In April 1986, an accident occurred at a nuclear powerplant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, at the
time part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government long denied that there had been an accident, and even
when they admitted it, they gave very little helpful information. As radioactivity
spread across northern and central Europe, other governments were criticized for their information
policies as well.
In his novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the British author Julian Barnes
writes about a character's reaction to the accident.
She watched the television a lot after the first big accident. It wasn't a serious accident,
they said, not really, not like a bomb going off . And anyway it was a long way away, in
Russia, and they didn't have proper modern power stations over there like we do, and
even if they did their safety standards were obviously much lower so it couldn't happen
here and there wasn't anything to worry about, was there? It might even teach the
Russians a lesson, people said. Make them think twice about dropping the big one.
In a strange way people were excited by it. Something bigger than the latest
unemployment figures or the price of a stamp. Besides, most of the nasty things were
happening to other people. There was a cloud of poison, and everyone tracked its course
like they'd follow the drift of quite an interesting area of low pressure on the weather
map. For a while people stopped buying milk, and asked the butcher where the meat
came from. But soon they stopped worrying, and forgot about it all.
At first the plan had been to bury the reindeer six feet down. lt wasn't much of a news story, just an inch
or two on the foreign page. The cloud had gone over where the reindeer grazed, poison had come down in the
rain, the lichen became radioactive, the reindeer had eaten the lichen and got radioactive themselves. What
did I tell you, she thought, everything is connected.
People couldn't understand why she got so upset. They said she shouldn't be sentimental, and after all it
wasn't as if she had to live off reindeer meat, and if she had some spare sympathy going shouldn't she save
it for human beings? She tried to explain, but she wasn't very good at explaining and they didn't understand.
The ones who thought they understood said, Yes, we see, it's all about your childhood and the silly romantic
ideas you had when you were a kid, but you can't go on having silly romantic ideas all your life, you've got
to grow up in the end, you've got to be realistic, please don't cry, no maybe that's a good idea, here, have
a good cry, it'll probably be good for you in the long run. No, it's not like that, she said, it's not like
that at all. Then cartoonists started making jokes, about how the reindeer were so gleaming with radioactivity
that Father Christmas didn't need headlights on his sleigh, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny
nose because he came from Chernobyl; but she didn't think it was funny.
Listen, she'd tell people. The way they measure the level of radioactivity is in something called becquerels.
When the accident happened the Norwegian government had to decide what amount of radiation in meat was safe,
and they came up with a figure of 600 becquerels. But people didn't like the idea of their meat being poisoned,
and the Norwegian butchers didn't do such good business, and the one sort of meat no-one
would buy was reindeer, which was hardly surprising. So this is what the government did. They said that as
people obviously weren't going to eat reindeer very often because they were so scared, then it would be just
as safe for them to eat meat that was more contaminated every once in a while as to eat less contaminated meat
more often. So they raised the permitted limit for reindeer meat to 6,000 becquerels. Hey presto! One day it's
harmful to eat meat with 600 becquerels in it, the next day it's safe with ten times that amount. This only
applied to reindeer, of course. At the same time it's still officially dangerous to eat a pork chop or scrag
end of lamb with 601 becquerels in it.
One of the TV programmes showed a couple of Lapp farmers bringing a reindeer corpse in for inspection.
This was just alter the limit had been raised ten times. The official from
the Department of whatever it was, Agriculture or something, chopped up the little bits of reindeer innards
and did the usual test on them. The reading came out at 42,000 becquerels. 42 thousand.
At first the plan was to bury them, six feet down. Still, there's nothing like a good disaster to get people
thinking clever thoughts. Bury the reindeer? No, that makes it look
as if there's been a problem, like something's actually gone wrong. There must be a more useful way of
disposing of them. You couldn't feed the meat to humans, so why not feed it to animals? That's a good idea -
but which animals? Obviously not the sort which end up getting eaten by humans, we've got to protect number
one. So they decided to feed it to the mink. What a clever idea. Mink aren't supposed to be very nice, and
anyway the sort of people who can afford mink coats probably don't mind a little dose of radioactivity on top
of it. Like a dash of scent behind the ears or something. Rather chic, really.
Most people had stopped paying attention to what she was telling them by now, but she always carried on.
Listen, she said, so instead of burying the reindeer they're now
painting a big blue stripe down the carcasses and feeding them to mink. I think they should have buried them.
Burying things gives you a proper sense of shame. Look what we've done to the reindeer, they'd say as they
dug the pit. Or they might, at least. They might think about it. Why are we always punishing animals? We
pretend we like them, we keep them as pets and get soppy if we think they're reacting like us, but we've
been punishing animals from the beginning, haven't we? Killing them and torturing them
and throwing our guilt on to them?
1013 words (without introduction)
Source: Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
1. Describe the changes in the general public's attitudes to the Chernobyl incident as shown in the text.
2. How does the woman in the story differ from most other people?
3. Explain in your own words the "logic" behind the Norwegian government's decision to raise the permitted
level of radioactivity in reindeer meat.
4. Look again at the information given in the sentences in which the narrator is speaking. Does the
narrator know more than the woman or the other People in the text? What point of view (cf. pp. 11 and 22)
does the author employ?
5. Imagine what it was like to live downwind of Chernobyl after the accident there. Think about the kinds
of precautions people had to take after the radioactive rainfall: What foods could they eat, which did they
have to avoid? How could they prevent the radioactive particles from entering their apartments? Then write
an official government warning telling people what to do and what not to do.