Review: ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey

By Noah Merrin

“He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces”; “their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks”; “abandoned and helpless… beside the woman who had lost a breast and the man whose burned face was scarcely a face any more” – the horrifying images of John Hersey’s Hiroshima can be crudely quoted by any uninspired journalist in the opening line of an article to generate cheap, shock-factor appeal. Yet, although such scenes are unpalatable, they are not excessive. The painfully cold language that is seen here, refined with agonising precision, often strikes at the core of the human condition in the days following Hiroshima’s atomic abasement.

2018 has already seen the nauseating heights to which world leaders’ moral repugnancy can reach when Trump facetiously traded remarks with Kim Jong Un about the size of his nuclear button. That such jibes were on an upward trend in 2017 has meant that we have become largely desensitised to the prospect of nuclear war. Despite the mortal threat they present to humanity, both leaders have been parodied irreverently and endlessly on the television and the internet.

By scaling down his investigation to a handful of persons, despite being over 70 years removed from Trump at his time of writing, what Hersey does best is not sensationalise the obscene, but put Donald Trump’s flippancy into terms that demand we hold him to account: those of six human beings on the day of Armageddon.

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Moments later, Miss Sasaki would be buried under rubble and books. Later still, her fiancé would leave her owing to her grotesque injuries. Another fiancé would do the same.

Less than nine months old at the time of the bombing, Koko Kondo has spent almost her entire life known as a Hibakusha (literally meaning, as Hersey tells us, ‘explosion-affected person’), a label which cost her a fiancé, and made her an outcast.

While most of those whom Hersey followed in 1946 went on to lead happy, successful lives, these examples demonstrate how the pressing of Donald’s “bigger & more powerful” button can have effects which reach far past the few moments it takes for civilisations to be levelled and 40 years into the future – the time elapsed between Hersey’s two visits to the individuals he interviewed.

As a pioneer of New Journalism, a movement that saw the utilisation of literary techniques in journalism, Hersey crafted a compelling narrative from interviews he conducted and facts he gathered during his three weeks spent in Japan. What we are left with is a work that shatters the emotional glass ceiling we find ourselves reaching in most books: while we can console ourselves at the end of tragic storylines with the knowledge that none of it is true, such an attempt would be obviously ineffectual with Hiroshima. Therefore, with a strong narrative backbone and weighty emotional capital, Hiroshima gives us a clear and engaging account of events.

What lingers like radiation after reading Hiroshima, however, is Hersey’s voice. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, another example of New Journalism, was to create the voice that would come to characterise memory of the Vietnam War. He worked with Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now, and with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket – two seminal works of film in the Vietnam genre, and both irradiated by the shadow of Herr’s journalistic account. For the millions who picked up a copy of The New York Times when Hersey’s 31,000-word narrative was printed for the first time, and for the millions who tuned into the radio when it was read aloud, Hersey’s cool demeanour when reporting the girl who “suddenly stopped shivering and was dead” came to be the voice that characterised nuclear destruction.

However, a strangely incongruous fact exists around Hersey’s text: despite never being out of print since publication, Hiroshima has still clearly not been read by enough people to cease humanity’s use of another nuclear device. If we want to spread awareness of the results of such devices, which have been long-forgotten, Hersey’s text will be a valuable tool. Indeed, New Journalism, perhaps due to people’s inherent love of a good story, seems to settle like embers on the fringes of controversial events, then rush inward toward the centre of history, setting it alight.

Image: Faye Chua and Vintage Books

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