Title: Ground Zero, Nagasaki
Japanese Title: 爆心 (Bakushin)
Author: Seirai Yūichi (青来 有一)
Translator: Paul Warham
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Although Seirai is a relative newcomer to the Japanese literary scene, having won the Akutagawa Prize for his story collection Seisui (Holy Water) in 2001, he was born in 1958 and was 47 years old when Ground Zero, Nagasaki was first published in November 2006. Although its stories are all set in contemporary Japan, Ground Zero, Nagasaki is deeply engaged with themes of personal and historical legacy.
Each of the six stories in this collection is about the physical and emotional damage suffered by Christians living in Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bombing. The memory of the atomic bomb is extremely subtle in most of the stories, but it’s never completely absent. Even more powerful than any real or imagined trauma generated by the bomb, however, are the moral dictates of Christianity, which demands that its adherents bear witness to suffering.
The second story, “Stone,” is narrated from the perspective of the brother of a Diet member who is being forced to resign from office because he hired his girlfriend as his secretary. While his brother is giving a talk to local business association at a hotel in Nagasaki, the narrator, a 45-year-old man who calls himself “Adam,” waits in the lobby, where he is approached by a female journalist named Shirotani. Adam is on the autism spectrum, and his conversation with Shirotani is almost frustratingly elliptic.
It gradually becomes clear that Adam’s mother is dying. She has sent Adam to intercept his brother in order to ask that the politician care for him, as he can’t live by himself. Shirotani, who has a brother like Adam, is sympathetic, but the author does not allow this story to become sentimental. Instead, the reader is hit with the full force of Adam’s sexual attraction as he fantasizes about the journalist: “If she wouldn’t marry me, at least I could carry her smell around with me. I would bury my face in her panties and inhale her woman’s scent to my heart’s content” (33). Adam’s mother has punished him for such thoughts in the past, asking him how he could dare to entertain such un-Christian notions “‘after our ancestors went to the stake with pure thoughts and prayers on their lips'” (32).
Adam’s brother Kutani is caught in a the grips of a similar moral vise. He entered politics for the most noble of reasons: to ensure that a doctrine of peace was represented at the highest levels of the Japanese government. The woman with whom he has cheated on his wife had come to him looking for a job after her husband’s family cast her out with her newborn son, who was born severely handicapped. Kutani explains to Adam that he initially wanted to help her as he wants to help all of his constituents, but that he couldn’t help falling in love with her. He says: “‘As long as I had her in my arms, nothing else mattered. Even if war had broken out and nuclear bombs were exploding all over the world, I probably wouldn’t have cared'” (41). His adherence to Christian doctrine, which has guided him along his path as a politician, allows no leeway for his identity as an individual. His affair with his secretary is merely an indication of a deeper emotional dissonance that has also estranged him from his mother and brother, who need him to be a person instead of a politician.
As Kutani struggles with his conscience in the penthouse suite of the hotel where he will offer his resignation, his brother is overwhelmed by feelings he doesn’t understand. After Adam leaves the hotel, he is afraid that his body will turn to stone in response to the emotional overload as it has in earlier catatonic episodes triggered by stressful situations. The story ends with Adam begging God to not leave him alone without a family and without ever having experienced intimacy, his longing for comfort inseparable from his sexual desire.
Another story that I found especially trenchant is “Shells,” which is also told from the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator. Six months ago, the narrator’s daughter Sayaka suddenly came down with a fever and ended up dying of a brain hemorrhage. Since then, he has become convinced that the ocean has been rising during the night, covering entire sections of the city and leaving behind cowrie shells and other assorted sea creatures in his highrise apartment. His delusions became so powerful and persistent that his wife has left him and his brother has placed him under outpatient psychiatric care.
While walking in his neighborhood one day, the narrator encounters an old man named Nagai who tells him that his late sister used to be friends of a sort with Sayaka. His sister had become senile, and the narrator’s daughter was the only one who would listen to her rambling stories. The narrator, overcome with gratitude, invites Nagai back to his apartment, where the old man tells him that his sister spent her entire life trying to forget the day of the atomic bomb, when she was forced to leave her siblings behind in a burning house as she fled with her mother. Nagai’s sister had once spoken to him about the sea of flames engulfing the city, saying, “‘I wish the sea would wash over it all,'” suggesting that she wished her memories would be washed away as well (146).
The narrator, who has his own fantasies of the sea, feels a connection with this woman, but he is terrified of losing his memories, specifically his memories of his daughter and the love he felt for her, which he describes as “the best and brightest, the truest feeling I have ever had” (117). He realizes that the shells that the ocean leaves behind for him every evening after the flood recedes are akin to physical manifestations of his memories, but this insight does not weaken his conviction that the city of Nagasaki sleeps under the waves every night. He tries to convince Nagai that his visions are real but fails. The story ends with his understanding that the saltwater coming in from the bay is not a purifying force like the Biblical deluge but rather indicative of a spiritual wasteland in which God allows the innocent to suffer and perish.
Obviously Ground Zero, Nagasaki is not light reading, and I found that I had to let a week or two pass between the stories, each of which stayed with me long after I had closed the book. Reading Seirai feels a lot like reading Ōe Kenzaburō, yet his style is pellucid where Ōe’s is confoundedly literary. Seirai’s narrators are not philosopher poets citing The Great European Male Thinkers in casual conversation, but this does not make them any less complex and compelling; their proximity to the mundane and mimetic “realness” serves to emphasize how the lasting reverberations of Nagasaki’s violent history have touched the lives of even the most unassuming of its citizens.
I would be remiss if I did not conclude this review by stating that Ground Zero, Nagasaki has the best book design I have seen in a long time. A faded image of the black circle on the cover, an inverse of the red rising sun of the Japanese flag, is on every page of the book, a reminder that the proverbial gross insult to human dignity in the room can never be ignored. Each chapter begins with a progressive series of diagrams illustrating how to fold an origami crane, indicating that somewhere inside this terrible mess is hope. These illustrations suggest that the reader, by sharing the experiences of these stories with the author, is in effect performing a symbolic act of prayer resembling the dedication of a chain of paper cranes to the atomic bomb victims. Kudos to designer Julia Kushnirsky!
Is Ground Zero, Nagasaki worth the $35 asking price for the hardcover? Yes, I think so.
Will the stories in this book be of interest to anyone outside of the academic field of Japanese literary studies? Absolutely. It’s not easy to read this book, but that’s a major part of what allows it to dig so deeply into the reader.
Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.