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.

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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.

Len Deighton: Bomber (1970) Literature and War Readalong June 2012

It is very rare that I abandon a book. Often I regret this persistence when I finish it anyway and have to find out that it simply isn’t good. Sometimes I’m incredibly glad I went on. Len Deighton’s Bomber was one of those. I struggled badly for 150 pages and the idea to have to go on for another 400 seemed daunting. But it was worth the effort, it really was and looking back, I have to say, how lucky this was part of my readalong or I would have given up and missed out greatly. Bomber is amazing. It’s maybe not refined and highly literary but it’s a huge achievement. Not only because it is extremely accurate and detailed but also because it’s very engaging and admirably well constructed.

Bomber is an epic. A book with a huge cast and numerous different settings and story lines. Deighton really needed 150 pages to set the scene and introduce everyone, including the different aircraft. That part was really challenging to read as there were so many names and one had to try to constantly picture a map to see where they were located. Once the set up was done, the story moved on nicely, all the different story lines were tied together, the characters had become more than just names but people with a story.

Bomber tells the story of a bombing raid that takes place on June 31st 1943. Deigthon deliberately chose a date that doesn’t exist, knowing well that his book felt so realistic and authentic that people would always end up assuming it was non-fiction.

The 31st is a full moon night and all the crews get ready for a night of bombing and fighting. The target is the city of Krefeld in Germany. The planes take off from Warley Fen, head towards Krefeld and have to try to not get shot down before they have dropped the bomb. But before they can drop a bomb

First the PFF Mosquito aircraft will mark the target with red markers. Their gear is much more accurate than anything we have, so their reds are what the Finders must look for. The Finders will put long sticks of flares over the reds. Mixed in with the Finder aircraft there are Supporters – and these are mostly crews on their first couple of trips – who are carrying only high-explosive bombs. That’s because incendiaries could be mistaken for red markers.

What you just read is part of the instruction the pilots receive before flying off. But this part is more than that, it points towards the core of the book because the tragedy of the story has it’s source in the fact that, due to many unlucky circumstances, the markers were dropped on the wrong targets and what was bombed was the small city of Altgarten. No factories, no strategic points, just civilian buildings.

The first third of the book, sets the scene, the next third describes a lot of action and how the mistake happened and the last third is describing the drama in the air and on the ground in a very graphic way. I had to swallow hard a lot of times.

What I liked is that Deighton described a wide range of German characters, from the fanatic Nazi to the likable soldier. The portraits are nuanced and we get a feel for the diversity of the people.

The British crews are equally diverse but for other reasons. There are also Canadians and Australians, upper class and lower class men, married guys and womanizers, men who just do their duty, cowards and heroes.

In the death scenes Deighton’s sympathies clearly lie with the German civilians and the British bomber crews. Each part has one or two main characters and a lot of secondary characters and the fate of the main characters is equally sad in all the parts. I cannot go into too much detail, if you want to read it, you want to find out for yourself who will survive and who will die.

I’ve read a few harrowing accounts in the past and the one or the other book has depressed me incredibly. Bomber didn’t depress me but it brought a few tears to my eyes, a thing that rarely if ever happens to me unless something sad happens to an animal.

Bomber offers an interesting mix of emotional story telling, accuracy and numbers. We are informed of everything. How many people were involved, how many died, how many were injured, how many bombs hit target, how many were jettisoned, how many missed or didn’t go off and so on and so forth. At the end of the book were also informed about each and every surviving character’s future. It’s as if Deighton wanted to answer each and every question someone reading his novel might have.

If you ever wondered what it is like to be in a city which is bombed, this book will bring you close to this experience. If you ever wondered what it is like to be in plane on a bombing raid, this book will allow you to experience this as well.  In any case, if you are interested in WWII and how it was fought in the air, this is the book you should read.

If you’d like to find out a few things about Deigthon and his other books don’t miss visiting the Deighton Dossier. It is a site dedicated to Deigthon’s work and it is done with a lot of passion.

Other reviews (I’m somewhat doubtful that there will be any)

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Bomber was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. Discussion starts on Monday July 30, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong June 29 2012: Bomber by Len Deighton

The last two titles in the readalong were both about the Blitz and the bombings of the British cities seen from the perspective of civilians. Bomber shows another point of view. Set in summer 1943 it tells the story of an Allied air raid from the point of view of all of the participants, in the air and on the ground, covering 24 hours. It has been praised for its detailed descriptions and documentary style and from what I read so far, it seems very well done. I have to thank Kevin (The War Movie Buff) for pointing it out.

Here are the first sentences

It was a bomber’s sky: dry air, wind enough to clear the smoke, cloud broken enough to recognize a few stars. The bedroom was so dark that it took Ruth Lambert a moment or so to see her husband standing at the window. “Are you alright, Sam?”

“Praying to Mother Moon.”

She laughed sleepily. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you think I need all the witchcraft I can get?”

“Oh, Sam. How can you say that when you…” She stopped.

“He supplied the words: “Have come back safe from forty-five raids?”

Should you want to join you will have to start early. With 527 pages it is by far the longest book of this readalong.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 June 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

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How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

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This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.