Centrala have put out some excellent work over the last couple of years but Chernobyl – The Zone is undoubtedly the most accomplished book in their catalogue to date.
On April 26, 1986 an unprecedented nuclear disaster struck at the Chernobyl power plant with an environmental impact that will be felt for centuries to come. The resulting devastating effect on the residents of the nearby city of Pripyat and the surrounding locale was inconceivable. In Chernobyl – The Zone – a quietly powerful 148-page graphic novel – Francisco Sánchez and Natacha Bustos explore the consequences of that fateful day from the perspectives of three generations of the same family.
Essentially Chernobyl – The Zone is a story in three acts: a trio of narrative segments presented to us in a non-linear fashion that give the reader the opportunity to slowly piece together the interlocking relationships between the protagonists of each individual section. It’s a clever storytelling device that ensures the audience becomes all the more invested in the cast as a result.
The book begins some time after the catastrophe with the elderly couple Leonid and Galia returning to their small farm after being evacuated from it some time before. It’s here that Sánchez and Bustos delicately remind us of the smaller human stories at the heart of this tragedy: of ways of life lost forever, of families ripped apart and of two elderly people who essentially make the decision to return to the only home they have ever known to die.
The middle part moves us back to the period preceding the disaster, focusing on a small family in Pripyat – the worker town close to the power plant – whose existences are fundamentally changed by the event. Here we meet Vladimir, who works at Chernobyl, his pregnant wife Anna (the daughter of Leonid and Galia) and their young son Yuri. We witness the small joys that make up their lives, the very human trivialities and routines of their lives, and the simple, unremarkable hopes they have for their futures. All set to be cruelly taken from them in the coming days…
The finale takes us some years into the future as a return to the desolate ghost town and surrounding areas gives both a sense of closure but also a stark reminder of what could and should have been for just this one small familial group scarred forever by the Chernobyl accident.
By taking us straight into the aftermath of Chernobyl through the eyes of two older residents Sánchez immediately hits us with the reality of what happened in 1986. How a lifetime was embodied in the minutiae of their day-to-day patterns and how the echoes of a securer past are still intruding on a far more uncertain present. Undue exposition is unnecessary here and the ramifications on people, place and wildlife are presented with a subtle but heartbreaking honesty.
Throughout, the abandoned architecture of Pripyat – so effectively contrasted with the teeming life of the city before the incident – sits in passive but unyielding judgment. A monument to our arrogance in regards to the environment we live within and almost a silent character in its own right.
Natacha Bustos’s visuals have a detailed clarity that adds a profound sense of humanity to the stories within these pages. A delicate but confident line that is as assured in depicting the stark realism of the characters’ ordeals as it is in portraying melting, terrifying dream sequences. There’s a rhythm to the pacing of the pages in that early section that invites us to directly experience the unspoken pain of Leonid and Galia as they return to a homestead that has been irrevocably blighted.
Thematically cyclical, Chernobyl – The Zone is all the more affecting for its dedicated exploration of the effects of April 1986 on just a small group of those living in the area at the time. The drama and our empathy are increased significantly by our foreknowledge and the cleverly structured narrative timeframe. Centrala have put out some excellent work over the last couple of years, much of which may have flown under the radars of many readers, but Chernobyl – The Zone is undoubtedly the most accomplished book in their catalogue to date.
Francisco Sánchez (W), Natacha Bustos (A) • Centrala, £14.00