17 September 2008

Trials of the ordinary

I feel ashamed that I know so little about the aftermath of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. No other nation has experienced such tragedy. No other people have experienced the agonies of living with their dead, their injured and their sick for so many years until reconstruction.

Yet, I’ve read so little about it – even in fiction. Tales of post-WW2 Japan, at least in English, seem hard to come by. Most of what I’ve read about WW2 and its after-effects has been British or American – narrating, decidedly, a victor’s point of view of war, suffering and reconstruction. This has made me wonder about the vanquished! Surely, they have tales of their own!

Fortunately, two books of fiction had caught my eye. Both were about Germany and, unquestionably, enlightening to read! Specifically, because they presented a perspective I’ve often overlooked: that the trials of the ordinary people, caught in war, are, inescapably, an integral part of the killings, the invasions, the espionage, the heroism, the sorrows and the romances.

The first book was Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, and the second was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room was not really a novel, but three novellas distinct in their narratives. The first narrated the life of a handicapped boy who felt isolated as he was unable to take part in the action due to a physical deformity and, therefore, turned to photography and chronicled the war until his disillusionment when the Allies attacked Berlin.

The second narrated a journey by an adolescent girl who, stoically, took responsibility of travelling through war-torn Germany to reach her younger brothers and sister safely to her grandmother’s place. The third novella narrated the story of a schoolteacher in present-day Germany trying to absolve himself from the guilt of his grandfather’s war crimes.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader was different from Seiffert’s novellas. It was a unique story of a teenager’s relationship with an older woman who disappeared from his life one day, and then, many years later, when he was a law student, turned out to be a war criminal on trial. The story presented the young man’s confusion and, then, his slow understanding of the older woman’s need to keep secret a personal disability – even at the cost of punishment and personal grief, leading to a tragic end.

The Dark Room and The Reader were both sensitive and disturbing; and yet, two of the best books I’ve read on war.


Madhuri said...

Now that you mention it, I realize that I have not come against any literature about the World War impact on Japan, while there is much written about the European after-effects (especially about the effect of holocaust on Jews). The only book that I have read which deals with the bombing is Dennis Bock' The Ash Garden, and that is a superficial account.
There is one book about Germany in post-war era that I think does a very good task of addressing the confusion of Germany about its role in the war: Gunter Grass' Crabwalk. You should try it if you like War literature. Also, Salinger's Nine Stories indirectly deals with war in depicting its effect on normal lives.

runawaysun said...

Thanks for the lead on Gunter Grass' 'Crabwalk'. Haven't read it; but now I definitely will.

Am still looking for books/films on the Japanese experience of the atom bomb and its aftermath. Any thoughts?

antonia said...

the success of grass and schlink and how they dominate the discussion of post ww2 german literature never ceases to amaze me. grass' hypocrisy is legendary and i think the schlink boook is quite far on the complacent side of things...

better (far better, better written end nicer to read and best, far less hypocrite) are heinrich boell, uwe johnson or alfred andersch (andersch with restrictions). but boell is maybe the best in describing the lives of normal people and how they had been affected.

but thet question about the japanese books is interesting. i don't know much either, there is the duras one of course, and ishiguro's a pale view of the hills. that one is very interesting, because it is set only a couple of years after the bombs but never mentions them. which says a lot too.

runawaysun said...

@ Antonia

Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting on it. I'll also read through your blog.

Since I have an Indian perspective to WW2 and (translated) German literature, my appreciation of Grass and Schlink may be skewed in your view. I do not know your background, but should you have a point of view on these authors - or others - or about WW2 and its aftermath, I shall be more than glad to learn from you. If not anything else, it'll help me understand more about WW2, its aftermath and German literature on it. Please do write to me at therunawaysun@gmail.com.

I shall also take your advice and read works of Heinrich Boll, Uwe Johnson and Alfred Andersch.

As far as Japanase literature on WW2 and its aftermath goes, I do find a shortage of books in the Indian marketplace. Am on the lookout for books by Kenzaburo Oe and Masuji Ibuse.

I've read Ishiguro's 'A Pale View of Hills' but felt that Ishiguro didn't do justice to the setting of the book - i.e. the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki and its aftermath. He has dealt with the topic far too subtly/lightly for my liking, considering the fact that Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki not too long after the bombing (but migrated to the UK as a child). The book was more about the guilt the main character (can't remember her name now) felt for having left Japan and the old Japanese ways in favour of a Western life/lifestyle. Perhaps the book is about Ishiguro's own guilt.