Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

Black Rain is set both several years after the end of WW2 and in the days following the bombing of Hiroshima. Shigematsu Shizuma’s niece, Yasuko, is not yet married, and rumours that she was hit by poisonous black rain after the Hiroshima bombing, and is now suffering from radiation sickness, lower her chances of finding someone. When someone makes inquires about her, her uncle decides to copy his diary of the days after the bombing so that he can set the record straight about what the family went through. Black Rain alternates between long passages from his diary and episodes set in the character's present.

Confession: I mooched and began to read Black Rain completely convinced that this was in fact The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock (a book about one of the scientists involved in the making of the atomic bomb meeting one of the survivors from Hiroshima). I’m not sure how I got the books mixed up. I guess there’s the fact that they’re both about Hiroshima, of course, and also that I first heard of both at tanabata’s blog. But anyway, I spend the first chapter of Black Rain being confused and waiting for the scientists to be mentioned. Then I realized my mistake, felt stupid, and began to read the book I actually had in my hands rather than the book I thought I did.

Black Rain is not about the political or social implications of nuclear warfare. Rather, it’s about its everyday consequence, its direct impact on people’s lives. A lot of the story deals with the practical consequences of the war. What did people eat? How did they treat their burns after the bombing? How did they react to seeing large chunks of their skin fall off? A lot of it is not for the faint of heart, but the writing style is as undramatic and subdued as it could possibly be. And I think this matter-of-factness made it even sadder.

The sections set in the present deal in part with long-term consequences of radiation, and with how the lives of so many people were permanently changed. There was a part I found particularly interesting, about how these people’s treatment clashes with their traditional way of life:
There had been a dozen or more people suffering from radiation sickness in the village, but now only three survives – mild cases, of which Shigematsu was one. All three had checked the progress of the disease by taking care to always get plenty of food and rest. Where the rest was concerned, however, it was not enough—nor was it tolerable for the patient himself—simply to lie in bed all day. The doctor had suggested doing light jobs about the place, supplemented by “walks”. Unfortunately, it was out of the question for the head of the family, to all appearances in the best of health, to stroll idly through the village. For someone to “go for a walk”, in fact, was quite unheard of. A “walk” was unthinkable in terms of traditional custom, and this unthinkable in principle.
Black Rain is a very moving book, but like I was saying it’s written in a very quiet, restrained tone. This is something I actually associate with Japan. Normally I shy away from making generalizations of this kind about entire nations or cultures, but from what I know of Japanese literature and art in general (admittedly not very much at all), I do get the impression that emotions tend to be expressed in more subtle ways than in the West.

Black Rain is actually not a depressing book. There are a lot of horrific things happening, but there are also moments of humour and beauty. I’ll leave you with this great passage from the introduction by the translator, John Bester:
Black Rain is a portrait of a group of human beings; of the death of a great city; of a nation crumbling into defeat. It is a picture of the Japanese mind that tells more than many sociological studies. Yet more than this, it is a statement of a philosophy. Although that philosophy, in its essence, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it seems to be life-affirming. Dealing with the grimmest of subjects, the work is not, in the end, depressing, for the author is ultimately concerned with life rather than with death, and with an overall beauty and transcends ugliness of detail.


The Holistic Knitter said...

This has been on my tbr list for a while. Thanks to your review I'll be ordering it from my library today ;0)

Bellezza said...

Wow, what a fascinating review, Nymeth. I've not heard of this book before (actually, either this one or the one you thought you had), but it sounds wonderful. I like learning more about the Japanese thought/society, so I'd like to read this, too.

DreamQueen said...

This has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time. Sounds like I'd better move it closer to the front of the line.

Terri B. said...
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Terri B. said...

Nymeth, I just ordered this based on your review. Maybe I'll read it for Japanese Literature Challenge III?

Nymeth said...

Lynda, I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

Bellezza: This is a book that does tell a lot about a particular Japanese way of dealing with things. I always hesitate to say these things because I know so little about it, but the translator says the same in his introduction, and I trust him to know :P

DreamQueen: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Terri B: I already have a mental list of books to read for the third edition of the challenge too :P