John Hersey: Hiroshima

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen …

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Why I read it

I bought this book second-hand for $6 back in 2006, and read it for the first time under the benign radiation of the sun on a beach in Newcastle. At the time, I’d been working on a huge project on ionising radiation, atomic weapons and their intersection with popular culture.

My zeal for the project was partly in response to a retired academic from the department who wrote pro-nuclear zines full of statements like, ‘There is no technical barrier to safe, reliable storage of nuclear waste’, which made me mad (there is also no technical barrier to eradicating hunger world-wide, etc).

It was also motivated, though, by the fact that the atrocities associated with atomic weapons were just frankly outside my sphere of understanding. Yes, the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was clearly ungraspable – I’m someone who feels terrible for decades about minor things I’ve done wrong; how to comprehend being responsible for creating, ordering or executing such horror? – but the other things, too: the lining up of rabbits in the desert near a test blast, and applying an electric shock to their noses just before detonation, so you could see what effect the blast had on their eyes. The flying of developmentally disabled Australians through mushroom clouds near Woomera to see what would happen to them. The ploughing of radioactive dirty-bomb detritus deep into the ground as the British Government’s ‘clean-up’ effort of the outback test sites. And so on, and so on.

By the time I discovered John Hersey’s book I’d watched dozens of videos of atomic bomb explosions on the net, carried a Geiger counter around a Coles grocery section to see whether I could detect the increased radiation levels from bananas and Brazil nuts (from the potassium), and collected digital copies of ads for Las Vegas ‘atomic cocktails!’ and other bomb-spectator marketing campaigns. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though, were always on the periphery; I couldn’t look them straight in the eye.

Then, in a second hand book shop, I found this Penguin Classic, and in an uneasy sort of way I felt I had an obligation to try and learn what happened.

The surprising thing was, I was able to read this book about this terrible, overwhelming hellish event, and I made it all the way to the end.

Not only that, knowing recently that (with that same uneasy sense of obligation) I was about to visit Hiroshima, I decided to bring the book with me and read it again.

Why this book is readable

I am a squeamish sort of person when it comes to imagining bad things that could happen. I’ve never broken a bone, and I almost can’t imagine how terrible it must be to feel the snap, or, worse still, look down and see your lower leg at an impossible angle. Other things are orders of magnitude worse. I think of them and simply can’t imagine how people go through them and come out the other side.

Of course, when bad things do happen, they just do, and mostly time carries you along and you do what you can at the time.

This is the formula of this book: instead of trying to describe a wholistic or abstract situation (n people died immediately, m people died slowly), Hersey tells the chronological stories of just 6 people. The first chapter covers the initial blast. The second, the rest of the first day; the third, the first week; and the fourth chapter ends a year later, when Hersey completed the first version of the book. Forty years later, he returned and wrote a final chapter updating each person’s story. The six people are diverse in occupation and wealth and nationality and age and philosophical bent.

Because we follow these individuals, we understand what happened better because we live through it with them. We see the horrific sights, feel the disorienting confusion, and learn what it’s like to be in that circle of hell.

Mr Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment.

Significantly, too, the book also shows the diversity of human response to the bomb from the victims. Some accept it as you would an act of god (“‘Shigata ga-nai,” meaning, loosely, “It can’t be helped.”‘), others welcome the Americans into their house and enjoy showing off their English and their large whiskey collection, others speculate on the deeper problems of war and turn a quest for peace into a personal calling.

The book destroys any neat historical narrative you’ve ever been taught about the incident. Overwhelmingly, human life doesn’t fit into the shape of a traditional story. The bomb exploded and people suffered. But in the midst of it, senseless further tragedies occurred (for example, a flood tipped the makeshift hospital and all the doctors into a river, drowning everyone); and afterwards, acts of good were subverted by other well-meaning people. A chance for a significant moment (one of the victims coming face-to-face with one of the bomb plane pilots in the US) is rendered exploitative and confusing by the self-interested decisions of those who organised it. The victims themselves all have different interpretations of and reactions to the event.

This book is the sort of document that not only needs to be read by many people, but kept in some safe place – a big vault under the ice in Sweden – for preservation as something valuable. Because god forbid I ever have to read a similar book ever again.

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This book was mostly read in and around Hiroshima

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