Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Hiroshima Notes" by Kenzaburo Oe

Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe (trans. from Japanese by David Swain and Toshi Yenezawa, 1965 and translation 1981, 192 pages) is a collection of essays Oe published after making several visits to Hiroshima in 1965 to attend observations for the 20th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb August 6, 1945.    It also includes a useful introduction by David Swain and two prefaces by Oe.

Hiroshima Notes is a deeply wise book by a man who has thought long and hard on topics most would prefer to move on from.   It is far from a bitter work.    I want  to relay few of the things in the book that stood out for me.

The survivors of the atomic bomb blasts were the very first of the Japanese people to say that the bomb blasts were the fault of the Japanese military government.   Oe feels that the dropping of the bomb was a war crime also.   My first reaction to this was to say that it saved, among other, the lives of millions of Japanese.   (I recall a few years ago I watched a movie from 1944-it was just a very minor movie and I do not recall the name.   Some English school children were looking at a future globe of the world.   They asked the teacher what the big empty space in the Pacific Ocean was.  The teacher laughed and said that was where Japan used to be.)   Oe, agree or not, is suggesting in doing this a force was turned lose on the world that could one day bring an end to human life. Never before could war do this.  It might have been that the Japanese would have surrendered facing a joint American and Russian Invasion (the Japanese knew the Russians would without hesitation send millions of their troops to be killed and that they wanted very much revenge for their defeat in the Russian Japanese Naval War).    Both the Japanese and the Germans were working on Nuclear weapons and clearly would have carpet bombed Australia and England with them and the USA if they could reach it with the planes of the day.   It is also true that the Japanese would have been defeated by nonnuclear warfare.  (I personally feel Truman did what he had to do)  In Hiroshima in 1965 there were 1000s of  women who were children when the bomb went exploded.   They survived but were so badly scarred that they began essentially life long hermits ashamed to go out in public.  No one would marry them as they were thought to be unable to give birth to a healthy child.    There were also in 1965 thousands of older women living alone who were the only survivors of their families.    Some of the young girls who survived did pray daily that no one else ever experience what they did.  Some wanted all the world to go up in a nuclear war.    The Japanese government, aided by American occupation forces, did provide medical care to survivors but they did not provide living expenses so many of the injured had to keep working to support their families so could not take treatment.

The doctors who lived in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded soon became the first authorities on the medical effects of the bomb.   They also suffered the effects.   Rates of leukemia went way up as did other forms of cancer.   Suicides went way up throughout the lives of the survivors.    Oe tells us a very moving story.   A twenty six year old man, age six when the bomb exploded, is advised he has two years to live as a result of leukemia.   He can live out his remaining time in a charity hospital ward.   He chooses to work at hard labor (he has no skills) so he can live on his own and be with his 19 year old fiance, not yet born when bomb exploded.   When he died she took an overdose of sleeping pills stating that her death was also a result of the bomb blast.   There are other equally moving stories.   We see the wisdom and power of the doctors.   We feel a little ashamed when we see different groups fight over who should run the 20 year anniversary memorial but we are also moved by seeing good people from all over the world come together.    

Oe says the greatest gift of the bombing is the wisdom of the survivors.  Oe is clearly humbled by his task of bringing their stories to life.  

The youngest survivors of the bomb are now in their middle sixties.   There are ninety year old survivors that still bear the scars.

I know I do not have the ability to convey the power of this book.   I know most people do not want to dwell on these matters.   I am pretty sure my daughters and children throughout the world can graduate from college and never be told of them by a teacher.    As I read the book, I hope this remark bothers no one, I thought that Oe was the kind of man who could have written the wisdom books of the Old Testament.   At one point he has a long conversation with an elderly woman.   He says her wisdom is so strong that she is able to live a life scarred since her middle years by the blast without a belief in any authoritarian creed.   Oe does not say  that wars are started by those who follow authoritative codes, much of his wisdom is in what he knows he cannot say.

Hiroshima Notes deeply effected me.  I felt an almost Oceanic Feeling come over me as I thought about the book and what I could attempt to say about it.

Mel u


Peter S. said...

Hi, Melvin! Thanks for recommending the Japanese titles you've listed in my blog. I'll check them out soon!

I've read Out three years ago and I loved it! I have yet to read the Kirini novel I swapped with you.

Speaking of Oe, I just bought Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. I'll read it next year and I'll tell you what I think of it.

Suko said...

After all your reviews, my resolution for the new year is to read some Oe.

I just realized that you also designed your own JLC-3 button. Very nice! (How do you add words?)

Suzanne Yester said...

What a very moving review. I remember reading the fictional account of the bomb being dropped in Burnt Shadows and being touched, but will pick up a copy of this book to read what appears to be an amazing true account of the effects of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Such a sad time in history.. Thank you for sharing this!

Mark David said...

This book sounds wonderful! I love essays :) Great review Mel.

By the way, that's banner for the JLC3 you made looks nice.

Anna said...

We posted your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric