If there’s an aspect I’d like this newborn blog to talk about besides travels themselves, this would be travel literature, or literature at large, as long as it describes a particular place and those who live it.
This is definitely the case with “Would you stay?”, from journalist and photographer Michael Forster Rothbart. It’s available on the TED books app for less than £2.00 and, believe me, if prices actually were an indication of a good’s quality, they’d be selling at 10 times that.
Forster Rothbart’s work is about two very well known places, which featured in countless reportages, films, books and even videogames (hell, Kraftwerk even tweaked one of their songs to accommodate them both): Chernobyl and Fukushima.
What really makes Forster Rothbart’s dispatch from the two Exclusion Zones stand out is his focus. He hasn’t ventured in for a brief photo tour, filled a couple of pages of third-hand records from the early days of the crisis and, perhaps, went in hospitals and asylums looking for the gore of a nuclear legacy.
Instead what he did, especially for Chernobyl, was to go and live with those who, albeit displaced, didn’t flee. I knew about the lost city of Pripyat, but I had no idea that places like Slavutych, where the power station’s workers (yes, there still are many) live and commute from. Forster Rothbart went on and lived with them, going to the extreme of renting a room in a village at the outskirts of the exclusion zone, narrating the impact that the tragedies had on the local communities, their sense of longing for a place that is no longer accessible and never will.
The majority of the book is dedicated to Chernobyl, where the author had the advantage of knowing the language, something that allowed him to get closer to the locals. The Japanese chapters, if a critic is to be made, are perhaps less rounded, less refined and detailed. This is perhaps due to the language barrier, cultural factors and perhaps due to secrecy, for little is known about Tepco’s management of the Fukushima-Daichi plant, even nowadays.
I bought this e-book on my iPad a few days ago as I didn’t have space in my bag in which to fit the big paperback I was reading. We took off from London and I opened it up, not really knowing what to expect. It was so good that I read it twice.
What I particularly enjoyed was, indeed, this focus on the people. I have since long been fascinated by Chernobyl, but never I read about its people, about those living in the outskirts. The city gets evacuated, it becomes a deserted place, and that’s it. I’ve never spent a moment pondering on those who remained, on those who decided to return or on those who would like to return. “Would you stay?” Gives them names, faces, tells their stories.
Lastly, a word about the photos and the rest of the multimedia content of this book. “Would you stay?” is abundant in photos, videos and audio. We can hear songs, watch the eerie spectacle of the laundry left to dry in a home in Fukushima province and abandoned there but, more importantly, we can look at pictures. They have rich, Caravaggio-like tones, strong lights and dark shadows; all of them show us that, despite the dangers and all the odds, life in these forgotten lands still goes on.
Photos taken from “Would you stay?”, Michael Forster Rothbart, available at https://www.ted.com/read/ted-books/ted-books-library.