Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Crazy Iris

The Crazy Iris, edited by Kenzaburo Oe, is subtitled and other stories of the atomic aftermath, and at first I thought it was entirely fiction. After reading it, however, I believe that at least some of the pieces are nonfiction (those where the narrator and author have the same name, and the details of the characters' experiences match the details in the author bios). In any case, most of the authors in this collection were eyewitnesses to the bombings of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

It is a challenge for any writer to address a catastrophe on such a huge scale: not only the death and destruction of August 6 and 9, 1945, but the effects that were still playing out decades later. How does one grasp this enormity?

A writer's way in is through the small, specific details. The first inkling of trouble we readers have comes in the first story, set in a town about a hundred miles from Hiroshima: the trains to Hiroshima are being stopped. "'Even the railway people don't know what's holding the trains up,' I heard the landlord tell one of his customers" (Masuji Ibuse, "The Crazy Iris"). We, the readers, know. This is our first shudder, and it comes through a commonplace experience: delayed trains.

"My life was saved because I was in the bathroom" writes Tamiki Hara in "Summer Flower," another line in which the ordinary (the bathroom) carries us into the extraordinary. The writers include commonplace details (trees, a water jar, a box of onions) along with the details unique to that day (blast injuries and burns, black rain, glass still embedded in skin years later). "Nearby I could see a triangular window. The window had originally been square but it had been completely blown out, leaving only the twisted frame," writes Katsuzo Oda in "Human Ashes." Broken windows figure in many of the stories. "From the time the A-bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945, until I graduated two years later, there wasn't a single pane of glass in the school," writes Kyoko Hayashi in "The Empty Can."

Most of the stories deal not with the days of the bombings, but of the years afterward, of living with the damage. In "Fireflies," Yoko Ota describes the makeshift shacks made for the survivors, "temporary" housing which they ended up occupying for years: "The slugs slithered around in droves at the base of the sliding paper doors, which did not have the customary rain shutters to protect them." Kyoko Hayashi describes a schoolgirl carrying the remains of her parents around in a can. Mitsuharu Inoue's "The House of Hands" and Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite" discuss the trouble with miscarriages that many women had, and the stigma associated with marrying women who had been exposed to radiation.

The human need to recover, to want to return to normal, to believe that everything will be all right, crops up most sharply in Ineko Sata's "The Colorless Paintings:"
"It seems I took it for granted that [my friends] had somehow been outside of the radiation area when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. I never realized, until it came out in a casual letter, that all this time Y had been living with this kind of anxiety."

and in Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite:"
"That time when, in the bright sunshine, I gazed on the vast multitude of the dead in all the chaos of that ruined ground, laid waste and desolate ..., with my knees knocking together out of control, the thing I kept telling myself was this: it is only a temporary phenomenon! I kept on pursuing the original appearance of that place as it had been before, and as I was sure it would be again. Maybe tomorrow I will see Junko! Maybe tomorrow I'll come across someone who knows how Kiyoko is!"

One unexpected detail common to many of the stories is that the people had no idea what had happened. They all describe a flash out of nowhere, and then the world was transformed. They did not know, at first, that it was a bomb. "The air raid warning had been lifted, and shortly after that there had been a big flash of light and a soft hissing sound like magnesium burning. The next they knew everything was turned upside down. It was all like some kind of magical trick ... " (Tamiki Hara, "Summer Flower").

The power of writing is to record, remember, explore, digest, question. Many writers will identify with these lines from "Summer Flower:"
"Sitting on the narrow road by the riverbank, I felt I was all right now. What had been threatening me, what had been destined to happen, had taken place at last. I could consider myself as one who survived. I have to keep a record of this, I said to myself."

source of recommended read: library

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