I'm not sure which has been harder. Reading Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain (Kuroi Ame, translated by John Bester), a novel of the bombing of Hiroshima, or corralling my thoughts and trying to write about it. This was a profoundly sad and disturbing book and one I often thought of setting aside because it was such a bleak and unremitting read. I'm glad I didn't, but it's a book that is going to weigh heavily on my mind for a while, I think.
While I read a lot of books about or set during the two World Wars, I've always been reluctant to read about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In part this is simply because it's hard to imagine such a horrific event and to try and wrap my mind around the utter devastation that must have occurred. And in part it's hard to come to terms with the fact that the U.S. is the only country to have used an atomic bomb on another country during a war. If what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not testament enough to the wrongness of nuclear weapons (and I'm not very convinced about the wisdom of nuclear power either), then nothing is, but countries are still determined and make and have them.
If there was any question about imagining the devastation, I now have vivid images to keep safely tucked away in my mind. Black Rain is a novel, but really it reads almost like eyewitness accounts to the aftereffects of the bomb. The story is ostensibly about a young woman who, after the war, hopes to marry but her health is in question due to radiation exposure. Apparently this was something that occurred frequently after the war. Ibuse uses diary entries to tell his story. It isn't the smoothest way to move forward a fictional narrative, but it is effective for what he was trying to do.
Shigematsu Shizuma is the main narrator, though he's not the main diarist. He and his wife Shigeko have taken in their niece Yasuko, which he feels guilty about after the bomb. Had he not asked her to come to Hiroshima, she would never have experienced any ill effects and thus had problems in finding a husband. Shigematsu is compiling accounts of the bombing in order to give them to the family of the man who has shown an interest in marrying Yasuko. The idea is that he will be able to show that what she experienced will not hinder her marrying and leading a healthy and average life. Really, though, it's to give the reader a front seat to what happened when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
The story moves back and forth in time, though the bulk is made up of various diary entries, so the reader sees both what happened (though not in great detail) after the war but also what happened when the bomb was dropped and in the days that followed. Various perspectives are given as Shigematsu relays the experiences not only of himself, Shigeko and Yasuko but also people he meets in his harrowing journey into and out of Hiroshima. All this he copies down into his book.
Honestly the images, though not gratuitous, are still nightmarish. On August 6 a particularly destructive bomb is dropped and Shigematsu must travel from the factory where he works into Hiroshima to find his wife and niece. There is a sense of confusion and uncertainty, and as the day wears on there is a sense of horror as a dawning realization that a new and more powerful bomb has been dropped that must have had some sort of poison in it. The city, or most of it anyway, has literally been flattened and there is a feeling of dislocation as he tries to orient himself, find his wife and niece who he hopes have survived and then lead them back to safety.
Ibuse was born in Hiroshima but did not live there during the war. He only wrote about it at a distance of twenty years (Black Rain was published in 1969), and it was based on diaries and interviews of those who lived there and experienced it first hand. However, Ibuse is masterful (almost too much so) in painting a portrait of a city and its inhabitants that literally don't know or understand what hit them (sorry to use a cliché). Almost immediately those who have survived begin pouring out of Hiroshima with horrific wounds. This is a country at war, but what's just occurred is unexplainable to them, and it isn't until days later that they even begin to understand the nature of the bomb. There is disorientation and a lack of leadership, a surrealness to the landscape, and even through a bombing there is bureaucratic red tape to add to the insanity.
I was struck by a scene where Shigematsu came across a wall filled with notes posted to it by survivors looking for their family or family coming to Hiroshima hoping to find their loved ones still alive. Half a century later in New York City family members did the same thing after 9/11. A vicious cycle it would seem.
This is not a book that ends on a happy or hopeful note, more a sense of resignation. Despite the unsettling imagery, the storytelling feels somewhat understated. Ibuse is not interested in pointing fingers and assigning blame rather simply portraying what the average Japanese citizen endured. The characters were so stoic and matter of fact, going on about the daily business of living as best they could. Definitely not an easy read, but certainly a worthy one. I do think I need to pick up another Japanese author sometime soon in order add other and more hopeful images to my mind.
You can read Masuji Ibuse's obituary here.