ORIGINALLY announced as Chernobyl, or The Truth About Chernobyl, the novelist Piers Paul Read's new non-fiction work is published under the name Ablaze. The title is clearly intended to ignite a connection in the book-shop browser's mind with Alive, Read's earlier journalistic bestseller, currently restored to notice by a film derived from it. But the two books are different enterprises.
Alive had a story so dramatic, unfamiliar and linear - cannibalism by the survivors of a plane crash - that only a seriously dreary writer could have made a dull book from it. The only drawbacks for the author (and Read surmounted these well) were those of taste and moral judgement. With regard to the April 1986 explosion at the fourth unit of the V I Lenin nuclear power station at Chernobyl, however, the story may appear to to be old, half-known and technically intractable. Read was further handicapped by an inability to speak either of the languages in which the events took place: Russian and physics.
Sensibly, he has made Ablaze more a book about the power industry of politics than about energy sources. He presents Chernobyl as the meltdown of Leninism in the USSR. Read's thesis is that Chernobyl at last faced the Soviet state with a secret so vast that it could not be contained by the traditional methods of distortion, deceit and repression. The physical realities of radiation sickness could not be finessed to the people of the Ukraine. And radioactive particles carried on the winds let the rest of the world in on the truth. In more ways than one, Chernobyl blew the lid off. (The book might well have heen called The Bonfire of the Promises.) Read also convincingly shows that, because environmentalism post- dated Lenin, it could be taken up by dissidents without seeming to be a counter-revolutionary activity. The Greens became the front for opposition to the Reds.
This is a long book - much of which consists of interviews with the surviving principal players - but its aftershock is from tiny images. There is an appalling story about a female worker who accidentally dropped a sanitary towel on the floor of a lavatory in the fall-out zone before putting it on. Conifers near the power station - turned brown, yellow and red by the awful false autumn of the blast - were buried in concrete coffins, unable to be burned.
Sometimes, it seems that Read is including any scrap of biographical information he could grab, in an attempt to flesh out one of the huge cast. 'After the birth of a baby, she spent much of the day with the child' is the rather so-what note on one woman. The book's one grave fault, though, is that Read's chosen conceit of Chernobyl as the suicide note of totalitarianism (and perhaps also his own rightish politics) leads him to ignore the fact that fibbing and crossing the fingers about the safety of nuclear power may not have been merely a technique of Soviet Communism. He points up one fine sizzling irony - that the Chernobyl workers were reassured that the earlier American catastrophe at Three Mile Island was a result of capitalist contempt for the human factor - but he can find no room for another one: the Stalinist secrecy of the nuclear industry in the free world.
But, in other hands, the mass of facts in Ablaze could have failed to catch fire at all. Though the new work is less animated than Alive, Read has produced a fascinating and well-organised book, a formidable combination of leg-work and head-work.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies