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For the history

Hiroshima - John Hersey

This book is invaluable because it contains nonfiction interviews of *actual* victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There are five characters here, each with his (I'm using the gender-neutral "he" here) own personal story of what happened to him on that day.

 

It is a weird mix of horrific and mundane. The destruction is otherworldly: urban rubble stretching from horizon to horizon, walking-dead with severe radiation burns... It was war on a level never seen before or since, and that often comes across on these pages.

 

But not always. At other times, the book is surprisingly... I'm not sure what the best word here is... but let's say it's more like reading a deposition than a story.  It is often descriptive (faithfully, I'm sure) but fails to relate a sense of what it was like to actually be there.  One woman spends the first two days pinned under some heavy debris, trying to figure out how to get out, and calling out to occasional passers-by who eventually get help to her. One man- a German Catholic priest with a ministry in Japan- fixates on where he can safely stash a suitcase filled with the church's money. Another man- a physician- makes medical observations about the victims, and tries to help some of them, but his entire tone and affect is so detached (maybe from shock? maybe as a coping mechanism) that it honestly makes for tedious reading, after the first several pages.

 

It's not legitimate to complain that a book like this is not "entertaining" or "dramatic" enough. An accurate account of the ground experience in Hiroshima should be enough to garner a book praise, shouldn't it? 

 

I think my problem is that I kept comparing Hiroshima to Elie Weisel's Night, which is unfair, because (1) they describe two completely different situations, only dubiously related by the fact they both occurred during the same war, and (2) Weisel actually experienced the events of Night firsthand, whereas Hersey's information is all second-hand, and (3) "Never Forget" comes through very clearly in the reading of Night, whereas it seems that Hersey approached Hiroshima more as a historian. Don't get me wrong; I'm sure Hersey was appalled by the atomic destruction, but Hiroshima has no note of being touched by the events he describes. To hear no anguish in a book like this makes it feel just a bit too clinical- like you're reading an autopsy report instead of hearing somebody's personal story.

 

 So yeah, Night and Hiroshima are apples and oranges.

 

I guess my final assessment is that this book is worth reading, but don't expect it to be a Hiroshima-equivalent to Night