Accident Analysis

Accident (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

On April 26, 1986, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union exploded, blowing hot graphite and reactor fuel fragments through the roof of the containment building; the reactor core continued to burn for days. A cloud of radioactive debris containing iodine 131 and cesium contaminated the air, vegetation, soil, water, and living population—both animal and human—throughout Europe. The Soviet authorities did not immediately release information about the nuclear disaster to the rest of the world. It was only after scientists in Scandinavia measured unprecedented radiation levels in the atmosphere that the Soviets revealed the news of the accident and opened the site to world press coverage and scientific investigation. This two-day hesitation in revealing the accident exposed most of an unwarned Europe to dangerous levels of radiation.

Christa Wolf’s novel Accident: A Day’s News, written from June through September of 1986, is a meditation on the immediate and long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. On a larger scale, however, it probes the effects of man’s seemingly insatiable desire to create technology that can control nature. The novel takes place on the day that Europe learned of the “unforeseen accident”: It is a beautiful spring day with all the usual promises of new life and growth. The cherry trees are in blossom. It is a day during which the narrator, unnamed throughout the novel, otherwise would have been preoccupied with the brain surgery that her brother is undergoing. Indeed, she is preoccupied with his surgery. Her concern with her brother’s fate on this day is, however, interwoven with the news of the Chernobyl explosion and the resulting radiation.

Wolf plays with the narrative stance; the novel takes place during a single day, but the stream-of-consciousness narrative unobtrusively shifts from dramatic monologue to dialogue to memoir. The narrator records her thoughts and conversations as they occur but is also privy to later knowledge both about the effects of the Chernobyl explosion and about the outcome of her brother’s operation.

Although the narrator is mostly home alone, she has the instruments of instant communication. Her transistor radio transmits the warnings about the invisible cloud of radiation hovering above her head; the television shows pictures of the accident site and allows experts to voice their opinions about its causes and effects; the telephone puts her into immediate contact with the progress of her brother’s operation and allows her to chat with her daughters and a friend about the day’s news. She also receives a letter from a frail and aged friend, the writer Charlotte Wolff. The narrator, in identifying Wolff as sharing her name, makes the autobiographical connection implicit in this novel, as it is in such earlier Wolf novels as Kindheitsmuster (1976; Patterns of Childhood, 1984) and Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970). Chance encounters as she gardens, shops, and bicycles afford her conversations with neighbors, conversations in which the news of the disaster invariably arises. It is in the mental dialogue with her brother, however, that the narrator confronts existence in a world whose technology provides the tools and skills for delicate brain surgery even as it threatens the survival of life on earth.

Images of nature poisoned and perverted are of immediate concern. The language for describing nature has suddenly become ironic and fraught with paradox. The narrator finds it impossible to contemplate that the cherry trees have “exploded” into bloom. “The radiant sky,” she thinks. “Now one can’t think that anymore, either.” It is a cloudless day, one of the most beautiful of the year. She looks at the “immaculate blue sky, this incarnation of purity, where the uneasy glances of millions are meeting” as they search for traces of the radiation cloud. Lines of poetry from Friedrich Schiller, Bertolt Brecht, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which exult in nature echo in the narrator’s consciousness: “Perhaps the problem of what to do with the libraries full of nature poems is not the most urgent. But it is...

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Accident Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, April 15, 1989, p. 102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 4, 1989, p. 3.

The Nation. CCXLIX, July 3, 1989, p. 28.

The New York Times. April 12, 1989, p. B2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, April 23, 1989, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, March 3, 1989, p. 84.