Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Icon of Communism Is Melting

I just finished reading Darragh McKeon's book, "All That Is Solid Melts into Air".  Even though I can't pronounce his first name, I enjoyed the place where his book took me.  It's part dystopian novel, part historical fiction, part poetry. Simultaneously beautiful and yet disturbing.  Like when I dance.  Only beautiful. 

It was set in the late 80s as the former Soviet Union was unraveling. (This was an important time for me because it was my high school and college years.) It is the story of everyday people who live their lives of fear while things inexplicably fall apart around them. 

I was intrigued by this novel because the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, just a few weeks before I graduated from high school. As I was preparing to start college as a physics major, the news was telling frightening stories of physics-gone-bad.  But honestly, this wasn't too shocking at the time.  As far back as the third grade, I can remember having disaster drills at my elementary school that included preparing for nuclear strikes.  The hallways at our school had signs in the hall that said "Fallout Shelter".  In retrospect, this seems an outrageous and fear-spawning thing to do to elementary school children.  But it was the Cold War. It was part life.  For example, as a young child I knew the names "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" were given to the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  I knew what ICBM stood for.  (That's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.) This was how life was at the time.

The book's prose is often beautiful and filled with delightful details such as thoughtful observations of the shadows of a bridge over a frozen river or the motes of dust in a film projector's cone of light. The title is a quotation from Marx's Communist Manifesto; but ironically, this time it is the icon of communism that is melting.

Chernobyl is an apt symbol of the former Soviet Union: a meltdown was considered as inconceivable as its collapse, and yet both vaporized, leaving behind toxic clouds for Marx's masses to ingest like poison opiates. In the chapter on the accident itself, they find the section titled "Operational Procedures in the Event of a Reactor Meltdown" has actually been redacted from the nuclear plant's operations manual. "An event such as this cannot be tolerated, cannot be conceived, such a thing can never be planned for, surely as it can never happen. The system will not fail, the system cannot fail, the system is the glorious motherland."

And a few years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, a happier symbol of the collapse of the USSR, I was graduating from college. In the preceding years I had largely been to busy or too self absorbed to understand glasnost or perestroika, but I remember when a 19 year old West German flew a small plane all the way into Red Square.  I remember when the USSR shot down a Korean airliner that strayed into its airspace.  All these details were brought back to me in a way that made me reflect on just how significant those times were.

What will the world be like 30 years from now?  Will Putin reestablish the motherland? Will nuclear power be made safe, or clean, or banned altogether? Will my grandchildren look back on the United States as I do the USSR?  I suppose we can only dance on, dear readers, each in our own beautifully disturbing way.

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