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Ground Zero, Nagasaki: Stories

by Yūichi Seirai

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1311,521,763 (4)1
Set in contemporary Nagasaki, the six short stories in this collection draw a chilling portrait of the ongoing trauma of the detonation of the atomic bomb. Whether they experienced the destruction of the city directly or heard about it from survivors, the characters in these tales filter their pain and alienation through their Catholic faith, illuminating a side of Japanese culture little known in the West. Many of them are descended from the "hidden Christians" who continued to practice their religion in secret during the centuries when it was outlawed in Japan. Urakami Cathedral, the center of Japanese Christian life, stood at ground zero when the bomb fell.In "Birds," a man in his sixties reflects on his life as a husband and father. Just a baby when he was found crying in the rubble near ground zero, he does not know who his parents were. His birthday is set as the day the bomb was dropped. In other stories, a woman is haunted by her brief affair with a married man, and the parents of a schizophrenic man struggle to come to terms with the murder their son committed. These characters battle with guilt, shame, loss, love, and the limits of human understanding. Ground Zero, Nagasaki vividly depicts a city and people still scarred by the memory of August 9, 1945.… (more)
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'I don't know my real name or my date of birth. More than sixty years later, I have no way of finding out who I am or where I came from. All I know is that I appeared suddenly out of that white flash at 11:02am on August 9, 1945.'

This is an intriguing and thought-provoking collection of short stories. Its USP, if you like, is that they focus on the experiences of Japanese Catholics - the Kakure Kirishitan, or Hidden Christians - and their relationship to the dropping of the 2nd atomic bomb in 1945. The epicentre of that blast was over Urakami, where the Catholic community centred and where their cathedral was destroyed, and so this tight focus on a particular area and community gives this collection a cohesiveness that I find generally lacking in collections of short stories.

In 'Nails', the parents of a schizophrenic young man struggle to understand how he could have committed a murder, and they find themselves ostracised from their community, trying to find solace and understanding in their faith. In 'Stone', a middle-aged man with learning difficulties meets up with his old school friend, a newly disgraced local politician. In 'Insects', a woman who was a child at the time of the bomb and who lost most of her family, is haunted by the memory of an affair with her best friend's husband. In 'Honey', a middle-aged woman fantasises about seducing a young teenage bike mechanic.

The last two stories in the collection, which had been interesting enough to this point, raised the level completely. In 'Shells,' a man living on the 12th floor of his apartment believes that every night the tide washes in, leaving sea shells and the scent of the sea. We learn that his daughter has died, and his wife has now left him, but there is a connection with the man who oversees the recycling centre and the recent death of his sister. The last story, 'Birds', centres on a man who was found as a baby at the time of the bomb and was was taken in by his adoptive family. He has never been able to find any information about his family, but has always felt a connection with the Urakami area. One morning he and his wife find a bird, an egret, entangled in wires on the roof of their house.

The Christian faith is a strong theme throughout these stories, as is the memory or the physical presence of Nagasaki, and Urakami in particular. The motifs in each story subtly mirror each other, suggestive of meanings that deepen our understanding of the characters. The writing is suitably pared back in an excellent translation by Paul Warham, yet the lyricism of the original language also adds to the elegaic melancholy of the whole collection. At its heart is absence, loss and memory, and each story, although not connected, somehow expands on the general central focus of Nagasaki. Haunting and beautiful, I found this a stunning collection. 4.5 stars, but in ambition and cohesiveness, rounded up to 5, which is darn good going for a collection of short stories from me. ( )
  Alan.M | Jan 7, 2020 |
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Set in contemporary Nagasaki, the six short stories in this collection draw a chilling portrait of the ongoing trauma of the detonation of the atomic bomb. Whether they experienced the destruction of the city directly or heard about it from survivors, the characters in these tales filter their pain and alienation through their Catholic faith, illuminating a side of Japanese culture little known in the West. Many of them are descended from the "hidden Christians" who continued to practice their religion in secret during the centuries when it was outlawed in Japan. Urakami Cathedral, the center of Japanese Christian life, stood at ground zero when the bomb fell.In "Birds," a man in his sixties reflects on his life as a husband and father. Just a baby when he was found crying in the rubble near ground zero, he does not know who his parents were. His birthday is set as the day the bomb was dropped. In other stories, a woman is haunted by her brief affair with a married man, and the parents of a schizophrenic man struggle to come to terms with the murder their son committed. These characters battle with guilt, shame, loss, love, and the limits of human understanding. Ground Zero, Nagasaki vividly depicts a city and people still scarred by the memory of August 9, 1945.

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