8 August 2019

Hiroshima by John Hersey


As soon as I learned of this book's existence I was shocked I didn't already own it. It seemed like everything I could ever want to read. The promotional blurb on the front cover literally says "Everyone able to read should read it." As Stefan said, it's one of the strongest endorsements of a book he's ever seen (lol). I borrowed this book from my insane friend Michael Robinson (a journalist who just won a Michener award!!!!) who obviously was interested in it because of its new-journalism style. Michael lent me the book and I finished it in a few days (160 pages).

Hiroshima was written by John Hersey and published in 1946. It covers the day the atomic bomb went off in Hiroshima as well as its aftermath. Hersey focuses on six individuals who survived the atomic bomb and follows up on how it impacted their day-to-day decades later.

In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term 'survivors,' because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead. The class of people to which Nakamura-san belonged came, therefore, to be called by a more neutral name, 'hibakusha' - literally, 'explosion-affected persons.'"

The book starts off describing their mundane morning tasks and then goes into detail about where each individual was and what they saw/experienced at 8:15 that morning. Most of the individuals described a blinding white light. The wreckage was immediate and many people died instantly, with just as many brutally injured. In one gory scene a woman is trapped under rubble and has her leg crushed by a bookcase. In another, a mother tries to free her children from the weight of their destroyed home.
John Hersey
One of my favourite parts of the book was the overall sense of panic and confusion Hersey was able to create for readers. The bomb struck so quickly and created so much damage that you finally feel like you understand why the term "shell shocked" exists. I found it really emotional to read about the people who were desperately trying to get help for their loved ones. There were a lot of scenes of people begging those who could still stand to help get people who were trapped in buildings or under rubble to help. I feel like this sense of chaos is best described when Hersey writes about Dr Sasaki's experience:

Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding."


When Hersey introduces each of the six people he wrote about he mentions how far away they were from the center of the blast. Tens-of-thousands of individuals died immediately, but almost as many were left injured. One of the scenes that made me feel the most anxious was when Hersey described the hospitals that were left standing. There's this haunting passage where Hersey describes all the injured slowly making their way towards the hospital and an unknowing Dr Sasaki:


Dr Sasaki, who believed that the enemy had hit only the building he was in, got bandages and began to bind the wounds of those inside the hospital; while outside, all over Hiroshima, maimed and dying citizens turned their unsteady steps toward the Red Cross Hospital to begin an invasion that was to make Dr Sasaki forget his private nightmare for a long, long time."

Hiroshima cenotaph 
Something else I found really interesting was how the Hiroshima and Nagasaki population obviously couldn't know what had just happened to them as this was the first time a nuclear bomb was used on civilians. Hersey describes all kinds of weird things that happened after the bomb was dropped. Some of the civilians pointed out that raindrops were much larger than normal. This led to a theory that the American's were dropping gasoline on Hiroshima and that was why the city burned.

Civilians had to wait and wait to hear what had happened from government officials. There's a small scene in the book where the bombing is addressed by Emperor Hirohito on the radio. Some of the civilians saw this as a hopeful message, as it wasn't common for someone so high up to address the masses.

The sentence inscribed on the memorial Cenotaph - 'Rest in peace, for the mistake shall not be repeated' - embodies the passionate hope of the human race. The appeal of Hiroshima ... has nothing to do with politics. When foreigners come to Hiroshima, you often hear them say, 'The politicians of the world should come to Hiroshima and contemplate the world's political problems on their knees before this Cenotaph."

A photo from the Manhattan Project
The other half of this book deals with the aftermath of the bomb, specifically the radiation poisoning much of the surviving population dealt with for decades after. I'm almost finished the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and after watching even the first episode I knew radiation poisoning was maybe the worst way you could go. Hersey does a great job of showing how his characters' lives were forever changed by the bombing of Hiroshima.

I'm glad I read Hiroshima but in the end I wanted more. I love the way Hersey approached this book and I always think its great for people to get the perspective of the regular people who endured such tragedy. But I did go in to this book 1) expecting it to be WAY longer, and 2) expecting Hersey to cover a lot of the history leading up to the bomb, etc. I had to do a little bit of my own research in order to get the full picture. But I also think that that's what's great about this book. Hersey tackles such an upsetting, history-changing topic that you want to learn more and more about it. My dad's a history buff and I'm looking forward to talking to him about it. This is a book I'd certainly recommend him.

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