On a beautiful spring day in 1986, an East German writer putters around her garden and house while waiting for a call from the hospital where her brother is undergoing brain surgery. At the same time, news and concerns about the Chernobyl nuclear accident constantly intrude on her thoughts.
Written in the form of a monologue and a rather short one at that, there are still a myriad of topics that are at least touched on, from the traps of technology, humanity’s relationship with science, the impact of historic events, the changing nature of language, and, of course, life and death. There are several very good parts, for instance one in which the protagonist ponders the irony of having been afraid of annihilation by nuclear weapons since the beginning of the Cold War, only to almost fall victim to the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy.
One of my favourites was a passage in which she realizes how everyone suddenly talks like a scientist, using words like becquerel, caesium, or radioactive half-life, while simultaneously lacking reliable information on how to deal with the dangers of the situation; unsurprisingly, this mirrors the current situation exactly. Also very impressive is the part in which she reflects on her own childhood during and after WWII which threw a shadow over her whole generation, and how every generation probably has its own shadow that changes something fundamental for and in its members. Chernobyl was not on the scale of a world war, but it was a caesura in history, just as the coronavirus is shaping up to be; we just don’t know yet what will happen afterwards.
On the downside, this is a book that is kind of hard to get into but nonetheless requires readers to settle in quickly in order to get the most out of it. It is rambling and twisting, jumping from one topic to another in often quick succession, and sometimes losing its train of thought. This makes the book immensely realistic because this is just how the mind works, but the realism is working against its readability. My own thoughts started to wander while reading this, and I sometimes found it really hard to pay attention. Still, despite being a little unwieldy, it is very astute in its observations and offers a lot of food for thought.