I am finally getting around to reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I believe in purposeful reading; I waited until this week to pull it from my shelf. (Why I waited until 2011 is an entirely different question.) Sixty-six years ago this week, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
If you’re like me and were lucky enough to graduate with a degree in Creative Nonfiction (which happens to be one of the four tracks offered in the English program at the University of Pittsburgh), then you know that the 1966 Truman Capote classic In Cold Blood is highly and widely regarded as being the Godfather of the genre. What Capote did was to make mainstream the concept of a nonfiction novel. Before In Cold Blood, popular nonfiction writing didn’t benefit from cool cover art or celebrity authors. Before In Cold Blood, popular nonfiction writing was hurled to America’s front stoops by kids on bikes. Creative nonfiction takes those newspaper articles and turns them into a stories, flushed out with characters and scenes. I’m willing to bet that not many bloggers out there are completely cognizant of the many ways they themselves are revolutionizing the whole idea of nonfiction writing, nor do they realize that as writers, they are descendants of Truman Capote’s grisly literary masterpiece.
The problem with In Cold Blood is that Hiroshima predated it by twenty years.
Hiroshima was published in 1946, one year after the attack on Japan. It is an extraordinary piece of New Journalism, the true story of six survivors of the great white flash that killed 100,000 people in a city that had no warning. Only, “survivors” is not the right word. Hersey explains “in its focus on being alive [the word “survivor”] might suggest some slight to the sacred dead.” The people who lived are called “‘hibakusha’ – literally, ‘explosion-affected persons.”
Hiroshima is Creative Nonfiction at its best, brave and timely and relevant. I can’t imagine having read it in 1946, the wounds and memories of war still fresh. Hersey does not politicize, nor does he assign blame nor offer explanation as to why this happened. He simply presents these six hibakusha to us: among them are a physician, a priest, a mother, a pastor, a clerk, and a surgeon. They are not our enemies. They are human. (But they are all -save one- utterly Japanese. As Mr. Tanimoto, the pastor, runs toward the city in search of his wife and daughter, Hersey writes: “All the way, he overtook dreadfully burned and lacerated people, and in his guilt he turned to right and left as he hurried and said to some of them ‘Excuse me for having no burden like yours.'”)
Reading this novel stirs memories of my visit to Hiroshima a few years ago. I remember my first thought off the train was “This is Hiroshima?” The city is rebuilt. It is thriving. It is beautiful. What is left of the Hiroshima John Hersey wrote? As it turns out, a legacy of peace.
Hiroshima is a City of Peace. Visit and you will have the opportunity to become humbled in the most profound ways. The Hiroshima Bomb Dome may be the first thing you see as you approach the Peace Memorial site. It stands in stark contrast to the modernity behind it, a defiant survivor of the atomic bomb “Little Boy,” which detonated almost directly above it. It should be intimidating. It should be scary. But, nestled in a bed of flowers, it instead seems inviting. If it could talk, I might have heard it whisper “look at me, but do not be afraid.”
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum contains within its walls all the horror you can possibly imagine, and more. Melted glass, charred children’s’ bicycles, frayed clothing, watches frozen in time (at 8:15, when the bomb fell). This museum will find its way to your core and never let go. I have no pictures from the innermost exhibits, but I will remember everything I saw for the rest of my life. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is for your eyes, for your mind, for your soul. Not for your camera.
Then, there are the cranes. Thousands and thousands of Sadako Sasuki’s peace cranes. Sadako, who was diagnosed with leukemia (an after-effect of having survived the atomic bomb at age 2), had vowed to fold 1000 paper cranes before her death. She only made 644 before dying at age 12 in 1955, but in her memory and spirit the cranes continue to carry the message of peace.
The Hiroshima city government still vehemently lobbies for the end of nuclear warfare. Every mayor of Hiroshima continues a tradition of protest against the use of nuclear weapons testing. According to a plaque in the museum, “each [telegram to the offending country] expresses the hope that it will be the last such telegram.”