Friday, 27 May 2016

Book Review: 'Hiroshima' by John Hersey

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Perhaps one of the most famous books every published, when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and was the only article in that issues, Hiroshima was the first indication that many people got about just how devastating nuclear weapons were. And the book is both harrowing and horrifying and is, in my opinion, all the more powerful for the fact that Hersey doesn't indulge in condemnation or make ethical judgements; he just lays out the stories of the people he interviewed plain and simple.

Maybe I should back up a bit...

On August 6th 1945 the Allies, more specifically the Americans, dropped an atomic bomb, 'Little Boy', on the Japanese city of Hiroshima - a port city, key for communications and shipping of supplies. Three days later, on August 9th, they dropped another bomb, 'Fat Man', on Nagasaki, another port city. On August 14th Japan surrendered and the war was over. Prior to this, in the West, general knowledge of the devastation that atomic weapons caused was not widely known. This article, turned into a book, was the first indication of it.

Hersey, as the title suggests, only covers the city of Hiroshima and his book recounts the tales of six different people who were in the city when the bomb went off. It recounts what happened to them, how they coped and the interactions they had with others which includes lots of interesting details, such as the initial speculation of what the attack was, with the popular belief being that it was a special kind of fire bomb, dropped after the city had been doused in flammable fluid. This was not outlandish as a speculation as firebombing was a popular tactic against Japan (most of the houses were still made of paper and were consequently very flammable). The book is divided into four chapters, which roughly divides periods of times, with each of the stories weaved through the chapters. It's presented simply; Hersey narrates the tales of each person, he doesn't offer comment or judgement. Some have criticised him for it saying that he should have been condemning the attack or adding a moral voice to what was being described. I don't agree with this. I think that what's shown is all the more powerful for it not having an authorial tone, informing people how they should be feeling. The stories and the images they conjure speak for themselves. [1]

There are six central stories, with three of them focused on more than others. The six are; Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist priest who is doing communal work in the area and suffering under suspicions of being a spy, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German minister of a Church in the area, Dr Terufumi Sasaki, a young doctor who works at the hospital in Hiroshima, Hatsuyomo Nakamura, a mother with three children, Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk working at a tin factory, and Dr Masakazu Fuji, a doctor with his own private clinic, which is destroyed in the aftermath of the bomb. The first three characters named are the ones who are followed most in the story, though all get their time as they show different aspects of the bombs devastation and effects on the city. All of them, at one point or another, encounter at least one of the other narratives. Tanimoto and Kleinsorge, in particular, cross paths and attempt to help others in the city, cloaked in dust, devastation and confusion.
What most emerges from it is just the confusion. Nobody seems to know what’s happening or what to do. So they just stumble around and try and survive. After the dramatic detonation of the bomb itself, which Hersey never describes but only indirectly recounts from the interviewees experiences of it (light and noise and destruction) giving it a greater, almost mystical power, than an actual account would have done, the haunting images arrive just from such confusion. The people congregating in the grounds of a rich man’s house, near the river, with the children alternating between crying and playing; Dr Sasaki working for three days straight as lines of burnt and bloodied people make their way to the hospital and he does the best he can to help them, on his own for the most part until some more doctors arrive. Toshiko Sasaki stuck for days after a bookcase collapses on her leg, breaking it, and then receiving no treatment for it for weeks leaving her crippled; Kleinsorge’s friend running into the fires of the city, believing that he must immolate himself, and the Father stumbling around the city trying to help others; Tanimoto ferrying people back and forth across the river.
The images crafted are all simple, in truth. The people are getting along with surviving in the aftermath and do so fairly quickly. Rumours about what happened are exchanged, with everyone more or less left out of the loop; when the end of the war comes what they’re most surprised about, and cheered about, is for the first time hearing the Emperor’s voice. But against the background of devastation the work, the people, the images, all of them feel eerie and strange. Like watching things at twilight, there’s just something off about it. That all that devastation was caused by one bomb is a sobering and powerful thought, and the narratives combine to create a real sense of the terrifying impact that it had.
Hiroshima is a powerful book. It conveys a strong message of the magnitude of what nuclear weapons can do, and leaves a series of horrifying and haunting images. Whatever your view of nuclear weapons, this is essential reading and arguably a prerequisite for taking part in the debate.

(Note: the version of the book I read was the Penguin Classics edition republished to commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War II. It is the complete book, as originally published, but there is another version that contains an afterword that follows up the stories of each of the people interviewed for the story; the afterword itself is essentially another book on top of the first one.)

[1] It is worth pointing out that Hersey, as a journalist, had witnessed the atrocities of the Imperial Army in China, so was perhaps not entirely sympathetic to the Japanese.