Trauma by Analogy
Reviewed by Thomas Lamarre
Narratives of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki describe an experience at once unforgettable and unspeakable. Their structure is that of trauma, and it is almost a commonplace of atomic bomb literature that it strives to tell the untellable, and invariably fails. One way to grapple with this impossibility, this paradox of traumatic experience, is to evoke the horrors of the atomic bomb by analogy. The famous example is Marguerite Duras and Alain Renais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, in which the terror of Hiroshima, impossi- ble to represent, is evoked in relation to the experience of a French woman who suffers the death of German lover and ostracism for her crime of collaboration.
In a very different way, Aki Shimazaki’s short novel Tsubaki also establishes a structure of analogy, one that promises to tell us something about the horrors of Nagasaki by way of another, equally horrible experience. Tsubaki pairs the experience of the atomic bomb with a crime—murder at ground zero—a surprising and disturbing analogy. Yet it works effectively to pose some challenging questions about how we tell the story of war.
Tsubaki opens with a survivor of Nagasaki, a grandmother on her deathbed, finally speaking to her curious grandson about the war and the atomic bomb. Her family thinks (wrongly) that she has not spoken until now because the wartime experience was too painful. Yet Tsubaki plays against expectations of a harrowing first-person account of atomic horror and trauma. Indeed, by the end of the first chapter, the grandmother rather mysteriously suggests that, for her, the unforgettable cruelty was neither the war nor the bomb. Rather, the reader soon learns, she murdered her father just before the bomb dropped.
Because its narrative focus is on the murder and not on the atomic bomb experience, Tsubaki has the disturbing effect of making the bomb at Nagasaki appear as an inert background for deeper experiences. Talk of the war and the bomb is oddly impersonal, largely didactic. The grandmother, for instance, stresses the cruelty of both the Americans and the Japanese at war, creating a sense of ethical difficulty and uncertainty. Neither side can lay claim to justice. ‘There is no justice, there is only truth,’ she concludes. Her grandson, however, remains caught up in this dimension of war experience and history—proud to tell an endless tale of injustice. Are we to attribute this certainty to his youth, his generation or his gender? Or does the problem lie in a certain way of thinking of history that remains interested in superficial evaluations of right and wrong?
Tsubaki continually hints that the problem does lie in immature and superficial ways of imagining history—superficial because they are monumental and judgemental. In contrast, Tsubaki poses a sparely written, suspenseful, rapidly paced story. Part of its beauty comes of the swiftness with which it moves through different layers and registers of memory. Its rapidity not only serves to surprise the reader with twists and turns but also tends to juxtapose different experiences. Using a style of coincidence and fate, the novel continually builds on personal and historical coincidences in order to suggest that historical events are not connected rationally, but fatefully.
The emphasis on coincidence and fate does not, however, result in moral or ethical indifference. Tsubaki stresses personal responsibility and atonement. Indeed, the grandmother’s crime introduces a structure of guilt and silence that is unusual in atomic bomb literature. Rather than innocence at ground zero, the reader encounters the complex emotions and motivations of a girl who felt compelled to murder her beloved father. And ultimately, the narrator sees the question “Did she have to kill her father?” to be no different from “Did they have to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” She concludes, “All we can do is try to understand what motivates people to act as they do.” Tsubaki, then, is a story of motivations and truths that demand not judgement but understanding. Therein lies the challenge of its odd and unsettling analogy.
- Histories of Violence by Wendy Roy
Books reviewed: Empress of Asia by Adam Lewis Schroeder and Drina Bridge by Jim Bartley
- Fresh and Tired Metaphors by Afra Kavanagh
Books reviewed: Swimming in the Ocean by Catherine Jenkins, Margery Looks Up by Meredith Andrew, and The Haunting of L by Howard Norman
- Anthologizing Asia by Scott McFarlane
Books reviewed: Canadian Culture and Literature and a Taiwan Perspective by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Yiu-nam Leung and Pacific Encounters: The Production of Self and Other by Robert Kramer, Eva-Marie Kröller, Joshua S. Mostow, and Allan Smith
- War Stories by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Dubious Glory: The Two World Wars and the Canadian Novel by Dagmar Novak, Great Canadian War Stories by Muriel Whitaker, and Great Canadian War Stories (audiotape) by Muriel Whitaker
- Understanding Cruz by Scott Gordon
Books reviewed: Dark Antonyms and Paradise: The Poetry of Rienzi Crusz by Chelva Kanaganayakam, Insurgent Rain: Selected Poems 1974-1996 by Rienzi Crusz, and Another Way to Dance: Contemporary Asian Poetry from Canada and the United States by Cyril Dabydeen
MLA: Lamarre, Thomas. Trauma by Analogy. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 170 - 171)
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