Europa Editions are a reliable source of translated fiction, but more recently they have also started publishing a small number of books written in English. One of these books is Ben Byrne’s debut novel Fire Flowers, set in the apocalyptic landscape of post-war Japan.
The story is told from alternating points of view of the four main characters. Satsuko Takara is a good girl, devoted daughter and sister, who believes her family was killed in the incendiary bombing of their neighbourhood of Asakusa in Tokyo. Her brother Hiroshi, badly scarred by fire, is likewise convinced his sister died. Her boyfriend Osamu dreamt of becoming the Japanese Tolstoy or Oriental Zola, but was forced to go and fight in New Guinea and was presumed dead. Finally, American bomber pilot turned photographer, Hal Lynch, is wracked with guilt at the part he played in the war.
In the rubble, despair and confusion that is defeated Japan, it all becomes a story of survival. The author does not spare us the details of ruins, famine, smallpox, the taking of Philopon (the so-called ‘courage pills’, formerly used by kamikaze pilots, now used to make up for lack of food and hope). Hiroshima is described as a pulverised wasteland, a vast expanse of reddish-brown dust. One little girl survives the atomic bomb and comes all the way to Tokyo by herself, joining Hiroshi’s little band of children.
Satsuko is forced into prostitution ‘for the sake of her country’ at the so-called comfort stations provided for the American occupying forces. Hiroshi heads a gang of street children and goes underground, living off petty theft and hustling. Osamu tries to recreate his dream of a writer’s life, even though at present he is pandering to the public’s need for comfort, titillation and pornography. Finally, Hal Lynch uncovers information about the long-term consequences of radiation sickness in Hiroshima, things which are covered up by the American military and politicians.
Two thirds of the way through the book, Hal and Satsuko finally meet – you just knew it was going to be a love story, at least partially. Brother and sister also finally reunite, but there is no traditional happy ending. There are hints of the Cold War already starting.
There is much to like in this book: it is well researched, atmospheric, and very ambitious. Perhaps it tries to pack too much in (a common enough failing in a debut novel). It seeks to provide a fresco of a whole country through the fate of these four people – and for the most part, it succeeds, although not always in a very smooth and uplifting way. There are several excellent passages and scenes, which just about manage to steer clear of sentimentality. One of my favourites is the scene of carol singing with a group of elegant old ladies in kimonos – Japanese Christians who are now for the first time allowed to celebrate Christmas.
And then this bold young man and these delightful, wrinkled women whose country I’d helped raze to the ground, well, we all stood there outside of a ruined train station as flakes of DDT floated down from the sky like snow, and then, God help me, we began to sing ‘Silent Night.’
The book provides an interesting alternative view of Japan after the war, something that has not been as widely portrayed in literature as post-war Germany, for instance.
In memory of my long-defunct BA thesis on reflections of the war in Japanese literature, here are some Japanese modern classics on the same topic. (I’ve followed the Japanese convention of surnames first, followed by first names for the authors)
One of my favourite Japanese writers – or writers of any culture, full stop. The story has a similar premise to Fire Flowers: it’s the story of a small, formerly aristocratic family – sister, brother who has been away fighting in the Pacific, and their mother. They are forced to move to the countryside, work the fields, figure out a new place for themselves in a society they no longer understand or want. It is such a subtle and painful reading experience, so rich in symbolism and steeped in uncertainty and regret. What Ben Byrne spells out loud and clear, this book implies, alludes to, conceals. Fire is a powerful image in this book as well, but it’s not just destructive – it has a multitude of meanings.
Ooka Shohei: Fires on the Plain
This book reminded me of The Heart of Darkness. It is less about life in Japan and more about the life of a Japanese soldier who deserts the military and attempts to survive in the jungle in the Philippines. It’s a powerful indictment of the idiocy and pointlessness of war.
Noma Hiroshi: Zone of Emptiness
Another story told from the point of view of a sensitive young soldier caught up in Japan’s relentless war machine. Soda is a slightly naive and idealistic soldier who is trying to rehabilitate his friend Kitani’s name. Kitani has spent two years in a military prison for a petty theft which he did not commit. The book is a wholesale denunciation of the brutality, corruption and narrow-mindedness of the military regime in Japan at the time, but it also raises important questions about what in the Japanese psyche is so attracted to this ideology of strength through cruelty.
This depiction of immediate and long-term consequences of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima made a profound impression on me, especially since I read this around the time I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The novel was written in the mid-60s, quite some time after the bombing, and focuses once again on a family and their attempts to marry off a daughter that no one seems to want, because they believe she suffers from radiation sickness and is infertile. The way the author blends in the personal with the general (based on eyewitness accounts and surviving diaries) is exemplary – and heartrending.
Takeyama Michio: The Burmese Harp
I’ll end with a slightly less gruelling read, as its intended audience is children or YA. Told once again from the point of view of a Japanese soldier who gradually realises he is fighting a stupid, cruel war, this time in Burma. Ironically, knowing that history has not been kind since to Burma, the author describes the beautiful serenity and spirituality of Burma and its people, the peacefulness and love of music, which contrasts sharply with aggression and obstinacy of the Japanese occupiers. The story is ironic too, since it takes place at the end of the war, when Japan has officially surrendered, but isolated troops of Japanese soldiers, stranded in different Asian locations, refuse to follow suit. The book has been adapted (twice) by film director Ichikawa Kon, although with some noteable differences.