East German novelist-memorist Wolf (Cassandra, No Place on Earth) presents a short, trenchant meditation, as much essay as fiction, on mortality--here, centered on the Chernobyl nuclear accident and on a brother's brain surgery. As the brother undergoes his surgery, news of Chernobyl filters to the narrator--the story goes on, then, to juxtapose news and analysis of both of these events with her daily affairs. In her garden, far from the hospital, she imagines her brother's condition moment-by-moment--the peeling back of the skull, the length of the operation--and also thinks about reactor cores, the China syndrome, and, especially, of the way radioactivity spreads to her garden, irradiating food. A friend calls, zucchini sprouts, a Red Cross ambulance appears ominously in her village. She both describes her state of mind and enters into a kind of dialogue with her brother, also concerned about the ""peaceful utilization of nuclear energy."" ""I was reminded of certain documents where the true, the secret writing appears only after chemical treatment, whereby the original, deliberately irrelevant text is revealed to be a pretext."" Hence, the meditation turns to the nature of writing: ""We cannot write the same way our brains work."" It also manages to touch upon the theory of the ""three brains,"" Star Wars, Darwinism, fairy tales, Hiroshima, religion and rebirth, language (""the gifts of false gods""), and that old standby, Heart of Darkness, before coming round to its jolting finish: ""How difficult it would be, brother, to take leave of this earth."" Wolf pulls it off: somehow, all of the day's news becomes grist for this moving meditation on man's place in a technological universe--where the intricacy of the brain can cure cancer or destroy humankind.