The Baztan Trilogy – The Invisible Guardian

​”Some parents think that making their daughters come home earlier keeps them safe from danger, when the most important thing is that they don’t come home alone.”

It’s been ages since I have picked up a book as gripping as Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian. It was mind-numbingly good, for me. Part of the Baztan Trilogy, I read all three books at breakneck speed, and with such intensity that I managed to strain my eyes and give myself a headache last night. But now that I have completed the entire lot, I can process this wonderful story in its entirety, and once am done with my ritual of jotting down my thoughts and feelings on the book/s, I can finally move on.

I first came across the film adaptation of The Invisible Guardian on Netflix. The first and second books have been adapted into film and are available online. Since there is no sign of the third film being released anytime soon, I started on the books. I had to know the fate of the characters, how the story progressed, and what evils lay within the valley.

First, I believe, it is important to understand the setting. Imagine a misty haze settling over a verdant valley with the rain pelting the earth. The Baztan River gurgles nearby making its way through the dense forest that seems to be equal parts ethereal and sinister. The many shades of green and other earthy hues instantly fill my senses. The river, also known as the Bidasoa river, cuts through the town of Elizondo in the Basque region of Navarre, in northern Spain. This picturesque town, along with the adjoining valley, is the stage for an obsessive ritualistic killer, who preys on young teenage girls.

The deeds of a serial killer spread shockwaves through the region where everyone knows everyone, at least by face. Young women on the brink of adulthood are strangled to death, their pristine pale bodies marked with a garish wound to their necks, then their clothes are cut down the middle exposing their still-childlike bodies, their pubic area shaved and a local pastry txantxigorri placed atop it. Creepy, right The txantxigorri is a local pastry made with flour, lard and sugar, and it usually is circular shape, much like a huge cookie. It feels like a weird, purification rite as if to turn these young women back to being kids, stripping them of their sexuality with the cake being a symbol of their childhood.

With the prospect of a serial killer on the loose deeply unsettling, Inspector Amaia Salazar from nearby Pamplona is sent to lead the investigation in Elizondo. Salazar, who has been trained at Quantico, heads to her hometown to face the evil, both past and present.  There she joins her aunt and her sisters, who take care of the bakery their father owned.

Salazar is a no-nonsense person, married to artist James. Along with the challenges she faces when it comes to the investigation, especially colleagues who find it difficult to recognise her authority, Salazar must also navigate her life in Elizondo, her personal issues as well as those of her family. While Salazar may come across as an all-work and no-play kind of a person, she has a softer, maternal side to her that comes out through the course of the book. Amaia yearns to be a mother, but somehow she’s unable to conceive. And even though she’s a practical and a logical person, who believes in facts and not fiction, moreso since she is an investigator, she is drawn towards the region’s folklores. She is also plagued by a dark past, most of which takes its time to be revealed to the reader. I wish I could say more, but I shall behave. As a reader, I felt like I was following her on the case as she manoeuvres her way through people from her past. I consumed every detail of the place and its mysterious vibe, soaking in the culture and its quirks.

This is not your regular, run-on-the-mill murder mystery, but a macabre tale which also involves the supernatural, the mythological, along with religion and the divinity. When I first saw the movie, the reference to a basajaun, a mythological beast akin to Big Foot that resides in the forest, seemed, to be honest, quite cheesy to me. But when I actually read the book, I realised how the Basque region of Spain has its own set of mythology and folk tales, and a rich history. The book helped me to better appreciate the folklores connected with the basajaun, and that it is more than just a furry hominid that maintains the balance and harmony of the forest. 

The story is really enmeshed in this region of Spain. It lets me live, breathe and imagine myself in this part of the world, surrounded by dense forest and mostly a cold and wet clime, giving me the feeling like I’m cut off from the world. 

One of the characters I really liked was Amaia’s aunt, Aunt Engrasi. She’s absolutely warm and inviting, someone who also has a clairvoyant element to her persona. She dwells on tarot cards and has even taught her nieces. Her home has a warm appeal to it with a golden glow, fire crackling, and the television always on giving a sense of comfort, while her friends are over in the evening often laughing over a game of cards.  

Amaia’s family bakery, Mantecadas Salazar features prominently in the story, not to mention Amaia’s memories that are entwined with it. The bakery is one of the oldest confectionery and patisserie companies in the region with generations of Salazars having run it. The eldest sister, Flora, had taken it over from their parents. The second, Rosaura too worked in the bakery. It must be a dream to have a bakery in the family, where one can walk in any time of day, breathe in the buttery aroma or snack on some pastries. But most important would be to have a life with freshly baked bread, warm to touch.

Amaia’s time in this place brings back strong memories, as well as the nightmares that she would have. Her difficult relationship with her mother is an understatement, and that is seen continuing in a way with her elder sister Flora. While watching the film, I must say I was drawn to the stronger portrayal of Flora by Elvira Mínguez than by the book. She really brought out the character well.

I absolutely loved this book. It did not disappoint me at all. It would, of course, have been better had I read the book before I saw the movie, but it did not bother me much. It’s definitely a book I think I may re-read later sometime. The entire trilogy, in fact. If you pick this up, let me know what you think of it. I’ll be able to talk about the spoilers more freely then.

Midnight in Chernobyl

Human Error Vs Human Perseverance

When in school, I was a person who believed in nuclear energy, and always thought myself to be progressive and in the right because of this choice. I wanted to be a woman of science and logic. I remember being thoroughly disillusioned when I got to know that Greenpeace, an organisation I looked up to, campaigned against nuclear energy. It was only years later when I watched the 1983 film Testament in college when the full ramifications of the sheer power and the malice of nuclear energy hit me.

See, it isn’t enough for a person to be told about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn’t enough for me at least. I know better now. John Hersey’s Hiroshima left me shaken. You can check my post on this essay here. The description, the horror etched on the pages. Absolutely terrifying.  

When HBO came out with its miniseries on Chernobyl, one of the greatest nuclear disasters in the world, I had to see it. I found it fascinating. It had me hooked. Since I couldn’t stop at that, this March, as the lockdown in India came into effect, I picked up Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster and this book has really taken me on quite a journey.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is over 100 km north of Kiev in Ukraine and some 20 km south of the border with Belarus. The complex housed four nuclear reactors of the RBMK-1000 design.

On April 26, 1986, the staff at Reactor Number Four were preparing for a safety test designed to protect it during a power blackout. With loss of power, the giant coolant pumps that circulate water, which in turn transfers heat from the reactor core to the turbines thereby producing electricity, would come to a halt. There were emergency diesel generators but it would take some time for them to kick in, and maintaining stability till they did would be crucial. The designers of the reactor had created a ‘rundown unit’ to manage during those crucial moments, but this safety feature was not tested before it was approved for use in 1983.

Director of the plant Victor Brukhanov had decided to skip the test since he wanted to meet his year-end deadlines. In 1986, this test was overdue for over two years and with the scheduled maintenance the day prior, it could finally be conducted. But due to further interruptions, the test was delayed and instead of the afternoon of April 25, it would now take place the next day. The staff that had been prepped for the test left for home, while the physicist from the plant’s nuclear safety department was told the experiment was already complete. The senior reactor control engineer Leonid Toptunov had only been on the job for two months, while Deputy Chief Engineer Dyatlov wanted the test to go on. In addition, Nikolai Fomin, the chief engineer, had not even sought approval for the test from the required authorities, while Brukhanov was not aware the test was taking place.

I will not go into the details of how the explosion happened, but it would be proper to say that a combination of human error as well as issues with the reactor design compounded the problem.

The RBMK reactor was gigantic. It was twenty times the size of Western reactors by volume and was capable of producing 3,200 MW of thermal energy or 1,000 MW of electricity. It was the largest in the world at the time. There were many design flaws, which were mostly either brushed away or buried as part of state secrets. Usually such reactors, as in the West, have a concrete dome around it as a containment building that keeps radioactive contamination from escaping. Since the Russian reactor was so large in size, such a building would have escalated the costs tremendously, and was thus done away with.

One scientist had said this reactor was hazardous and should not be put in civilian use, while another had warned the hazards of the positive void coefficient made it prone to explosion.

The positive void coefficient was a drawback that made this type of reactor susceptible to runaway chain reactions should there be a loss of coolant, and this issue was even exacerbated due to the many design changes made to cut cost. Another problem the reactor faced was due to its size. Since it was gigantic, the reactivity in one area did not have a coherent relationship with that in another. This problem was faced when the reactor was either starting-up or shutting-down, basically when it operated on low power. And the test had to be operated at low power.

When the safety test went out of control around 1.23 AM on April 26, Reactor Number Four was torn apart by a huge explosion. The force is said to be equal to 60 tn of TNT. The reactor core was destroyed completely with a mixture of the most dangerous substances spilling out into the atmosphere. Radioactive graphite fell out, causing fires. It was complete chaos. Like hell on earth. Watching the HBO miniseries brought to life such a scary moment in history. If you haven’t seen it, then please do. It’s brilliant, and lends one an opportunity to get to know more about the incident, the people involved and the USSR at large.

At least two plant workers died immediately, while another twenty-eight people died over the following weeks, some among them being paramilitary workers. Within minutes, the entire government machinery was awoken and various departments geared up into a fire-fighting mode. What followed later was a humongous effort by the USSR to understand, contain and tackle the situation. The amount of funds that were pooled in, the massive evacuation exercises carried out, and the decontamination methods adopted while scientists and engineers worked round the clock to safely neutralise the chain reaction they thought was still going on.

The kind of manpower or ‘bio-robots’ called to action was staggering as there were places where machines failed to work. Either the machines couldn’t work in such high radiation zones or they couldn’t manoeuvre the terrain littered with radioactive materials. Men after men were employed to push the boundaries of human potential. The resilience the men must have displayed while risking their very lives to do their jobs in such an unsafe environment is unfathomable.

While there may not be conclusive evidence of the far-reaching effects of the radiation on the people of Pripyat, who were evacuated to nearby villages and later resettled, “all but the most extreme cases were dismissed with the same diagnosis given to Maria Protsenko: “Ordinary illness: not related to ionizing radiation”.

Maria was the chief architect of the city of Pripyat. I was most drawn to her personality when reading the book. She oversaw the execution of Pripyat’s new construction projects. She had been barred from the Party membership because she was born in China to Sino-Russian parents. She was later allowed to apply for Party membership in recognition for all that she had done during the months after the incident. Among her many duties, she had drawn maps of the city to give to the authorities for their tasks in clean-up and evacuation among others, and she did them diligently by hand for everyone who came asking. She did not have a photocopier to use since they could be used by spies, and so access to such machines in the USSR was controlled tightly by the KGB. Imagine that.

My initial impression of the book made me feel like I was re-watching the mini-series in my head. Of course, since they are based on the same event, the narrative will overlap. I only mean to emphasise on Adam’s pace of writing, which gave it quite the flair of a thriller. It may come across as heavy reading, but it did not feel dense at any given moment. Not once did I get bored or felt listless, not even while reading the portions dedicated to explaining the technical aspects of the nuclear plant. Adam explains everything so well that I just moved from page to page seamlessly. Not only did he effortlessly explain the incident, the site and the people involved, but he also explained the political environment at the time, which is equally important to understand. He broke down the functioning of the Soviet Union as well as the Party and this takes immense effort.

The only drawback I faced was the format. I read it on the Kindle, and going back and forth was such a task. This is the kind of book where one would probably flip pages back and forth, especially since there are numerous notes and charts and pictures. I’ve realised, the Kindle is best for light reading where I can simply chug on in one direction. I think Midnight in Chernobyl should count as one of those must-read books. I don’t exactly know how objective the book is or if the people involved have been portrayed in the right light, but it definitely offers a comprehensive account of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, and deserves to be read.

The town of Pripyat, established to house the workers and all those related to the nuclear plant, was known to be really beautiful, like an idyllic town. Now, it is a ghost town, lying in ruins. The authorities did not want to evacuate the town at first, but later they did when they couldn’t ignore the mounting evidence of radiation. Seen here is the “Peace, Science and Exploration” Mural, Pripyat Post Office – Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine. Photo by Mick De Paola on Unsplash

The header picture is by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

ZOSTEL Jodhpur – A perfect spot to unwind

The Blue City of Jodhpur will forever be the quirkiest of trips I have ever taken. I am a person who is often plagued by travel anxiety, sometimes even when I don’t have any trips planned. And for me, the ‘Reluctant Traveller’, the two-day trip in Jodhpur was quite unique. To begin with, our stay was at The Arch Boutique Home Stay set in the heart of the old city, under the shadow of Mehrangarh Fort. This place was in itself a very unique experience. But we’ll come to that later. Today, I want to talk about our impromptu dinner at Zostel Jodhpur, which was a hop, skip and jump away from our hotel.

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YESTERDAY, once more

The spate of bad news just doesn’t seem like it’ll end. It’s one thing right after the other. Yesterday, noted actor Irrfan Khan passed away from cancer and today morning, another Bollywood behemoth Rishi Kapoor also succumbed to cancer. People all over the world are remembering them, their contributions to cinema and can’t help feeling how this year is just going from bad to worse.

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The Changing Face of X’MAS

Christmas. Who doesn’t like Christmas? The weather is cold and woollens are out. The house is abuzz with excitement as the days prior go in extensive cleaning. Curtains are changed. The good heavy ones come out. Even the bedsheets and cushion covers undergo a makeover. In school, the Catholic girls have special practice for Advent Mass. We were made to go for choir practice or for nativity play practice. It was great fun. This was something we enjoyed, especially having some time off from classes.

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