Kenzaburō Ōe published these essays over a short span during and after the twentieth anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This is not pleasant reading, and if you are not yet familiar with the specifics of that attack, if you don’t know what keloid scarring is or about the elevated leukemia rates persisting through generations, you will. And while the book starts off very slow -almost in the vein of a report on municipal feuding as various groups gathered in Hiroshima bring very different political ideologies to the table- things really pick up about forty pages in. We are introduced to a number of survivors and victims, men and women who will keep cropping up throughout the essays. Ōe builds a remarkable continuity that rewards a close reading of the first few essays, so don’t rush, and don’t skim.
Ōe’s writing in 1965 would not be out of place today, published as creative nonfiction. He weaves himself into the story, detailing his own perceived cowardice as a child as a juxtaposition against the very different forms of Japanese heroism found in soldiers loyal to the Emperor and those survivors of the bombing who strive for treatment and for peace. His place in these narratives is never self-aggrandizing -he doesn’t even make his cowardice a focal point, choosing instead to use it as a framing device to talk about something bigger and outside himself. The stories of the survivors and the stories of the dead are what matter here.
So why read this? Why slog through some challenging reading that starts off pretty dull and stays that way for a while? Why read about all this depressing shit? Moral arguments aside, Ōe’s writing is amazing. The way his narratives develop is a damn masterclass, and even in translation the prose alone is moving. But beyond the merely aesthetic, Ōe is a chronicler of some very important shit, a chronicler of the lives of those who lived near the epicenter of the most deadly technology ever unleashed on human beings by other human beings. This is not something we ought to be ignorant about.
Recommendation: Read it. Annotate it. Spread the word.