“For several years past, Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, had been aware of his niece Yasuko as a weight on his mind.” This is because nobody is willing to marry Yasuko, and nobody is willing to marry her because of the persistent rumour that she was in Hiroshima when the Bomb fell on the 6th of August, 1945.
So begins the story of Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and their niece and ward Yasuko. In a bid to prove that Yasuko is “clean” and can’t have been affected by the radiation sickness that has carried away so many of the survivors, Shigematsu sits down to write his recollections of the last days of the war, from the moment when the bomb fell on Hiroshima to the moment when Japan surrendered, nine days later.
Before I go further, let me state a few things:
First, I view the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a complete and despicable war crime. I view it as such because – like using Agent Orange in Vietnam or depleted uranium today everywhere from Kosovo to Libya – the effects extend to future generations, meaning people who are not only not guilty of any part in the conflict, but weren’t even born when it took place. No amount of self-justification can excuse that.
Secondly, I view nuclear weapons as the closest thing we have to an absolute evil, because it gives its possessors the choice to wipe out virtually all life on earth in defence of a political or economic ideology; a way of wiping out everything in some kind of universal Gotterdammerung. Just as you wouldn’t let a petulant child get its hands on a firearm, you wouldn’t want a nation – any nation – to have the means to blow everything away in a fit of temper. Don’t think it can’t happen – it very nearly has.
Third, and I should confess it clearly, I was once a supporter of the nuclear bomb; in 1998 I celebrated the Indian nuclear tests. (I should also mention that back then I was a conditional supporter of the death penalty, but obviously my views between then and now have undergone a seismic change.) I now believe that nuclear “deterrents” deter absolutely nothing, and instead promote risk-taking and certifiably insane behaviour.
Fourth, I’m not a neophyte when it comes to the effects of nuclear weapons. I’ve read Jonathan Schell’s The Fate Of The Earth. I’ve written an article on the Bomb which became the cover story of a print magazine (Eastern Panorama) in 2003. I know a lot about nuclear weapons – much more than I want to.
Accordingly, I’m not an unbiased reviewer of this book. Please understand that everything I say about it will be from the viewpoint of my anti-nuclear beliefs.
The difficulty about reviewing a book like this is, basically, that you can’t really have surprises. There’s no such thing as a spoiler, because you already know what happened and, by extension, what’s going to happen. When the ball of fire flashes across Hiroshima’s skies, it affects everyone – textile worker Shigematsu, housewife Shigeko, messenger Yasuko, doctor and reluctant conscript Iwatake, not one person escapes the effects. Physically or mentally, everyone is scarred, and nothing can ever be the same again.
On the morning of 6 August 1945, then, Shigematsu was going to work when the fireball erupted over Hiroshima. Blinded temporarily, burned on the cheek, he stumbled through the ruins, passing crowds of desperately wounded survivors, fleeing fire and collapsed buildings, until he found his wife at a park near their home. Yasuko, who had actually been in the process of being evacuated from Hiroshima, joined them just in time to escape the firestorm ravaging the city. There's a wonderful description of the mushroom cloud from the survivor's point of view:
The head of the mushroom would billow out first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever changing shades of red, purple, lapis-lazuli, or green. And all the time it went on boiling unceasingly from within. Its stalk, like a twisted veil of fine cloth, went on swelling busily too. The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce.
I’ll spare you the description of the devastation and ruins, the hardship everyone went through; there’s little to be gained in going over all that. I will however point out that their suffering was increased by two factors: first, that Japan was already on the verge of defeat, and people had almost nothing to eat (Shigeko writes a few affecting pages of her struggle to provide food for her family); and, secondly, that the few doctors who managed to survive the bombing had no idea what this new weapon was, and no knowledge of how to treat the survivors and their bizarre symptoms, which included hair and tooth loss, diarrhoea, multiple organ failure and other lovely little symptoms of acute radiation poisoning. The survivors died like flies and continued dying long after the war was over.
As the three protagonists struggle through their lives in one time (1945) they are also struggling through their lives in another time (the “present” in which the story is set, not indicated but probably about 1950) when the nation is just beginning to recover from the war. Shigematsu, now a hibakusha (a survivor of the atom bombing) suffers from the after effects of radiation sickness, and worries about Yasuko’s need to marry. At the same time, day after day, he writes his memories of the bombing down, reliving the nightmare and the moments of tranquillity amidst the horror. The present is tranquil but not fully so; the past was horrible, but in retrospect, perhaps not fully so. And there is one final threat that looms like a doom-laden shadow over everything, something everyone is determined to ignore until it is too late.
This isn’t a pleasant book to read. It’s full of immense power, and often gut-wrenchingly descriptive. It’s not about politics or right and wrong, but only about the lives of a few “small people” trying to stay alive, and wondering, when it’s all over, if it was worth it.
The translation (by John Bester) is excellent, and preserves the Japanese ethos. You never feel as though you’re reading about Europeans in Japanese clothing.
My favourite quote (from Shigematsu’s diary, after discovering that soldiers have stolen a supply of rice): “In olden times, people used to say that in an area badly ravaged by war it took a century to repair the moral damage done to the inhabitants.” Can one doubt that “…they (were) right”?
A word about the title: Kuroi Ame, black rain, refers to the radioactive fallout that descended on Hiroshima from the mushroom cloud in the form of back rain, which left stains that could not be rubbed off.
Certainly not for the squeamish, this is a book that should be required reading for every thinking person, no matter what your beliefs are.