Friday, 11 December 2009

Non-fiction

The contents of John Hersey's book Hiroshima first appeared in the New Yorker in August 1946, the editors choosing to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to the series of articles which he had been commissioned to write. The introduction to this slim volume describes the incredible response that the article received around the world and the impact that it had. The dropping of the first atomic bomb had huge political and historical significance. What this book is trying to do is put a human face on the event, to remind us that it was real people who suffered and died, and it is important to hear and remember their story as well.

I found myself reading it a little dispassionately, partly, on reflection, because it is written slightly dispassionately. Although John Hersey uses directly the accounts of the people he met he does not report their exact words but describes everything in the third person, so you get a disconcerting sense of being disconnected from the events. I feel everything about the story and the way it is told, and the public reaction to it, is a reflection of when it was written. Nowadays we have such instantaneous access to news from all over the world, seeing people's reactions to disasters in the most intimate of detail, practically being 'in the thick of' real events as they happen, but in 1946 this was not the case. During WW2 it might be months before a family learned of their loved ones' death, now every individual loss is announced on the evening news bulletin. To have such personal stories retold around the world only a year after such an event was much more startling then than it would be today.

Hersey tells the stories of six individuals in some detail, moving abruptly from one person to another to progress the chain of events. He describes first a brief background of their life and then what was happening to them in the period immediately before the bomb exploded. Then he gives us their individual experience of the moment of the explosion. You get a sense of how unexpected and unreal the experience was for them all, a white flash and then the blast hitting whatever building they were in, and of course the strangest little aspects of their situation that meant they survived rather than died. Then you have what they did in the minutes, hours and days that followed. Nobody knew what had happened, nor could any of them envisage the scale of what had happened, people mainly assumed it was an air raid (which they had been anticipating for some time), and it is not until months later that there is any understanding of the nature of the weapon used against them.

I think the book tells us a great deal about Japanese society and people, the strange (to me that is) things people talked about doing or thinking about, or what was important to them in the aftermath of the bomb. There is no hysteria or panic, people help each other as much as they are able. Those who are uninjured bring food and water for others, one of the interviewees ferries people across the river to escape the fires, people just get on and try and do what needs to be done, faced with a horrific situation. And yet by the end of the day it is almost as if they become immune to the suffering of others and resigned to their own fate. In such a short space of time each of them witnesses such extremes of suffering that you can only assume you stop being able to take it in. No one complains; Mr Tanimoto describes the crowds of people who arrive at a park, many horribly injured, and they just lie down and wait patiently, in hope that someone will help them. Many, many of them die overnight the first night, of injuries or the first effects of the radiation sickness, but there is almost complete silence. The atmosphere in the description of this first day is quite eerie.

I think the book gives a true picture and that the people involved were brutally honest, no one tries to make themselves heroic or to exaggerate their own personal suffering or loss. The other thing you notice is the total lack of self pity, that they accepted that their country was at war and that they themselves could be a target of that war, and that in effect they were suffering for their Emperor. This loyalty and patriotism was most strikingly shown when someone describes hearing the Emperor announcing the end of the war on the radio, and how important that was, because they had never heard his actual voice before. As a group there did not appear to be any lasting resentment or anger towards America, in fact, just as they stoically endured their suffering, they appear to dismiss as not so important the discovery of the nature of the atomic bomb, seeing it as just another part of war and not some especially evil weapon. It is as if we (in the West that is) have given it so much significance, but for the people of Hiroshima it was not viewed like that. They don't dwell on what is done but focus more on the future and rebuilding their city.

Being a student of politics I was very interested to learn about this event from a more human level. There is quite a mythology surrounding the dropping of this bomb, and the impact that it has had and the way it is presented in history does not tell the full story. I am left thinking that Hiroshima has become symbolic only of the worst that human being are capable of; there was most certainly horror and immense suffering, but there was also great human strength and resilience.

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