Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Brilliant Start To A Literary Career - Review of "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air" by Darragh McKeon

Darragh McKeon is destined to become a household name in the literary world.  His inaugural novel, "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air," is a stunning achievement.  It is profoundly moving and deeply insightful, using a variety of metaphors to tell the story of the dissolving of the Soviet Union and what it meant to a sampling of citizens in Kiev, Minsk, Moscow and Chernobyl.

The title of the book is derived from a quotation by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto.  The author's intentions for this story become clear, even from the additional opening epigram in which he quotes H.G. Wells: "To my mind, radioactivity is a real disease of matter.  Moreover, it is a contagious disease.  It spreads.  You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence.  It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions."

The author expands on this metaphor of the crumbling Soviet Union being a sort of radioactive isotope as he tells the stories of individuals and families impacted by the meltdown at Chernobyl.  We watch families forcibly pulled from their homes near Pripyat, we see them separated from each other and rejected in Minsk as dangerous "glow works."  We watch their deterioration from radiation poisoning. We also learn other aspects of the story through the eyes of Grigory, a surgeon who was drafted into providing emergency medical care at Chernobyl.  We feel his frustration at the myopic Party officials unwilling to listen to his warnings about the effects of radiation.  In the end, he dies as much from heartache and frustration as he does from the effects of the excessive dosage of radiation his body was subjected to as he strove to save countless lives in the contamination zone.

McKeon also weaves into the narrative an ultimately uplifting tale of a young pianist, Yevgeni.  As a nine year old, he was bullied and harassed by classmates.  A delicate finger was broken by the bullies, and he was treated by Doctor Grigory, thus tying together two strands of this epic tale.  He ultimately triumphs, wins a spot in the Conservatory and grows to become a world class concert pianist.  His story stands as another metaphor for the struggle that gifted artists have always undergone at the hands of tyrannical and oppressive regimes.  The young bullies and petty criminals they emulate stand as strikingly appropriate embodiment of the bullying aparatchiki and Party officials that served as toxic isotopes for so many years.

This book hit close to home for me. In the early 1990s, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a UN fact-finding team looking at long term effects of radiation on the health of the people around Kiev.  I saw with my own eyes the global and personal devastation.  I observed the lingering cluelessness of the government officials trying to explain away the "small problem" that occurred at Chernobyl.  I sat at the bedside of patients suffering from thyroid tumors and leukemia.

In the course of telling a very compelling set of stories, Mr. McKeon has ensured that the "half life" of the effects of Chernobyl and of the obscurantist policies of the former Soviet officials remains visible to the reading public.

One quotation midway through the narrative seems to perfectly encapsulate the author's reasons for writing this book: "Sometimes I hear these words, 'glasnost,' 'perestroika,' and they sound to me like the final breaths of an empire." (p. 255)

In reading this book, I heard the final labored breaths of an empire, but also the initial hearty exhalations of a new literary breeze sweeping the landscape.  McKeon will be with us for some time radiating truth and illuminating humanity.



No comments: