“A little over-reaching” – Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh

IMG_2022-2-23-154156I came to this book expecting a mash-up of Cal Flynn’s Islands of Abandonment and Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass – but what I found was more Riot Days by way of Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity. What do we mean by that? Let’s unpack.

Stalking the Atomic City is the first UK publication of a book that has been in existence in one form or another since about 2015. Kamysh is himself a stalker, a person who likes to spend time in the Chernobyl Alienation Zone. He goes there alone. He goes there with friends. He takes the occasional tourist. He bumps into looters there. He is largely unafraid of the consequences of spending time in an irradiated area.

Hence our initial first impression – we thought we’d get a more intimate glimpse of life in Chernobyl post explosion (a la Islands of Abandonment) offset by that outlaw sense of a person being where they are not allowed to be (a la The Book of Trespass). But, in a lot of ways, Chernobyl is a backdrop to the character of Kamysh – the outlaw spirit (and the breathless, slightly purple, slightly random way in which the book is written, a la You Shall Know Our Velocity) tips the scales.

“Winter in the Zone is a charming season, when the heart beats of illegal tourists beat faster. There are magical moments woven from snow, wolves’ howls, and soaked feet. Winter heats us up and makes us dizzy. We know how stupid our escapades are…”

And:

“The sun bestowed happiness upon me, and in the middle of this forsaken land, amid depression, syringes, and hundreds of layers of dust, amid the looted hearts of all things abandoned, this church in Krasno stood like an oasis…”

And:

“I will gaze at the flames of the sunset and count the stars slowly coming through the soft violets of the night sky. I will stare at the solitary bewitching water towers and the skeletons of collective farms and villages…”

When you acclimatise to the slightly elevated language, there are definitely moments where you think, ok, I get the draw of being somewhere so dangerous:

“The illegal tourists are not concerned about their own future or whatever might happen to the Zone tomorrow. We’re obsessed with the moment that’s fading away forever – year in and year out…”

When Kamysh says “I’ll fill up my bottles … and guzzle this metal-flavoured liquid without worrying about the harm it can do,” you can’t help but feel, as a reader, grateful, that someone is mad enough, and out there enough, to do the things that you yourself will never do.

It’s also worth saying that given the events of this year, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there might be an interesting follow-up with Kamysh doing what he does against a backdrop of an irradiated warzone…

Any Cop?: It’s flawed and a little over-reaching (like Chuck Palahniuk doing a Patti Smith impression) but for all that it’s not without interest.

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