Likewise, Japanese literature continues to tell the story of the atomic bombs. Bomb literature occupies a special place in every genre — fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction. For example, anyone born in 1962, as I was, would be familiar with Miyoko Matsutani’s “Two Little Girls Called Iida,” the story of a magical talking chair that unites two girls across time in a house where the calendar is forever frozen on Aug. 6. Or, with one of the indispensable works of modern Japanese literature, Masuji Ibuse’s “Black Rain,” with its excruciating account of the aftermath of the bomb. Kenzaburo Oe, still in his 20s and barely embarked on his literary career, visited Hiroshima and gave us “Hiroshima Notes,” his report on the extraordinary human dignity of the bomb victims enduring the harsh reality of survivors. There is no end to similar examples.
But there is one novel so admired and avidly read, even today, that it is regularly included in school textbooks: Tamiki Hara’s “Summer Flowers.” A work by a bomb victim himself, it records the period and experience in precise detail.
Born in Hiroshima in 1905, Hara had been living in Tokyo, contributing fiction and poetry to literary magazines, when his wife died suddenly in 1944. In February 1945, he returned to his birthplace, exactly as though he’d “had a rendezvous with the tragedy that was coming to Hiroshima,” as he later wrote. On the morning of Aug. 6, he was at home in his windowless bathroom — a fact that possibly saved his life. Fortunate to have escaped serious injury, Hara spent the following days wandering the burning city and recording his experiences in his notebook, a record that later became “Summer Flowers.”
The novel begins two days before the bombing, as the protagonist pays a visit to his wife’s grave. He washes the stone and places summer flowers on it, finding the sight cool and refreshing. But this opening passage is haunted by sadness, a horrible premonition of the impossibility of accounting for the loss of his beloved wife and the innumerable corpses he will see a short time later.
The author’s description of the protagonist as he flees to the river for refuge is detailed and almost cold in tone. The language is concise, and words that might express sentiment are nowhere to be found. Horrors of the sort no human being had ever witnessed unfold one after the other before the narrator’s eyes, and he finds himself unable to express anything as vague as mere emotion.
Faces so swollen that it was impossible to tell whether they were men or women. Heads charred over with lumps like black beans. Voices crying out again and again for water. Children clutching hands together as they whispered faintly, “Mother … Father.” People prying fingernails from corpses or stripping off belts as keepsakes of the dead. The narrator describes a city filled with the stench of death: “In the vast, silvery emptiness, there were roads and rivers and bridges, and scattered here and there, raw and swollen corpses. A new hell, made real through some elaborate technology.”