It is three years since the nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine, and already, for most of us, it has gone from a universal portent to an affair conveniently left to worry specialists. Our memory's half-life is so much shorter than strontium's.
Christa Wolf, one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary German literature, forbids us to forget. That is all very well; the half-life of forbidding is the shortest of all. Except that Wolf is a great artist, and her brief and shining "Accident" shifts her voice into our throats. It will be we who forbid.
"Accident: A Day's News" is, in form, precisely that. The day is a bright day in April, 1986; the place is a village in the Mecklenburg countryside in East Germany, 1,000 miles from the site where the accident has just occurred. The narrator is a writer who is Wolf's alter ego, if not her very self.
The writer moves in and out of her kitchen, weeds her garden, does errands in the village, bicycles in the woods. Each move and moment is precious and suspect. News reports describe the radioactive cloud moving west. The airwaves are clouded by argument and advice about milk, vegetables and children playing outdoors.
Everything--the orange coffee maker, the white Leghorns pecking up the garden seeds, the texture of black Mecklenburg bread, a line recalled from Schubert ("In a clear brooklet . . . a wayward trout")--is linked by sudden mortality. Endings, or their prospect, bind the miscellany of life into a dying coherence.
And a second mortality looms in the writer's day. Her brother is undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. The telephone holds the question: Will he live?; just as the radio holds the question: Will we live?
When the Archangel Gabriel blows the last trump to announce the end of the world, it will be very beautiful; he has had all of time to practice. The events and reflections in "Accident" are sounds of Gabriel keeping his lip supple; muted, terrible and golden. To get a notion of Wolf's journal of that April day, it is necessary to imagine its beauty and tenderness along with its desolation.
"Accident" is an inventory of life, of the cherished dailiness of the mind, body and spirit, and of the lethal absurdity the drifting Chernobyl cloud lays upon all of it.
There is the spring day, for example. The sky is radiant, but "radiant" now has another meaning. The cherry trees are in full bloom; a year before, the writer would have spoken of the blossoms "exploding"; but no more. At the end of the long, tense day, the sunset is splendid, but is this an extra redness, and what does it mean?
She thinks of eating an egg, and the whole sense of an egg is stood upon its head. Of course, these eggs were formed before the fallout. What is required now, in this askew dispensation, is "eggs guaranteed fresh. But not too fresh. Definitely not yesterday fresh."
There is lopsided humor here. Humor and love are the wings that allow Wolf's terrible rage to soar above our horizon. She thinks of nuclear meltdown, the "China Syndrome"; and tenderly she thinks of a childhood game with her cherished, ill brother.
They had filled a bottle with hydrochloric acid and buried it in the sand. Surely the acid would eat away the bottle and somehow--children are always a little off in such things--acid and bottle together would burn through the earth to China. A note was enclosed, in case: "Brothers and sisters, please acknowledge."
Childhood to "China Syndrome." Innocence, love, the daily things that one attach us to the earth, to our past, to our imagination and to each other; all these are endangered. The child's prank is linked to the end of the world.
So are the utopian efforts of scientists to create clean, cheap power. And so is the writer in her garden, stripping nettles from the ground. A worthy pursuit; you get a better lawn, and ease the tension. Yet, she has read, five different species of butterflies depend upon nettles for their survival.
It is playful; playfulness draws us in. Wolf's delicacy and freshness in describing a garden, a friend, a slice of bread, a memory, allow us to feel the full outrage of what threatens them. She has become Cassandra--she is the author of an extraordinary book of that name--but her prophecy is not a shriek we hear. It is a dance we join.
And her larger themes emerge with entire naturalness. As she pulls the nettles, she thinks of the surgeon rooting up her brother's tumor. She urges the billions of healthy cells in his brain to resist; she will make her thoughts a second lifeline giving them something to grab.
There is pure grief. "It is one in the afternoon, brother; what are they doing to you?" she demands. She walks 500 paces from the post office back home. In that time, she wonders: "What distance did you cover and in what region?"