Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame (1969) Literature and War Readalong July 2012

Reading Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain was an intense experience. Beautiful and horrifying. In all honesty though I have to say the horror prevailed and I have to contradict those who say it’s not depressing. For sure, Ibuse isn’t a manipulative writer, he doesn’t strive for emotional reactions in his readers, but still, I couldn’t help being affected by what I read as no amount of toning down – something Ibuse has been accused of – can minimize the atrocity of what people had to endure on August 6 1945, in Hiroshima and the days and months that followed the bombing.

I think one hast to call Black Rain a documentary style novel. In order to write the book Ibuse has used real diaries and notes of victims and incorporated them in his book. Additionally the descriptions are so detailed and often matter-of-fact that the book reads in parts like a non-fiction account.

The main story is the story of Shigematsu Shizuma’s niece Yasuko. She would like to get married but a marriage is endangered as there are rumours that she got in the Black Rain after the bombing of Hiroshima and suffers of radiation sickness. Shigematsu himself is afflicted by a mild form of radiation sickness which he tries to fight by eating as healthily as possible and with mild exercise and a lot of rest. At the beginning of the novel which starts a few months after the bombing, Yasuko shows no signs of sickness at all. In order to help his niece and to prove that she didn’t get in the Black Rain and is not ill, Shigematsu starts transcribing his niece’s and his own diary covering the days before and after the bombing. The diaries are meticulous and incredibly detailed accounts of those days. The novel moves back and forth between the diary entries of August 5 – 15 and the present in which the entries are copied.

I have seen pictures of Hiroshima and read a few things but never anything like this book which was absolutely overwhelming in its details and the way it captured human suffering. The descriptions always move back and forth between individual and collective experiences. There were descriptions of people who had only mild burns and some whose whole body was an open wound. Some died in agony, some in grotesque positions. There were descriptions which showed how some people afflicted by radiation sickness a few days or weeks later died suddenly while others agonized for months. Towards the end there is a real account of a doctor who served in the infantry and was almost directly under the bomb when it exploded. It was unbearable to read about the suffering he went through.

I was surprised to see what an important element food is in the book. We read detailed accounts of what food was available during the war, how it was prepared and how they had to substitute a lot. Food is also one of the major elements in a successful treatment of radiation sickness. It was fascinating and sad to read.

What shocked me more than anything else, more than the descriptions of the wounded humans and animals and the ensuing total chaos, was the utter helplessness which was expressed in the way how they spoke about the bomb. They had no clue what had happened. They knew it was something unheard of,  never used before, but they didn’t know anything specific. What were the effects? Were burns the only thing or would there be more to come later? How did you treat radiation sickness? Days later they find out what had hit them.

“The name of the bomb had already undergone a number of changes, from the initial “new weapon” through “new-type bomb” to “special high-capacity bomb.” That day I learned for he first time to call it an “atomic bomb”.

The confusion and helplessness of the people is terribly sad. Even more when you read how they started to realize that even people who were not in Hiroshima on August 6, but part of rescue teams who came later, all died. This meant that each and every person who had been in Hiroshima on the 6th or came later would have to wait, sometimes for months, to be sure they were not affected by radiation.

After having read all this you will probably wonder why I called this book “beautiful”. I thought it was beautiful because the way Ibuse describes the Japanese culture, Japanese sensibilities, the descriptions of the food, the habits, some customs and many details of things we are not familiar with is full of beautiful moments like this description of Shigematsu’s childhood.

As a boy, Shigematsu had seldom come to the flat rock to play, but he had often been to play under the ginkgo tree at Kotaro’s place. When the frosts came and the ginkgo tree began to shed its leaves, the roof of Kotaro’s house would be transformed into a yellow roof, smothered with dead leaves. Whenever a breeze sprang up, they would pour down from the eaves in a yellow waterfall, and when it eddied they would swirl up into the air – up and up to twice, three times the height of the roof – then descend in yellow whirlpools onto the road up the slope and onto the oak grove.

Of course the same culture which had such a lot of beauty was also trapped in a destructive system of total obedience which is mentioned more than once in the novel. It takes a masterful writer to be able to convey so much insight into a culture and render a tragedy the way he did it. While Black Rain was not an easy book to read and has to be absorbed in small doses, I think it’s an outstanding book.  Without ever accusing anything or anyone Ibuse shows drastically that in the case of Hiroshima the end didn’t justify the means.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide)

Older reviews

Mel U (The Reading Life)

Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

The review is my first contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6.


Black Rain was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim. Discussion starts on Friday August 31, 2012.

Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini (2011)

After having liked both short story collections Crime (here) and Guilt (here) by Ferdinand von Schirach it was only a matter of time until I’d get to his first novel The Collini CaseDer Fall Collini. It has been published in Germany end of last year and is due out in English in a few weeks.

Ferdinand von Schirach is one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyer’s. And he is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach who was convicted of being a war criminal. Given this family history it’s not surprising his new book has a WWII theme. But it wouldn’t be a Ferdinand von Schirach book if it was only about a war crime.

It’s not easy to write a decent review about The Collini Case without giving away too much. Collini is a 6o-year-old Italian who has been living in Germany for a long time. One day – and this is not a spoiler as it happens on the first pages – he enters a hotel room pretending to be a journalist and brutally kills the 80-year-old business tycoon Hans Meyer. He then waits patiently until he is arrested.

Leinen is a young lawyer. The Collini case is his very first case. While there is no doubt that Collini has murdered Meyer, finding out why he did so is important as it can determine the sentence. Unfortunately Collini doesn’t want to speak. This makes it hard for the young lawyer and there are other adversities which make it even harder.

Von Schirach said in an interview that he doesn’t think of himself as a crime writer as the “who did it” doesn’t interest him at all. He wants to know why. And so it’s not surprising that the novel entirely focuses on the question why a spotless man like Collini committed a gruesome murder.

What fascinated me and most readers of von Schirachs’s stories was the fact that they were all based on true stories. Very naturally I was wondering the same here. Is it true? While it is obvious that the lawyer isn’t von Schirah in this case, the trial and the many amazing twists and turns are all based on a real case.

The case as such and how it is presented, the court room part, the look into the way Germany has dealt and still deals with its past are really interesting and I liked reading about it. Some of it left me speechless and was quite shocking. Some of it was very sad. Interestingly though that wasn’t the main appeal of this novel for me. I’ve read quite a few reviews and was surprised how much people wrote about the case and the trial only. What makes this an outstanding book in my eyes is another dimension. Without revealing too much I can say that one of the most important points of the book is the loss of memories. Imagine you find out that a person you like is not what you thought but that on the contrary has been hiding a dark and unpleasant secret. Wouldn’t that make you feel as if you’ve lost all your memories tied to that person? That’s I think one of the reasons why family secrets are so damaging. They can alter the perception of your past to such an extent that you will feel robbed of it.

Once more von Schirach has shown that he not only knows how to tell a story in crystal clear and very taut prose but that he can write interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking books.

David Malouf: Fly Away Peter (1982)

There really are numerous ways to write about war. While some elements will always remain the same – especially when one of the novel’s themes are the trenches of WWII – accomplished authors, will still find a way to write something completely new. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter is an excellent example for this.

Being an Australian writer Malouf writes about the war from the Australian perspective which works on two very different levels. One focuses on the land and nature, the other on the people. I have a feeling I would have overread a lot if I hadn’t seen so many Australian WWI movies and read Charlotte Wood’s stunningly beautiful The Submerge Catherdral (here).

It seems to be a trademark of a lot of Australian writing to emphasize the beauty and uniqueness of the flora and the fauna of the continent. Much of it must seem like paradise to the inhabitants and so it’s not surprising Malouf starts the book with the description of nature. Jim Saddler, a young Australian who has never been outside of the country, knows more than anyone about birds. He lies hidden in the marshes and watches them for hours. Ashley Crowther, another young man, but from a very different background, has returned from England where he went to university and come back to take care of his vast family estate. The marshes are part of it. When the two men meet, something almost miraculous happens. Without knowing Jim, Ashley senses the knowledge and the passion he has for birds and offers him a job. This is a dream come true for Jim, a man from a very modest background. The plan is to turn the marshes into a bird sanctuary and Jim will work there, observing, making lists.

While observing one of the rare birds, Jim meets Imogen, an English woman who arrived in Australia not long ago, and has decided to stay here. She is a photographer and earns a living with nature photography.

When the war breaks out none of the three characters thinks at frist it has a lot to do with Australia but in the end, the two men sign up. Of course Ashley will be an officer, while Jim becomes just a simple soldier.

Once in France, the tone and style of the book changes considerably. During the first half of the book, Malouf’s writing was poetic and the structure of the sentences unconventional but when he starts to describe the horror of the war, the writing, moves into the background and is more conventional.

Most of what is described from Jim’s point of view, we know from other WWI novels; the rats, the mud, the corpses, the gas. That is not new but what is new is how the earth is evoked which leads to comparisons. The rich earth of the Australian marshes produced so much beauty, here the earth swallows up everything, they all sink into it in the end.

One of my favourite war movies, Beneath Hill 60,  describes the contribution of Australian miners to WWI. Something the film directors chose to leave out, is mentioned in the book. While digging the tunnel systems beneath Hill 60 and arriving at the enemy lines, the miners discovered the skeleton of a  mammoth.

Jim is a witness of this discovery. It’s a key scene in the novel as it is an example of continuity.

It was a great wonder, and Jim stared along with the rest. A mammoth, thousands of years old. Thousands of years dead. It went back to the beginning, and was here, this giant beast that had fallen to his knees so long ago, among the recent dead, with the sharp little flints laid out beside it which were also a beginning. Looking at them made time seem meaningless. (….)

Continuity is a major theme of the book, continuity and opposites. The land and nature exist and will always exist. They are endless while humanity is not and the individual man even less so. Man creates opposites, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the cowardly and the heroic, they all take place inside of the continuity.

The mammoth is a symbol for this and so are Imogen’s photos. At the end of the novel she thinks about how she met Jim. She captured a bird on a  photo while he captured it in his mind. The bird is long gone and so is the picture in Jim’s mind because Jim is gone, but it’s still here, as she remembers both and there is still the photo as well.

It’s hard to do justice to a book like Fly Away Peter in a short post. I hope I was able to convey the beauty and make you curious to find out for yourself. I couldn’t help but had to compare it to two other shorter WWI novels we read last year, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting (here is the review) and How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston (here is the review). While the latter will always be my favourite, Fly Away Peter is excellent as well and adds another dimension. It contains a rich a meditation and philosophical exploration of WWI from an Australian perspective which is well worth reading.

Have you read David Malouf? Which is your favourite of his books?

The review is a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge as well as to War Through the Generations.

If you’d like to read another review, Danielle hast posted about it here.

Nicci French: Tuesday’s Gone (2012)

Psychotherapist Frieda Klein thought she was done with the police. But once more DCI Karlsson is knocking at her door.

A man’s decomposed body has been found in the flat of Michelle Doyce, a woman trapped in a world of strange mental disorder. The police don’t know who it is, how he got there or what happened – and Michelle can’t tell them. But Karlsson hopes Frieda can get access to the truths buried beneath her confusion.

A few months ago I read and reviewed Blue Monday, the first in the new series written by writer duo Nicci French. I thoroughly enjoyed it as you can read here and was looking forward to the sequel. Tuesday’s Gone is the second novel in the series with psychotherapist Frieda Klein and DCI Karlsson. I didn’t expect it but I’m glad to say that this book was even far better than the last. The characters are more rounded, the story is much more suspenseful and some loose strands of the first book are nicely tied together. The only bad news is, you should read Blue Monday first as the sequel contains numerous spoilers, even mentioning the solution to part one.

Who is this man the police find in Michelle Doyce’s apartment, sitting on a sofa, naked and decomposed? The autopsy shows the man was murdered and since Michelle is a woman with a rare mental disorder it seems likely she killed him. Or at least the police would hope so as that would cut a lengthy investigation short and save a lot of tax money.

For some reason DCI Karlsson isn’t happy with this interpretation and asks psychotherapist Frieda Klein to talk to Michelle. Frieda is no expert in this type of disorder and consults with a specialist. As hard as it is to talk to Michelle, they find a way to communicate and it seems highly unlikely she committed the crime.

Frieda thinks it’s far more crucial to find out who the man was. It takes a while and they discover that his name is Robert Poole but when they inform his brother that they found his body they are in for a surprise. Robert Poole died six years ago. It looks as if the dead man on the sofa used a fake identity, had a lot of money transferred to a bank account in Poole’s name and withdrew it again on the day of his murder.

While the police are willing to pay Frieda for her work, like in the first book she does a lot of research on her own account. One cannot shake the feeling that a lot of what she does has something to do with personal atonement.

Once they find out that the victim was a con man and they start interrogating some of his victims, the book gets really interesting. There are many loose ends but they are all tied together in the end. Some elements of part two are still important in this part and will also play a role in the next.

We get to know Frieda much better in this book, some of her family history is revealed, her love life gets a new twist. DCI Karlsson and some other secondary characters are further developed. And once more the location, the city of London, plays an important part and we learn a few interesting historical facts while following Frieda on her nightly walks through her beloved town. While the book has a satisfying ending, there are clearly indications that there will be a third part soon.

I really enjoyed Tuesday’s Gone and could hardly put it down. While the first in the series had some minor flaws Tuesday’s Gone is as good as Nicci French’s standalones. This has turned into a really gripping series with complex, flawed but likable main characters.

Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (2012) by Jen Campbell

Some years ago I worked in a bookshop for a few months and remember how many extremely funny things I’ve heard there. People were looking for the most amazing things. Not always books. Unfortunately I don’t remember many anecdotes, I just remember that I laughed or chuckled quite a bit. Lucky for us, Jen Campbell’s memory is still intact and she wrote down the funniest things she heard or overheard people say or ask in the bookshop she worked in. Apart from those stories she contributed herself, there are numerous examples from other bookshops as well.

I’m glad I downloaded Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops on the kindle as it has only 100 pages and can be read in little more than an hour or two. Today I saw it in a bookshop and the way it is presented, with the very colorful cover and the drawings between the episodes (you have those in the e-book as well), I thought that this is one of those books which make a nice present.

Many of the examples are funny because the people asking or saying things don’t know a lot about literature. Clearly someone wondering whether Jane Eyre has written other novels isn’t entirely familiar with the Brontës. While we laugh about such things, we occasionally may also feel somewhat unkind. But there are many other examples which people probably would also ask in other types of shops and which do not reveal some possible cultural gap but sheer silliness or cheekiness like the mother asking whether it is ok that her children are climbing the book shelves.

Since I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who loves this type of anecdotes but to still give you an idea , I’ll only quote a few at random, leaving out the funniest or most surprising.

Customer: “Do you have a copy of Nineteen Eighty Six?

Bookseller: Nineteen Eighty Six?

Customer: Yeah, Orwell.

Bookseller: Oh – Nineteen Eighty Four.

Customer: No, I’m sure it’s Nineteen Eighty Six; I’ve always remembered it because it is the year I was born.

Bookseller: ………..

(Customer is reading a book from the shelf, pauses and folds the top of one of the pages over, then puts it back on the shelf)

Bookseller: Excuse me, what are you doing?

Customer: I was just reading the first chapter of this book, but I’m going to be late meeting a friend for lunch. So, I’m just marking it and I’ll finish reading it when I stop by tomorrow.

Customer: There was a book in the eighties that I loved…but I can’t remember the title.

Bookseller: Can you remember anything about it?

Customer: I think it was called 360 fairy tales.

Bookseller (searches on British library catalogue): Nothing under that name sorry.

Customer. I might have got the number wrong. Could you just type in fairy tales and see what comes up?

Bookseller: …. That could take a while.

I remember one thing I’ve overheard once in a book shop which struck me as very funny. I was standing there browsing some novel or other when I noticed one of the walls was decorated with Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was  the book’s 50th anniversary. Next to me a guy talking to someone spotted the books on the wall as well and shouted really loud “Oh, boy, what a great idea, this Capote guy has actually written a book about that song … “. Yeah, well…

All in all Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops is a slim book but many of the anecdotes which capture human ignorance and folly are really hilarious.

Have you heard people say funny things in book shops?

On Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life – La vida breve (1950)

Picture a lazy summer afternoon. The heat is unbearable. You’re in a room with the blinds half down, lying on a bed listening to the voices of complete strangers in the apartment next door. You’re in a languid dreamy mood. Your imagination starts to invent a story based on the snippets of the conversation you hear.  After a while the lives next door seem more real than your own.

Many of the chapters in Juan Carlos Onetti’s famous novel A Brief Life capture this type of mood, describe inertia paired with a vividly active imagination. I liked this, because I like those motionless summer afternoons spend lazily doing nothing else but day-dreaming. I liked the languid and languorous feeling those chapters conveyed. Seeing the narrator Juan María Brausen captivated by his imagination was appealing but the narrator was not. I hated him big time. I rarely if ever use the word “misogynist” but I felt the narrator was exactly that. His wife has just undergone a mastectomy and the way he thinks about her, her pain, her mutilated body, is unfeeling, self-centered and lacking any kind of empathy. It just annoyed me so much that after 150 pages I stopped reading. Because life is indeed very brief, I decided to abandon this novel.

The novel is well written and parts of it had an atmosphere and a mood I liked a lot but it was also confusing at times. It constantly switches from the narrator’s real life to the invented story about a doctor living in the fictional city Santa María. From there it switches to a third narrative strand showing the narrator inventing himself a double life and visiting the woman, a prostitute, who lives next door.

I suppose if the narrator hadn’t annoyed me so much – and not only because he is misogynistic – I would have finished the book as I found the narrative technique interesting.

I was curious to see whether other people had felt the same and googled “Onetti and misogynist”. I’m not sure why I didn’t trust my own impression but I was relieved to see that it was something critics and readers had commented on very often.

Onetti was a Uruguayan writer. He is famous for his novels and his short stories. I’ve read the collection Tan triste como ella a few years back and liked the melancholic tone. Onetti fled to Spain after having spent 6 months incarcerated in a mental hospital by the military government. Onetti was married 4 times (why did that not surprise me?).

I’ve read Onetti’s novel for Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). It’s part of a readalong. It will be interesting to see what others thought, if they finished it and how they liked it.

Tatiana de Rosnay: The House I Loved (2012)

Her newest novel, Rose, is already an early spring hit in France. Again written initially in English, this historical work evokes Paris under the Second Empire and the grand urban redesign ordered by Baron Haussmann: Rose, an aging widow living in her family home in a small street near the church of Saint Germain des Prés, receives a letter announcing that her home is slated for destruction to make way for the new Boulevard Saint Germain.

I haven’t read any of Tatiana de Rosnay’s novels before. Knowing she is one of the most successful French writers made me a bit suspicious but when I saw a copy of Rose in our local bookshop I felt drawn to it immediately as the novel is about Paris. It’s only after browsing the book that I found out, the original, The House I Loved, was written in English and Rose is a translation. I wasn’t even aware that Tatiana de Rosnay has written most of her latest novels in English and – less surprisingly – that this contributed to her international success.

The House I Loved is written in  the form of a long letter from Rose to her deceased husband. She tells him that she has, after all, been informed that she has to move. Her house is among those which will be destroyed to make way for the large boulevards which are part of the redesign of Paris ordered by the Prefect, Baron Haussman. The idea to lose the house breaks Rose’s heart. She loves this house, loves it for its history and because it is the family home of her husband. For her, whose mother was cold and distant, the house has become her home just like his family has become her family.

In this long letter she looks back on her past, how she grew up, how they met, speaks to him about her children, their life together, the sadness about the death of her son, about her husband’s illness, his confusion and his death. The memories and remembrances are often interrupted by the present. The people who will tear down the house will arrive soon but she has still not left. She speaks of the destruction, how the city changes.

I had a bit of a problem with the way this was told. The tone is very sentimental, at times corny, the voice too modern for the time depicted. I think it would have been much better as a third or a simple first person narrative instead of this epistolary confession. Still I’m very glad I have read this. It captured a particular moment in the history of the city of Paris very well. I love Paris for its big Boulevards and Avenues, the Paris of the Baron Haussmann. They represent Paris for me. When those big Boulevards were designed, the old medieval streets had to go, the houses were torn down. I tend to forget at what cost the remodeling of the city was achieved. It is so hard to imagine what it would have meant to own a family house, full of memories and histories and to be informed that it will be torn down and destroyed for the sake of modernisation and sanitation. Tatiana de Rosnay captures the enormity of such a loss very well.

In oder to achieve authenticity, Tatiana de Rosnay said in an interview, she wrote most of the novel with a pen, by candlelight. “I had the idea for this novel 15 years ago, after seeing pictures of streets now forgotten,” she explains. “It contains my two obsessions: memories embedded in the walls and family secrets.”

If anything The House I Loved made me want to pick up a few non-fiction books on this topic or Zola’s novel La CuréeThe Kill, which Emma reviewed recently here.

If you don’t mind a sentimental tone and are fond of historical novels and books set in Paris you might enjoy this entertaining novel.

I have attached a video about an exhibition of photos taken during the time. Although it is in French, you see many amazing photos. The person interviewed speaks about the numbers – how many houses were destroyed and why and about the photographer and why there were no people on the photos (at that time they couldn’t capture movement – so the streets had to be empty).

This review is a contribution to Karen’s and Tamaras‘s event Paris in July