concern for private property, and a reluctance to surrender it for a shared utility. And then there was a fierce sense of aesthetics, an obsession with purity, a dislike for the way the poles and wires marred a landscape that those other new inventions, skyscrapers and barbed wire, were just beginning to complicate. And then perhaps there was also a fear that distance, as it had always been known and measured, was collapsing.

The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there. Only one pole was chopped down before the telephone men climbed all the poles along the line, preventing any more chopping. Soon, Bell Telephone Company began stationing a man at the top of each pole as soon as it had been set, until enough poles had been set to string a wire between them, at which point it became a misdemeanor to interfere with the poles. Even so, a constable cut down two poles holding forty or fifty wires. And a home owner sawed down a recently wired pole, then fled from police. The owner of a cannery ordered his workers to throw dirt back into the hole the telephone company was digging in front of his building. His men threw the dirt back in as fast as the telephone workers could dig it out. Then he sent out a team with a load of stones to dump into the hole. Eventually, the pole was erected on the other side of the street.

Despite the war on telephone poles, it would take only four years after Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of more than ten thousand people to be wired, although many towns were wired only to themselves. By the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America.

“Time and dist. overcome,” read an early advertisement for the telephone.  Rutherford B. Hayes pronounced the installation of a telephone in the White House “one of the greatest events since creation.” The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, “annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.”

*

In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Danville, Illinois, a black man’s throat was slit, and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole. Two black men were hanged from a telephone pole in Lewisburg, West Virginia. And two in Hempstead, Texas, where one man was dragged out of the courtroom by a mob, and another was dragged out of jail.

A black man was hanged from a telephone pole in Belleville, Illinois, where a fire was set at the base of the pole and the man was cut down half-alive, covered in coal oil, and burned. While his body was burning the mob beat it with clubs and cut it to pieces.

Lynching, the first scholar of the subject determined, is an American invention.  Lynching from bridges, from arches, from trees standing alone in fields, from trees in front of the county courthouse, from trees used as public billboards, from trees barely able to support the weight of a man, from telephone poles, from streetlamps, and from poles erected solely for that purpose. From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, black men were lynched for crimes real and imagined, for whistles, for rumors, for “disputing with a white man,” for “unpopularity,” for “asking a white woman in marriage,” for “peeping in a window.”

Foreign to Oneself

Amanda DeMarco for Asymptote
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Writing for Asymptote, Amanda DeMarco explores the value and limitations of translation.

Introduction

This essay about foreignness and translation is strictly composed of quotations. However, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.” 

It is one of a series of texts I have made that use various collage techniques to create a voice—one that could not possibly be my own. Others can be found in Hotel and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The collage approach has been useful to me in examining various experiences of voicelessness and alienation, but also reveling in the downright Dionysian profusion of voices that can be summoned from the books I love. 

Dionysus, if you’ll recall, was a foreigner too. 

Foreign to Oneself 

One of the great experts on history, culture, and the art in Berlin—Walter Benjamin—once wanted to compose a description of the city using only old descriptions, with all of the monuments described by close contemporaries from the time of their creation. The result would be rather like seeing one’s backyard reproduced with extreme fidelity, but in such a perspective that it becomes a place which one has never seen or visited, which never has existed, which never can exist. This is just like translation. Both are limited, as legends are limited, by being—literally—unlivable, and by referring to the past. Every legend, however, contains its residuum of truth, just as all magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds. 

Travel is a substitute for life. So is translation. Both mean getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story so tightly to your chest; the bigness of the world is a redemption. In translation, you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. After all, literature is the ideal form of possessing the world for a wanderer, or a refugee; to miniaturize is to make portable. 

Out of the Iron Closet

Masha Udensiva-Brenner for Guernica
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In search of acceptance, a gay Russian man seeks asylum in the United States:

March, 2015

Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.

He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.

She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.

“I am not going to fly,” he said.

The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”

Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.

Minutes later, both pilots found him.

“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you have to decide.”

* * *

May, 2013

Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.

For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.

(…)

All Possible Humanities Dissertations Considered As Single Tweets

Stephen Burt in the New Yorker
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As the title says:

‘This pedestrian term is actually the key to my historical period.

A disputatious panel at last year’s professional conference revealed the surprising state of the field (it’s as bad as you think).

My historical period, properly understood, includes yours.

What looked like a moment of failure, confusion, or ugliness in this well-known work is better seen as directions for reading the whole.

A problem you thought you could solve defines your field; you can’t imagine the field without the problem.

The only people able to understand this work properly cannot communicate that understanding to you.

Those two apparently incompatible versions of a thing are better regarded as parts of the same, larger thing.

Quantitative methods have an unexpected use.

Analytical tools developed for, and strongly associated with, a well-defined set of things in fact apply to a much larger set of things.

A public event simultaneous with, but apparently unrelated to, a famous art work in fact shaped that work’s composition or reception.

This famous thing closely resembles, and therefore responds to, that slightly earlier, less famous thing.

If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like it.

If you teach that old thing in this new way, your students will like you.

Before a given date, a now obscure, once omnipresent theory meant that all of culture was somehow different.

After a given date, a new technology meant that all of culture was somehow different.

The name we’ve been using for this stuff is anachronistic. Here’s a better name.

(…)’

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

The stage adaptation
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Katherine Boo’s excellent Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an account of life in a Mumbai slum, has been adapted for the stage by David Hare. (Here’s Pankaj Mishra’s 2012 review of the book, too.)

In a National Theatre rehearsal room, a stagehand is dumping a hundred or so empty plastic water bottles from a bin liner onto the floor. Set dressing tends to be a bit more fastidious, even decorous. The main reassurance that this isn’t theatre being done on the cheap is the presence of playwright Sir David Hare, artistic director elect Rufus Norris and the esteemed actress Meera Syal.

For 20 minutes, Syal leads the cast of 25 South Asian actors in a run-through of the National’s forthcoming epic, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is perhaps the biggest play about waste ever mounted.

The source material is a remarkably powerful book by Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist who spent more than three years meticulously documenting lives in Annawadi, a teeming slum in the shadow of Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was published simultaneously in the US and India in 2012, was widely hailed and won numerous awards: it shone a torch on endemic corruption and abject poverty, refusing to sentimentalise its subjects while giving them their humanity: Boo’s Annawadians quarrel and joke, strive and connive like the rest of us, but with a much shorter life expectancy.

The book was bound to journey away from the page and the first person to pounce and option it was the omnivorous New York producer Scott Rudin. He gave the idea of staging it to Hare, who for Rudin had adapted Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. But Boo was not initially persuaded.

“I just wasn’t sure what it would be like to fictionalise lives,” she says. “I was uncomfortable with it. But then other people in my life said, ‘You’re being silly, these are very serious people with interesting points of view.’ I thought, I need to know what the people who are in my book think about this.”

So she went to Annawadi and asked around. She remains a frequent visitor anyway — she went eight times in 2013. And she found that the characters in her book — the ones who are still alive, that is – were keen.

“In some way they found the idea of theatre more accessible than a book, because many of the people I wrote about were illiterate or semi-literate.”

Voices from Chernobyl

by Svetlana Alexievich
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In 2004, the Paris Review ran an extract from Svetlana Alexievich’s last book to be translated into English (by Keith Gessen), Voices from Chernobyl. It’s an oral history – like all of her books – of the worst nuclear reactor accident in history. 

Philip Gourevitch, who went on to edit the magazine, is a fan:  

Alexievich builds her narratives about Russian national traumas—the Soviet-Afghan war, for instance, or the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe—by interviewing those who lived them, and immersing herself deeply in their testimonies. But her voice is much more than the sum of their voices. The first time many English readers may have encountered her was in the quarterly Granta, under the editorship of Bill Buford, where a piece called “Boys in Zinc” appeared in 1990. (An eponymous book soon followed.) The title is a reference to the zinc coffins in which the Soviet military returned its Afghan war dead to their mothers, and the piece, told from the mothers’ point of view, made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal—as real—as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision.

The extract is available in full on the Paris Review website:  

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.
—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.
—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”
The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

(…)

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