Nineteen years after the event, and the word 'Chernobyl' still carries a lot of baggage--but then, we're still 25,000 years away from being clean. The meltdown at Reactor 4 of the Soviet nuclear power station was caused by an unnecessary low-power test, an experiment to determine whether the reactor could restart itself with all external power shut off. The result was a black fireball that blew the reactor's roof off and spread radiation across much of the Northern Hemisphere. Equally toxic was the Soviet government's initial response: a three-day silence as to the dangers of the situation. Protective foam was sprayed around the nearby towns--Chernobyl and Pripyat, whose combined population was 135,000--but otherwise, life proceeded as normal. Children played in the foam, marched in the May Day parade and breathed in the contaminated air. While the official death toll remains at 41, who knows how many fatalities resulted from the delay in evacuating these towns?
So, mention Chernobyl, and the image that springs to mind is of a frightening grey radioactive wasteland. With a little more effort, you can probably summon up the local wildlife: bony, mutant remnants, dragging themselves across smoking slagheaps. It's something of a surprise, then, when an ecologist in Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith's latest novel, says: "The Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion is the best wild-animal refuge in Europe because the towns and villages have been abandoned ... Normal human activity is worse for nature than the greatest nuclear accident in history." And while one of Smith's strengths as a novelist is allowing his characters to reflect the different viewpoints he's gathered in his travels, his own experience bears this out: "It certainly is a beautiful land, an old land ... it's soft. A beautiful place. I didn't see any wolves, but wolves abound. I did see the largest deer I've ever encountered. The thing is, they're just getting to their real size."
Bill Smith--Martin Cruz Smith is his pen name--is slight, dark-haired, with bright, alert eyes and slow, considered speech rhythms. His conversation betrays a lively curiosity about the world in general; no surprise, then, that his novels roam through space and time, visiting the beginnings of the nuclear age at Los Alamos (Stallion Gate), the dangerous lives of mining girls in 18th-century Wigan (Rose) and the events leading up to Pearl Harbour (Tokyo Station). But Smith is most famous for the novels that feature Arkady Renko, the intense and very human Russian cop who first appeared in 1981 in Gorky Park, and whose subsequent career has been lived out against the backdrop of a changing Russia. "He's a good instrument," says Smith. "I work better when I'm working with him."
But Smith explains that Renko wasn't meant to exist at all. His original plan had featured a US detective in Moscow ("He would show the Russians how to solve crimes. Because that's what we did."). But a 15-day Intourist trip in 1973--five days apiece in Kiev, Leningrad and Moscow--had a lasting impact on the author, particularly the visit to the capital. "My impression was of the greyness of the city," he says, "and how it was designed to make you feel small. A very intimidating city, oppressive. What also impressed me was that it was an inhuman place, but that the people were not, in spite of that, inhuman." At the height of the Cold War, the impression Smith carried away from Moscow was of a society in slow-motion collapse, one that presented no danger to any country other than itself.
This, then, was the context in which Arkady Renko came into being, a way, Smith thought, of breaking through what he calls "the Soviet crust". And if it now seems strange that a straightforward notion--of presenting a human face to a system that we were usually told didn't have one--could seem so revolutionary, it's salutary to learn that Smith's new direction wasn't welcomed on this side of the curtain, either. …