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Hiroshima Notes Hardcover – 1 Jan 1990
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From the Back Cover
Hiroshima Notes is a moving statement from Japan's most celebrated living writer on the meaning of the Hiroshima bombing and its terrible legacy. Kenzaburo Oe's account of the lives of the many victims of Hiroshima - the young, the old, women and children - and the valiant efforts of the doctors who care for them, both immediately after the atomic blast and in the years to come, reveals the horrific extent of the devastation wrought. In Hiroshima Notes, Oe offers a sensitive portrayal of the people of the city - the 'human face' in the midst of atomic destruction. The lives Oe describes and his insights into the nature of human dignity are an indictment of the Nuclear Age as powerful as the ruins in the Hiroshima Peace Park.
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Don't look for Oe's characteristically bizarre, visceral prose style in these essays. At least in translation, they are written simply and declaratively, with extended passages of quotation from writings and interviews of the Hiroshima survivors themselves. Still, Oe's perceptions are complex and multi-faceted, not always consistent, and not always palatable to an "outside person" - a "gai jin" - particularly to an American who may be ready to defend the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the two previous reviewers here on the River expresses that patriotic dudgeon quite vehemently. Oe - let's be honest! - regards the bombing as a crime against humanity comparable to the German genocide camps. [Please don't lambaste me in comments; I'm merely reporting, not advocating.]
In the preface to the first republication of Hiroshima Notes as a book, Oe wrote: "The realities of Hiroshima can be forgotten only by those who dare to be deaf, dumb, and blind to them." Read that sentence several times! It's not as straightforward as it seems. Why "dare"? Allowing for the difficulty of translation, still I think this sentence captures Oe's ambiguity about the remembrance of what he considers the cruelest punishment ever inflicted on any people in history. On the one hand, no one beyond Hiroshima should be so foolish as to forget exactly how horrible the atomic attack was. But on the other hand, Oe repeatedly expresses great admiration for the citizens of Hiroshima who have chosen to "forget" enough to seek full lives, to eschew victimhood, to avoid being viewed as mere evidence in the global anti-war movements. Be prepared to accept such ambiguity if you read Hiroshima Notes; Oe is able to express admiration and approval both for those Hiroshimans who choose to live on and those who choose to die by suicide.
Among the sites Oe visited in 1965 was the "A-bomb hospital", where he observed an aged survivor, quite near death after a 20-year battle with radiation sickness, who described himself as one of the "people who go on struggling toward a miserable death." This Mr. Miyamoto is one of those whom Oe considers "authentic" people. Oe says: "As I understand it, Mr. Miyamoto left this phrase with the strongest sense of humanism, for he did not lose courage even while struggling for nothing more tha to give meaning to the time when his own death came. It is this understanding that the existentialists first made clear. In this sense, Mr. Miyamoto is representative of the moralists of Hiroshima." Mr. Miyamoto was, it turns out, the only gravely ill patient at the hospital who 'dared' to venture outside to cheer a march of anti-nuke demonstrators. He died between Oe's several visits to the hospital.
In the fourth of Oe's essays, titled "On Human Dignity", the author wonders about the choices the survivors have made in retaining and perpetuating their memories. "It is not strange," he writes, "that the whole human race is trying to put Hiroshima, the extreme point of human tragedy, out of mind. ....we know that grown-ups make no effort to convey their memories of Hiroshima to their children. All who fortunately survived, or at least luckily suffered no radiation injury, seek to forget..." But elsewhere Oe supports the will to forget which enables the people of Hiroshima to seek to normalize their lives. Ambivalence is not necessarily incoherence or folly, I would argue, when considering the authentic human response to an unprecedented catastrophe. The German writer W. G. Sebald was also perturbed and preoccupied with the 'forgetfulness' of adults in post-war Germany. Oe and Sebald were close in age, essentially of the post-war generation who had to learn about the war from the 'memories' of their parents. Sebald's well-known essay, On the Natural History of Destruction, offers a prfoundly interesting comparison to Oe's writing.
Remember that these essays date from 1965, in the era of MAD - of mutually assured destruction as a theory of deterence. Oe is clear that he regards even the possession of atomic weapons as incredible folly and a threat to the continuance of human existence. He writes: "Powerful leaders in the East and in the West insist on maintaining nuclear arms as a means of preserving the peace. there may be some room for various observations and rationales regarding the possible usefulness of nuclear weapons in preserving true peace; indeed printing presses all over the world are running off such arguments with all haste. But it is obvious that all advocates of usefulness base their opinions on the POWER of nuclear arms. Such is the fashion and common sense of today's world. Who, then, wants to remember Hiroshima as the extremity of human misery?" A few pages later, Oe quotes the European writer Celine: ""The ultimate defeat is, in short, to forget; especially to forget those who kill us. It is to die without any suspicion, to the very end, of how perverse people are. There is no use in struggling when we already have one foot in the grave. And we must not forget and forgive. We must report, one by one, everything we have learned about the cruelty of man.""
Few writers have ever succeeded in reporting the cruelty and perversity of man more vividly than Oe Kenzaburo. Few writers have ever testified more vividly to mankind's indomitable potential for courage.
The central figure of the essays is Dr. Fumio Shigeta, a medical doctor who was in Hiroshima on the day the A-bomb was dropped. He happened to arrive in the city to take up a new post just a week before the day of the bombing. It is through Dr. Shigeta that Oe learns how the bomb victims become social outcasts, have difficulties finding marital partners, get divorced because they cannot have children, hide in shame in the back-rooms of their houses for years, and commit suicide or go insane upon learning that they are diagnosed as having "an A-bomb disease". In the midst of this pain and suffering, Dr. Shigeta patiently applies his medical skills to help the victims. He ignores the stigma placed on the victims by Japanese society, and for him there is no taboo on issues like the genetic effects of the radiation.
Dr. Shigeta is the "authentic man" for Oe, a person who is "humanist in the truest sense ¡V neither too wildly desperate nor too vainly hopeful". A man of modesty, patience and perseverance, Dr. Shigeta appears to be the real-life counterpart of the fictional Docteur Rieux of Albert Camus's novel The Plague: "When Hiroshima was attacked by radiation - the plague of the modern age - the city was not specifically closed off. Since that day . . . Dr. Shigeta took upon himself the misery of Hiroshima, and has continued to do so for twenty years."
More than anything he saw in Hiroshima, it must have been the example of Dr. Shigeta that made Oe realize that there was just one answer to his own personal question whether his son should be operated to live brain-damaged thereafter or be left to die. If Dr. Shigeta could bear the suffering of thousands of strangers and dedicate his life to relieving their pain, then he could bear the suffering of raising a brain-damaged son. I believe it was this realization that made Oe wake up and face his own suffering: "I think it was in Hiroshima that I got my first concrete insight into human authenticity."
While the Hiroshima Notes are the central document of Oe's humanism, they also provide a uniquely Japanese view of the Hiroshima bombing. Oe examines the feelings of shame and humiliation in the victims, and the attempts of the people of Hiroshima to forget what he calls the "holocaust of the A-bomb". His tone is very restrained and unemotional, devoid of moralizing and anger. Any sensationalism is missing from Oe's writing. He does not accuse or explain, he simply reflects. At times, though, he gets tangled in his reflections. The most embarrassing example is his argument that the A-bomb would never have been dropped on Leopoldville in the Congo because the American decision makers wanted to drop the bomb only on a people with the "human strength to cope with the hell that would follow." This racist, muddled thesis is an absolute exception, however. A small stain on Oe's essays which shows that even a Nobel Prize winner with a conscience will get caught up in prejudices from time to time.
I recommend these essays to anyone who has read Kenzaburo Oe's "A Personal Matter" (the fictional account of the decision the author had to make with regard to his son), and to anyone who ever had to answer the question "why should I rather follow one course of action instead of another when both options involve me suffering?"